The “No Property” Problem: Understanding Poverty by Understanding Wealth

Could it be that understanding homelessness and poverty is less a function of understanding the homeless and the poor than of understanding how the wealthy come to ignore and tolerate them? This is one of the more intriguing suggestions of anthropologist Kim Hopper’s Reckoning with Homelessness, and it echoes claims made by lawyers who, like Hopper, have spent much of their careers advocating on behalf of the homeless. While Hopper’s new book is first and foremost a work of anthropology, its structure strongly parallels recent work by legal scholars who have sought to assess the effects of litigation and lobbying efforts dedicated to homelessness. Looking back on his own twenty-five years of work on behalf of the homeless, Hopper laments that his and his colleagues’ detailed ethnographies of the lives of homeless people provided “vivid documentation and lively analyses, but at the cost of ensuring that the product could be safely ignored” (p. 209). The legal advocates’ assessment of their efforts is even more downbeat; they fear that their own litigation strategies – even when successful – may have aggravated rather than resolved the problems faced by their clients.