Criminalization of Poverty: How Some Women are Targeted for Being Poor

by Gwen Berumen

A South Carolina mom was charged with unlawful conduct towards her child, and is currently sitting in prison with who she may not know, are there for similar reasons. Debra Harrell, who didn’t have the money to pay a babysitter, had to make a choice. She could either take her nine year old child to work with her (Harrell was a McDonalds staff member) or she could drop her off at the park to play. The child preferred to play at the park, for obvious reasons, so her mother would drop her off at the park on her way to work (with a cell phone in case of an emergency).  

While, yes, there is a risk that goes into leaving a child ANYWHERE unattended, I do not think that what Harrell did was entirely wrong, nor was it entirely her fault. Given the circumstances, Harrell did what she had to do – she made a choice that, in all honesty, was better than the alternative. The odds of her daughter being abducted were very low, and given the abundance of children (and parents) at the park, the child was pretty safe. According to the incident report, the girl would go to the McDonalds (which was located inside a Walmart) for lunch. It is located about a mile and half from the park.  

Someone at the park noticed this behavior and called the police.

“I understand the mom may have been in a difficult situation, not having someone to watch the child, but at the same time, you’ve got to find somebody,” said Lesa Lamback, who is a frequenter of the park.

Harrell is currently in jail, and her daughter is in custody of the department of social services (which is sure to take care of her how she should be treated, right mom at the park?!) 

It is easy to say “you’ve got to find somebody” if you have certain privileges and access to certain things that other people don’t have access to. To me, this sounded like what a lot of people of color go through. Having money for childcare isn’t something that most people have, it’s huge investment, and if you are a single mom working a minimum wage job, it’s not something that you can fork over daily. Also, not to mention, the fact that Harrell was imprisoned for this, speaks to our country’s prison industrial complex, and the mass incarceration of people of color.

This reminds me of a similar case that happened back in March of this year. It all comes down to a racialized aspect of poverty that goes beyond the statistics of who is poor, and reaches a new low: who gets arrested for being poor. 

This is not an isolated incident, and this is not something that can be stopped by locking people up. It’s time to stop blaming individuals for poverty, and start blaming the system. 

Thankfully, a group of women started a campaign for Harrell, hoping that “the money raised will cover Harrell’s legal fees and help her get back on her feet and regain custody of her daughter.”


Photo via,,

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.