Financial Hazards of the Fugitive Life (*On the Run*)

That is the title of my New York Times Economic View column, also now on The Upshot.  The column covers Alice Goffman’s excellent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.  Here is one excerpt from the column:

You may think of being on the run as a quandary for only a small group of recalcitrant, hardened criminals. But in her study of one Philadelphia neighborhood, Professor Goffman shows that it is a common way of life for many nonviolent Americans. These people often face charges related to possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, or offenses like hiding relatives from the law. Whatever the negative moral implications of such crimes, they don’t merit having one’s life ruined.

A core point of “On the Run” is that “young men’s compromised legal status transforms the basic institutions of work, friendship and family into a net of entrapment.” For instance, the police round up fugitives by monitoring and contacting their relatives — and that frays family relations. A young man might avoid showing up at the hospital to witness the birth of his child because he knows he could be caught or turned in. Family gatherings become another hazard, so in-person appearances are often surprise visits. People stuck in this kind of limbo are also reluctant to visit hospitals when they need treatment, and a result, the book says, is a “lifestyle of secrecy and evasion,” driven by the unfavorable incentives set in motion by the law.

For all the recent talk of a surveillance state created through the National Security Agency, an oppressive low-tech surveillance state has been in place for decades — and it’s been directed at many of America’s poorest people.

There is also this:

As every friend or relative becomes a potential informant, cooperation plummets and life degenerates into a day-to-day struggle to remain outside the reaches of the law. Professor Goffman offers a chilling portrait of tactics used to encourage relatives to turn in possible lawbreakers: For example, the police may tell mothers that if they don’t report their errant men, the authorities will yank their children, a threat that may be backed by a charge of harboring or aiding and abetting a fugitive. “Squealing” thus becomes more likely. A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships.

In large part I blame the war on drugs for these developments, as I explain in the column.

Goffman’s book is superbly researched and extremely well-written and it may well be the best social science book of the year so far.  You can buy it here.  And I didn’t even cover the very best part of On the Run in my column, namely the author’s account of her own personal experiences doing the research, read it carefully.


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