As I was reading Mollat’s The Poor in the Middle Ages I ran across a brief but intriguing passage:
Twelfth-century thinking on the subject of poverty derived from traditional patristic writings about justice as well as charity. Writers did not limit themselves to reaffirming the right of the poor to the rich man’s excess or to a quarter or third of the income from tithes and church property. Nor were they content to remind princes and bishops of their duty to protect the poor….But the question arose whether the poor could legitimately insist that their rights be observed….Peter the Chanter maintained that the authorities had the power to force the wealthy to give alms. (110-11)
This was an important development in thinking about poverty. Prior to this period, the poor were always (usually?) viewed as the object, never the subject: they existed so that the rich might exercise charity, but were not seen as independent actors who had claims of justice. It does not appear that Peter the Chanter’s position became widespread. Mollat’s discussion turns instead to the closely related question of whether a hungry man can steal to feed himself; by the end of the 12th century the consensus appeared to be that he could and this did not constitute theft. Given Anatole France’s ironic observation that the law forbids the rich as well as the poor to steal bread, it would seem that this position no longer holds: in our capitalist society, private property is sacrosanct and so guarded against the depredations of the poor.But I am intrigued by Peter the Chanter’s position, which seems consonant with (and indeed may demand) the social programs of liberal democracies. These programs are often referred to as entitlement programs: the poor are entitled to these benefits, and government spending must rise or fall to meet the need. To pay for them, the government (the “authorities”) compel the wealthy to pay taxes; presumably then, taxes must rise or fall to meet the need as well.
Accepting this position does not entail supporting every government welfare program; nor does it rule out “private charity.” There is wide scope for discussing the roles of government and civil society and what implications subsidiarity has. But what it does entail is recognizing that the poor are not simply objects—the recipients of government or personal largess—but are in fact subjects whose demands for food, clothing, shelter and medical care are legitimate and must be met. In particular, in the current political situation it calls into question the Republican budget proposal (as put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan) that Medicaid be converted from an individual entitlement to a block grant program. The inevitable effect of such a change would be a cost-shifting from the state to the poor, which in turn is a denial of their right to health care.