Homelessness and Citizenship

During the late middle ages and early renaissance there was a popular conceptual label for the non-able bodied inhabitants without property — the “Blessed Poor. The blessed poor served an essential role within the citizenry, providing those trying to demonstrate their moral worth to God an acceptable outlet for charitable donations. The blessed poor were forced to wear distinguishing uniforms and they also carried licenses which told them when and where they could beg. In being given a uniform and a schedule they were transformed into a disciplined workforce of beggars. In this way they become essential workers within the well ordered society.

In the previous example, The Blessed Poor were needed in order to fulfill the spiritual needs of the citizenry. Within their own societal context, it can be reasonably argued that this role granted them an essential social standing and, by extension, citizenship.

According to in-class interpretations of Judith Shklar, if placed within a modern American context, these blessed poor would not be considered citizens because they, along with most of the laity, lacked the symbolic right essential to the attainment of citizenship — the right to vote. However it is clear to me that their role within society was much more valued than the modern day homeless, who, if not convicted felons in states where ex-cons cannot vote, have the right to vote and therefore maintain some semblance of citizenship.

As seen from the in-class documentary on poverty and homelessness within Chicago, the modern day homeless are a marginalized group. Regardless of having the right to vote, they are insignificant to the legitimate production and consumption of goods, and therefore, according to Shklar, have no actual social standing. Ultimately, they are nobodies — “Not to work is not to earn, and without one’s earnings one is a nobody.” (92) — who have been  “expelled from civil society and reduced to second class citizenship.” (98)

I brought up the example of the blessed poor because it shows a strong contrast between how homeless people were perceived in the context of a past time compared to now. Within their particular context, the Blessed Poor, who were comprised of non-able bodied homeless individuals, were sombodies within society. Their standing was inextricably linked with, and dependent upon, a religious world view that equated spiritual cleansing with charitable acts towards the poor. Although this world view hasn’t been completely lost, it is largely insignificant within a modern context.

Domestic views on citizenship expressed within Shklar hold that “whenever Americans cease to earn… they lose their standing in their communities.” (98) Currently, the class of non-able bodied, and able bodied, homeless citizens have little to no means to earn wages legitimately, and therefore no means to achieve financial stability, let alone the opportunity for social advancement. Shklar advocates that in order to correct the problems that lead to homelessness, such as poverty and unemployment (that is not chosen out of personal preference), that the government should have the following “presumption guiding our policies” — that there should exist a “comprehensive commitment to providing opportunities for work to earn a living wage for all who need and demand it.” (99)

However, the difficulties in articulating this ambitious ideology through concrete policies are immense. It is also difficult to eradicate stigmas (the thought that their condition is almost always their own fault) which perpetuate the marginalization of the homeless. The only means to decrease the population of the homeless and unwillingly unemployed is to promote a culture, within traditionally underprivileged areas, that embraces education and ambition. Some worthy articles which touch on the idea below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/magazine/mag-10School-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/nyregion/in-applying-for-high-school-some-8th-graders-find-a-maze.html

Ultimately, and sadly, I tend to agree with a sentiment which Shklar touches on at one point in the text. This idea holds that poverty and unemployment, and the homelessness that corresponds with the aforementioned states, currently are, and will continue to be, facts of life “like the weather.” (93) The homeless population, regardless of whether or not their numbers decrease over time, will continue to live in a perpetual state of non-citizenship or second class citizenship. Never again will there exist a concept like that of “the blessed poor”, as it is so overwhelmingly incompatible with modern world views.

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6 Responses to Homelessness and Citizenship

  1. jwpeace88 says:

    I agree that the homeless population will continue to live in a state of second class citizenship. We live in a world where people are rewarded according to how hard they work, and as you noted, it is extremely difficult to eradicate the stigmas on the homeless population. When thinking about the homeless population, we tend to associate personal traits such as indolence or lack of education without being attentive to the social context which might have forced them into such condition. Although it is very important to address this issue, we should be careful as to what extent and how much support and benefits need to be provided. We have to strike a balance of the right amount of help; otherwise the homeless population will become too dependent because there is no incentive for them to find a way out.

  2. erikamir says:

    I also agree that the homeless will continue to live in a state of non-citizenship. Unlike umemployed people are blessed enough to have a place to reside, the homeless essentially don’t contribute to anything towards society like the “blessed poor” in the past. This sounds harsh but according to Shklar, the homeless would be condemned as nobody. As Shklar also mentions, people are addicted to work and money. The homeless can’t work and have no money. Their standing has been stripped from them because they can’t contribute to society. As Galbraith says we are trapped in a society of working then spending which puts money back into society. As a homeless person, you probably would be more concerned with day to day survival rather than spending, paying taxes or even voting.

