Review. In an essay by Elisabetta Grande, the Italian legal scholar examines the roots of America’s “war on the poor” and how extreme poverty is a deliberate policy.

The function of America’s ‘war on the poor’

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.”

Grande incisively the different dimensions that fueled the explosion of poverty, analyzing the progressive dismantling of the U.S. welfare system (to which Bill Clinton made a fundamental contribution in the 1990s) and focusing, for example, on home and work policies. A refined jurist, the author insists on the role of legislation in creating poverty that is not “natural,” but is rather “the result of political choices and the intertwining of the market and the law, whereas the former could never function without the latter.”

This is primarily due to the new international legal architecture, which favored an “extractive” globalization against “weaker workers.” (This was not inevitable, since Grande considers the possibility of a “generative globalization,” capable of laying the foundations for new egalitarian and redistributive policies.)

But it is also because of the legal policies and domestic law of the United States, which simultaneously favored the “tsunami of globalization,” the interests of the corporations and the unchallenged domination of the market. But they have not developed any type of reservoir to protect the poor. They have indeed systematically destroyed, as already mentioned, the protective barriers built over a long history of social struggles and policies, gradually transforming the “war on poverty” into a systematic “war on the poor.”

The second part of Grande’s book is dedicated entirely to the analysis of this “war on the poor” — and the new frontiers of the legal policies toward poverty through the instrument of partnership between private and public sectors that transform poverty into opportunity for the richest “to get even richer,” preparing interventions (such as “shelters”) without the consent of the poor.

There is no shortage of details in this part of the book, as well as in others, that resonate with the situation in Europe, and Italy in particular. Just think of all the “reception centers” of refugees and migrants. And there have also been systematic measures by American city governments to prohibit “feeding the homeless,” which was replicated in an ordinance in the Italian town of Ventimiglia against migrants (it was recently withdrawn).

More generally, the fierce and grotesque traits of the “war on the poor” in the United States seem to refer — and Grande explicitly points it out — to the “bloodthirsty law against vagrancy” that in the origins of modernity, according to the famous analysis of the “so-called primitive accumulation,” accompanied the transition to capitalism in Europe. It is a valuable reference: If indeed it is true that capitalism, at this “mature” and financialized phase, seems to recall some traits that had characterized its origins, definitely the “functions of the ‘war on the poor’” changed.

Far from bringing to a linear — or even violent — proletarization process and the beginning of paid labor, the production of poverty in a country like the United States has a constitutive component of contemporary “work life.” And extreme poverty, branded by a set of stigmas and punitive measures, seems to function as a kind of dividing line — as well as a threat toward toward the working class.

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