In recent years, poverty has taken on never-before-seen features in the United States. The number of homeless people offers a comprehensive summary: not only in terms of its exponential growth, certainly, but also for the kind of visibility it has gained in many cities and for its relations with the institutions — starting from the repressive ones that are increasingly present in the everyday lives of homeless people.
The homeless are now “a people within the people,” writes the Italian legal scholar Elisabetta Grande in her essay Guai ai poveri: La faccia triste dell’America [“Woe to the poor: The sad face of America”] (published by Gruppo Abele, pp. 172, €14). That’s not only because they actually have achieved the quantitative consistency of a “people,” but also in the sense that a set of political, legal and cultural devices — wisely orchestrated, starting at least from the first term of Ronald Reagan — has come to separate the disturbing and menacing figure of the extremely impoverished from the mainstream U.S. population, breaking up the foundations of empathy that had characterized other historical phases, like the New Deal (despite the persisting discrimination against African Americans) and the years of the “war on poverty” under Lyndon Johnson.
“The homeless” is a symptomatic category of the explosion of poverty in contemporary America (tied hand in glove with the accumulation of wealth). The “identikit” of the homeless, for that matter, has drastically changed. It can be understood from these figures: Almost 50 percent have a degree of some kind, and “a large number of homeless, counted around 30 percent (and in some places more than 40 percent), work full or part time.”