In the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising, much ink was spilled on the reliance of the predominantly black city on fines from its residents to pay its bills — and on the use of what amounted to debtors' prisons that locked up those who wouldn't or couldn't pay the constant stream of fines and scared the rest into begging and borrowing to pay their own fines.
Pricenomics has investigated the link between cities with large African-American communities and the use of fines to pay the city's bills. Their conclusion: the larger the proportion of black people in a city, the more likely it is to rely on fines (rather than property, sales and income taxes) to fund its operations; and in those cities, the black residents disproportionately pay those fines.
Add to this that income tax and property tax are more likely to be the province of white people — who are the beneficiaries of income discrimination and the legacy of redlining and predatory subprime lending/refinancing that means that white people are more likely to own property and black people are more likely to rent it from them — and this is what you get: in cities where there are a lot of black people, the relatively better-off white people stop paying taxes, and opt instead for discriminatory policing practices that steal money from the black people to pay for the city's expenses.
African Americans make up less than 4% of the population in the median municipality. But in the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, African Americans make up nearly 19% of the population. This is a difference of 15%, which is mirrored by the 14% lower proportion of Whites in cities with substantial fine revenue. If we look at averages rather than medians, a similar pattern emerges.
Because the African American population has a higher poverty rate and lower median incomes than the national average, one might expect a correlation between poverty levels and revenues from fines. If this were the case, it would be unclear whether excessive fining is a racial problem or a socioeconomic one. But the data suggests that this is not so.
The cities that derive substantial revenues from fines are only slightly poorer than average. The proportion of impoverished people in the median top 50 city in terms of fines is 14.5%, and the median income is $49,600. These are relatively close to the 14.2% poverty rate and $48,300 median income of the median city.
The Fining of Black America
(via Naked Capitalism)
(Image: Police in riot gear at Ferguson protests, Jamelle Bouie, CC-BY)