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The 'No Property' Problem: Understanding Poverty by Understanding Wealth

24 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2004  

Jane B. Baron

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law


This book review of anthropologist Kim Hopper's Reckoning with Homelessness takes up the themes in Hopper's book that bear most on how we are likely to confront - or maybe avoid confronting - the existing problem of homelessness. The review first considers how the social science world has studied homelessness - both its generation of facts about homelessness and its framing of the debate over individual as opposed to structural causes of homelessness. While this debate continues to this day to structure much thinking about homelessness, it is not entirely obvious why it remains so powerful. The line between the individual and the structural is extremely unstable, and it is not at all clear that the identification of structural factors such as the failure of the market to produce decent low-cost housing will produce remedial governmental intervention.

After briefly considering how the individual/structural debate has interacted with, or, as Hopper argues, failed importantly to interact with, other important debates about poverty and race, the review takes up Hopper's provocative suggestion, also echoed by legal advocates, that only by studying wealth - and its reaction to homelessness - can we understand poverty. Without dismissing the potential importance of studying the wealthy and their attitudes, the review suggests a slightly different avenue of exploration. I argue that at least part of what confounds understanding of homelessness is that it embodies a difficult-to-fathom state of what might be called no property. Ethnographies focus on who the homeless are, but the defining attribute of homelessness consists of what those people do not have. No property is a distinct legal and social state of being. In this legal state, one can plausibly seek rights to sleep outdoors and panhandle aggressively (rights, that is, to be homeless effectively) but one is not entitled to housing or public welfare benefits (rights, that is, to have property). To understand homelessness, we must at least confront the complexities of this new category.

Keywords: Property, poverty, homelessness

Suggested Citation

Baron, Jane B., The 'No Property' Problem: Understanding Poverty by Understanding Wealth. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 102, 2004. Available at SSRN:

Jane B. Baron (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-8975 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)

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