In his annual State of the Union address last night, US President Barack Obama noted that “inequality has deepened” in the United States. "Too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by," the president said. "And too many still aren't working at all." 

And so Obama announced an initiative to curb discrimination by private sector employers against the long-term unemployed, those 4.7 million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more, and whose chances of finding employment tend slip the longer they are out of the job market.

Important as it is to help the long-term unemployed, many of whom are sinking into poverty, their plight overlaps with a much larger and increasingly common form of discrimination, one that Obama ought to have mentioned last night, but didn't: discrimination against the poor.

International human rights conventions prohibit discrimination on the basis of a wide range of grounds, including “property, birth or other status” and “economic position.” Yet throughout the country, America's poor – now 45 million people – can be subjected to differential treatment in laws and policies that cannot be justified by any legitimate government interest.

  • In the US state of Arkansas, poor people can end up as convicted criminals if they do not pay their rent on time. Tenants who run afoul of the “failure to vacate” law face fines—sometimes in excess of the rent they could not pay to begin with—as well as possible jail time, and can be saddled with a criminal record.
  • In New York City, almost 9 out of 10 non-felony defendants who have bail set at $1,000 or less cannot afford to pay it -- and may end up spending more time in jail pre-trial than they would if convicted.
  • Across the United States, homeless people can be criminally prosecuted for sitting or lying down in certain public places.
  • Federal law allows states to deny basic food assistance to people convicted of drug felonies, often for the rest of their lives.
  • People in need of federal housing assistance can be excluded if they have a criminal record, often condemning them to homelessness. This is intended to protect existing tenants. But the exclusions are so arbitrary and overbroad, they exclude even people who have turned their lives around and remain law-abiding, as well as others who weren’t even dangerous in the first place.

It’s an interesting idea to ask the private sector to refrain from discriminating against people desperate for a job, and it’s worth watching to see if the initiative has the desired effects. It’s just too bad federal, state and local governments in the US aren't holding themselves to the same standard, and that Obama didn't take the opportunity last night to urge them to.