Civil and Human Rights

Will the Supreme Court Uphold the 14th Amendment and Block an Oregon Law Criminalizing Homelessness?

Nearly 38 million Americans live in poverty. In some areas and among some populations, entrenched economic inequality is particularly acute. One in four children in New York City lives in poverty. Black Americans are five times as likely as white Americans to reside in high-poverty neighborhoods. These figures are a testament to the pressing need to address economic inequality and the racial wealth disparity in this country. With the gap between the richest and poorest Americans growing, the Supreme Court on Monday hears oral argument in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, in which a host of states and localities will urge the justices to uphold an Oregon city’s ordinances that criminalize homelessness.

Fortunately, there is a tool available in this case—and in the fight against economic inequality generally—that has for far too long been underutilized in the realm of economic justice: the 14th Amendment.

It is well known that the 14th Amendment revolutionized our Constitution, changing a document that sanctioned bondage into one that promised liberation and equal citizenship. But this is only part of the story: The 14th Amendment was also adopted to safeguard the fundamental rights and equality of poor people. Although this aspect of the amendment has deep roots in its text and history, it has never been properly recognized by the courts.

Redressing the horrors and aftermath of slavery required sweeping guarantees to protect the most oppressed Americans—those who had been held in slavery, forced to toil their entire lives without pay, denied ownership of their bodies and brutalized, and left in abject poverty. One of the chief abuses the 14th Amendment sought to end were pernicious vagrancy laws in the post–Civil War Black Codes, which were designed to push Black Americans back into enslavement simply because they were poor. Southern efforts to criminalize Black poverty made a mockery of the freedom promised by abolition.

Repairing the Constitution required guarantees to protect the poorest and most marginalized Americans from state oppression and neglect. The Framers were adamant that “we shall not peril one single right of the poorest man that treads the soil of this country,” insisting that those on the margins of society were entitled to equal citizenship. Fundamental changes to the Constitution were necessary to entrench in our national charter the principle that “a true republic rests on the absolute equality of rights of the whole people, high and low, rich and poor, white and black.”

One of the 14th Amendment’s most important innovations was to place on states an affirmative constitutional duty to protect the legal rights of the entire populace, rich and poor alike. “American citizenship would be little worth it if it did not carry protection with it,” argued Illinois Sen. Lyman Trumbull. The equal protection clause wrote the right to legal protection, independent of wealth, into the Constitution. Rather than acting to keep the poorest of Americans marginalized, states now had a constitutional obligation to act affirmatively to protect their enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.

The debates over the 14th Amendment repeatedly affirm economic equality as a fundamental constitutional ideal. Rich and poor alike were entitled to equal citizenship, equal rights, and equal protection. Introducing the 14th Amendment, Michigan Sen. Jacob Howard explained that it “gives to the humblest, the poorest, the most despised of the race the same rights and same protection under the law as it gives to the most powerful, the most wealthy, or the most haughty.” Illinois Rep. Jehu Baker argued that it was a “disgrace to a free country that the poor and the weak members of society should be denied equal justice and equal protection at the hands of the law.”

Similar affirmations of economic equality pervaded speeches urging ratification. On the campaign trail, Ohio Rep. John Bingham described the equal protection guarantee as a “sublime example of a great and powerful people” providing that “the humblest human being anywhere shall have the same protection under the law as the President himself.” It meant that “Lazarus in his rags shall be as sacred before the majesty of American law as the rich man clothed in purple and fine linen.”

The Reconstruction Framers not only fundamentally altered the Constitution; they also created the nation’s first federal social welfare agency—the Freedmen’s Bureau—to provide access to food, medical care, and education to Black Americans freed from enslavement and refugees whose lives had been uprooted by wartime devastation. Aiming to ensure some measure of economic security and access to education, the legislation recognized the federal government’s constitutional responsibility to make equal citizenship a reality. “The obligation to take care of them,” Trumbull insisted, “is a constitutional obligation imposed on us as a government.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau legislation provides crucial insight into what protection meant to those who wrote the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act “cast the shield of protection over four million American citizens” at a time when white-dominated Southern governments refused to spend a penny on poor Black Americans yearning for meaningful freedom. To redeem the promise of abolition, Congress acted to alleviate poverty, help newly freed individuals become self-supporting citizens, and ensure access to education. Equal protection entailed the provision of basic goods and services to make freedom real.

This aspect of the 14th Amendment’s text and history has never received its due. To the contrary, conservative Supreme Court justices have repeatedly given a crabbed interpretation of the 14th Amendment and read poor Americans out of its universal promises.

In 1970, in Dandridge v. Williams, the court announced that inequalities in the administration of state-run programs are “not the business of this Court” even when “the most basic needs of impoverished human beings” are at stake. In 1973, in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, the court sanctioned school financing arrangements that denied equal educational opportunities to children from poorer neighborhoods. In 1980 Harris v. McRae upheld the exclusion of abortion from Medicaid’s coverage of medically necessary health care and sanctioned the power of the government to harm poor women—disproportionately women of color—simply because of their poverty.

This term, with the Grants Pass case, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to take at least a small step in the right direction away from the court’s disappointing legacy—and more recent history—on economic justice issues.

In 2013 the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, adopted a series of ordinances that criminalize sleeping anywhere in public with as little as a blanket. Rather than protect its most marginalized inhabitants, the city sought to use the power of criminal law to banish its homeless residents.

The case, which asks the court to decide whether the ordinances violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, raises the fundamental question of whether homeless persons will be treated as equal citizens entitled to protection or punished as criminals simply because they lack a shelter over their heads. The import of the 14th Amendment’s text and history should be plain: Criminalizing poverty violates the Constitution.

Grants Pass insists that how it treats its poorest residents is purely a question of policy. As a matter of text and history, this is flatly wrong. The 14th Amendment centers the rights of poor people. Recognizing this fundamental truth is long overdue.