More legislative compassion could transform state

THE ISSUE: State lawmakers showed considerable humanity in their support of a bill that would prevent minors from being convicted of prostitution. The same sentiment should influence more of their legislation.

The compassion of lawmakers was evident in their support of a bill, currently in committee, that would increase fines for those who promote prostitution and who solicit prostitutes while ensuring minors can’t be convicted of prostitution.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia, has the bipartisan support of 61 co-sponsors.

Barry Matson, vice chairman of the Alabama Task Force on Human Trafficking and drafter of the bill, explained succinctly why the legislators are intent on protecting minors from criminal convictions.

“No one just decided, ‘I’m 16 and I want to be a prostitute.’ There are circumstances in their life that put them in that situation,” Matson said.

It’s a sentiment that would cause tremors in the Statehouse if lawmakers could find their way to apply it more broadly.

Alabama is filled with people whose life circumstances put them in a place they never would have chosen.

Just as no one decides they want to be a prostitute, no one decides they want to live in poverty. For most, to use Matson’s words, “There are circumstances in their life that put them in that situation.”

In Alabama, the overwhelming circumstance that leads people to poverty is generational. A child who grows up in an impoverished household is unlikely to escape the same plight.

While it’s easier to find compassion for poor children, the same circumstances that result in poverty for children lead to poverty for adults. Adults often are just as much at the mercy of their circumstances as are their children, and as were their parents.

How would the compassion lawmakers have found for young girls who fell into prostitution affect legislation if applied to the poor?

At the very least, it would have legislators searching for ways to relieve the burden on the poor. Removing the sales tax on groceries would be a significant start, as would expanding Medicaid. Alabama is the third poorest state in the nation, yet it continues to impose deeply regressive sales taxes on the food people need to survive. With almost 1 in 5 people below the poverty level, the state continues to resist the offer of the federal government — that is, the offer of the people of the other 49 states — to pay almost all of the cost of providing health care for those who cannot now afford it.

These efforts of compassion, of course, would cost the state money it doesn’t have. The solution to that is to reform a tax structure that now places a far greater burden on low- and middle-income families.

It’s not just a structure that’s unfair, it’s irrational. The state’s financial struggles result from a tax system that seeks to extract money from those who have the least, while minimizing the burden on those with the ability to contribute.

No one decided they wanted to live in poverty. For many, the circumstances of their lives put them in that situation. As a state capable of compassion, we need to search for ways to help them escape.

(Published April 20, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, Poverty

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