  3. allenle2011 says:

    It is unfortunate that homeless people have to live in our nation as second class citizens. I think when we look at the poor our society often demonstrates the fundamental attribution error. We automatically believe there is something wrong internally with homeless people that put them in that position, rather than considering external factors that could have caused them to live on the streets. Shklar’s idea for a job system to incorporate homeless people into our society is great, but I also believe we would struggle with people becoming completely dependent on that system. I agree with jwpeace88 on this issue. If there is no incentive to get out of homelessness, dependence on the system will occur, and it most likely will become cyclical. It would be a similar problem that occurs with many welfare nations. When welfare is continuously available, people aren’t going to try and get out of that system. Most people will want to stay in a system where they don’t have to work hard to attain money. That is why I believe it is important to strive for a system that Shklar envisioned without creating a system of dependence.

  4. paranpi says:

    I think the issue of homelessness as a indicator of second-class citizen citizen goes beyond the nature of citizenship encompassing the ability to vote and earn money. The example of “blessed poor” is an interesting, because it seems like they are the same homeless people as we have now, but apparently more respected, with certain ability to make a living. Perhaps aside from the main difference of time, another reason why the two eras treat homelessness/disabled so differently is because the renaissance era already had their “out” group, like slavery, women, foreigners, etc. As we have discussed in class, Shklar talks about how the concept of citizenry and being a citizen is to have a distinction between those who are part of the citizenry and those who cannot join them. So, I feel like the issue of society ousting homeless is simply because they can’t work–society should assist anyone who can work, and assist those who has lost the means to. But it is because modern society has no clear distinction between an “out” group and an “in” group, and it is easier to distinguish person’s ability in society by their wealth, or their ability to contribute.

  5. flitvak says:

    While I do believe that it is unfortunate that homeless people must live in our nation in this “perpetual state of non-citizenship or second class citizenship,” I remain pessimistic about the outcome of their political participation. Like jwpeace88 stated we often associate the characteristics of “indolence or lack of education” with the homeless. Nothing could have allowed me to gain such unique insight into this topic as has my participation in the St. Andrew’s Breakfast Program in Ann Arbor.

    Thursday mornings I arrive promptly at 7am at St. Andrew’s Church located on Catherine Street where I begin serving breakfast to some of Ann Arbor’s homeless. I would like to say that my experiences serve to refute the fact that homeless exhibit a lack of motivation or that they are culturally and politically unaware but unfortunately these qualities are found within the men and women that I feed. This dependence that jwpeace88 speaks of is extraordinarily noticeable while I work. I see the same people every week with no progress in mentality, hygiene or social graces. Like Erikamir says, these people are without a doubt “more concerned with day to day survival rather than spending, paying taxes or even voting.”

    Recently FEMA has cut funding for Food Gatherers, a crucial supplier of the St. Andrew’s Breakfast Program. Each participant in the program, for each day during the month of October is required to fill out a survey that asks about his or her lifestyle and income. It is disheartening to see each person struggle to fill out a form on his own and the scenario further bolsters the idea these people are not able-minded to even consider voting.

    Although I enjoy volunteering and feel that I am making a difference in the lives of these men and women by providing sustenance, there is a distinct element of dependence that worries me. As Shklar stated, “a good citizen is an earner, because independence is the indelibly necessary quality of genuine, democratic citizenship.” (pg. 92) Therefore I do not foresee that homeless people will be considered “citizens” according to Shklar’s definition any time in the near future.

  6. drullis says:

    I found this post very insightful and I agree with most of the sentiments expressed throughout the entirety of your post. It is interesting you bring up the point of the “blessed poor” and how non-able bodied homeless people were in a way included into society even despite their homeless standing. It is a very good example that some homeless people should, without a doubt, be included in society rather be treated as complete outcasts. It also raises a very important question of humanity and demonstrates that even today we should continue such things as taking care of people like non able bodied homeless people who need all the help they can get. It also brings to a light how years ago even some homeless people could find a meaningful place in society, whereas today no matter your condition being homeless is severely looked down upon. It really does leave the reader to question the modern state of homelessness and how we have really failed as a society to live up to levels of decent charity and compassion. In modern times it is easy to agree with you on the fact that to decrease poverty is a daunting task and I also strongly agree that Shklar’s ideology of providing everyone an opportunity to work is quite ambitious. Facing the struggles they do, along with the stigmas in accordance to being homeless, it is very hard to imagine a society like that of past times when homeless people integrate quicker and easier into society. It would also be nice to see society revert back to a time when the non able bodied homeless people may more effortlessly integrate into society. It was strange to think while reading your post that non able bodied homeless people had a much easier lifestyle in past generations even though they only embodied the working part of Shklar’s definition rather than the voting portion, but in our lifetime non able bodied homeless people have the right to vote but lack work and are much worse off.

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