The puzzle of why the cycle of poverty persists and upward class mobility is so difficult for the poor has long captivated scholars and the public alike. Yet with all of the attention that has been paid to poverty, the crucial role of the law, particularly state and local law, in perpetuating poverty is largely ignored. This Article offers a new theory of poverty, one that introduces the concept of legal immobility. Legal immobility considers the cumulative effects of state and local laws as a mechanism through which poverty is perpetuated and upward mobility is stunted. The Article provides an initial description and normative account of this under-theorized aspect of our laws, and argues that in order to fully understand poverty, a more complete understanding of the relationship between law and poverty is needed. After discussing several examples of laws that can contribute to legal immobility (everything from state and local tax laws to occupational licensing laws), the Article offers a three-prong theory to help understand the distinct pathways through which individual laws that contribute to legal immobility function: 1. duplicitous exploitation; 2. gratuitous management; and 3. perfunctory neglect. This framework provides a guide for future work to build on legal immobility theory. The goal is that by bringing to light the role of local and state laws in perpetuating poverty, legal immobility theory will ultimately help lawmakers solve the problem of persistent poverty. The concept of legal immobility provides a way of understanding persistent poverty through the lens of the law and points toward new structural approaches to tackling poverty.
Sara Sternberg Greene, A Theory of Poverty: Legal Immobility, 96 Washington University Law Review 753-801 (2019)
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Public welfare--Law and legislation, Poor, Income distribution, Equality, Social mobility