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:
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.