21st Century Social Minimum

In Budget Politics, Democratic Governance, Economic Planning, Economics, Full Employment, History and Politics, Inequality, Liberalism, Living Wage, Political Ideology, Politics, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Security, Welfare State on October 21, 2010 at 1:00 am


There is something fundamentally schizophrenic about the way that conservatives claiming that poverty doesn’t matter because of material advances in standard of living, and then attack the poor for owning luxuries like cellphones. After all, cellphones are as much a sign of material progress as refrigerators, washing machines, or indoor toilets.

However, when debating with conservatives, it never really helps to focus on contradiction or empirical refutation – that a single parent with one child living on $40 a day in Los Angeles isn’t materially secure when the EPI estimates that a basic family budget in LA runs at $113 a day. The real point is this – social standards of what it’s necessary to live like a civilized person change with time, and the poor change with it.


The great British sociologist T.H Marshall argued that Europe had passed through three stages of citizenship – civil citizenship (legal personhood, basic civil rights, equality before the law), political citizenship (the right to vote, primarily), and social citizenship. Only once all people enjoyed all three forms of citizenship could they be truly free, Marshall argued, and he defined social citizenship as “the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share in the full social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society.”

Marshall gets to the issue in away that’s very helpful here, by shifting from a rather nebulous consideration of dollar limits to a precise focus on the outcomes – security, participation, and social standards. The reality is that both absolute poverty (material deprivation) and relative poverty (economic inequality) will change with time. The actual level of income that an individual needs to keep alive and healthy changes as society and economy change – someone living in an agricultural society needs less cash income than someone in a industrial or post-industrial society where cash is overwhelmingly the only way to gain access to food, for example. At the same time, as society becomes more technologically advanced and begins to reshape itself in reaction to new technology, the income needed to participate in society changes; cars shift from a rich man’s luxury to a commuter’s necessity as jobs and housing shift to a suburban/highway-dependent model, cellphones become a necessity when employers demand instant access to job applicants and workers alike.

When thinking about poverty, therefore, we have to keep in mind both whether people have the necessities of life and whether they have full social citizenship.

The Social Minimum Today:

When looking to see how far poverty has spread and how well we are doing in fighting it we need to think about three levels of provision – the basic necessities of life, the basic requirements for mobility, and the basic means for participating in society.

The Necessities:

When we look at the basic requirements for life in America today – food, housing, utilities, clothing, transportation, and the income to acquire these things – it becomes incredibly clear how limited our support system has always been, and how far we have fallen since the elimination of AFDC. In our current recession, Food Stamps have become the one remaining universal welfare program, with 42 million Americans who have turned to the program in their hour of need. However, Food Stamps has always been a poorly funded program that are insufficient to provide genuine food security, let alone decent nutrition. Section 8 likewise has never covered everyone who need housing assistance, nor has it been able to ensure affordability and mobility. Outside of a scattered few programs for seniors and the like, we don’t do anything to ensure access to water, electricity, or heat. We especially don’t do anything to provide even a basic subsidy for transportation. Only starting in 2014 will we begin to do something about providing health care, and even then there is much work that will be needed to make health care for all a reality.

Given this lack of protection, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the 2007-9 recession has brought us one of the fastest increases in poverty in American history – from 12.5% in 2007 to 14.3% in 2009, an increase of seven million. If access to the necessities of life rests entirely upon employment, then every recession poses a social as well as an economic threat.  Without a robust social insurance system, especially an Unemployment Insurance system that’s capable of dealing with mass layoffs, seven million lost jobs turns into seven million more in poverty with ease.

Next Step – Mobility:

The social minimum does not stop, however, with merely a “modicum of social welfare.” It must also take into account the potential for social and physical mobility, both as an avenue out of poverty and as an integral part in the ability to participate at all levels and all regions of the society. Without mobility, society itself disintegrates into balkanized and rivalrous cantons, preventing any hope of united action or common cultural experience.

Here again, in the U.S, we see a manifest weakness. Firstly, we lack any system of labor market policy that could help people avoid job losses that permanently reduce one’s potential for advancement in life, or that would give ordinary workers the leverage needed to establish a broadly shared middle class and the mobility that comes with that status. Secondly, not only does the weakness in our system of economic security mean that forty-four million Americans must live with material insecurity and deprivation, but also that millions more lack the feeling of security that is the true foundation for individual striving and independence.

On a more basic level, literal physical mobility is not universally guaranteed. In the absence of a Swedish-style system of providing mobility assistance to people relocating to a new job or in search of work, the difficulty of putting together the lump sum of first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit itself acts as a barrier on the mobility of working poor families, and is a major reason why eviction so often leads to homelessness.

When combined with our lack of a strong social welfare state and a relatively flat taxation system (once payroll and sales taxes are counted in), it’s hardly surprising that the U.S has fallen far behind its aspirations for a society based on wide-spread social mobility.

Full Participation as the Goal:

At it’s best, the idea of the social minimum points towards the realization of the democratic ideal. T.H Marshall ultimately points not to material minimums alone, but to the linked idea that people must have the right to “share in the full” of their culture, and that they must be able to “live the life of a civilized being” in their society. To that extent, our ultimate reckoning must incorporate the reality of incorporation – how many of our citizens are given the tools for citizenship and how many of them have a space and a voice to participate in the social, cultural, and political world they live in.

As I have argued in the past, we have to stop thinking about higher education as just a matter of job training – it is much more a matter of enabling all citizens to take part in a politics of inquiry, discussion, and debate, as Thomas Dewey hoped. Similarly, we could be doing much, much more to make access to culture and cultural capital available to all, regardless of income. Returning to the issue of cellphones for a second – it is practically self-evident that universal access to communications technology is critical for the functioning of a robust public sphere that provides the very air for democracy to breath. The Revolutionary Generation recognized this importance, not merely by recognizing the freedom of the press in the 1st Amendment, but also through the liberal subsidization of newspapers through reduced postal rates. In our own time, access to a diverse and genuinely “network neutral” combination of cellphones, the Internet, and social networks has become absolutely essential to full participation and mobilization in our society, culture, and political system.

The great Athenian democrat Pericles, before leading his city to war, was known for three policies which pointed to the inherent necessity of such efforts: first, he created public works such as the Parthenon to ensure that the artisans of Athens had work; second, he provided salaries for jury duty so that working people could afford to do their public and so that the accused would be sure of receiving justice from their peers; third, he provided salaries so that working people could attend the sacred theater. Far from mere handouts, Pericles’ redistribution was intended to engage the working people of Athens in the larger process of democracy – in physically building the temples of civic virtue, in taking part in the public deliberations of justice (remember, from the beginning the authority of the jury has always been that it constitutes a microcosm of the sovereign people), and in enriching their minds with the poetry and philosophy of their civilization that questioned and inspired the very idea of citizenship.


There is always the tendency to concentrate on the immediate crisis, the next battle, the “fierce urgency of now.” But at the same time, we must always keep an eye to that what goes beyond, to what direction we wish to move in as a society. It is not, it cannot be enough merely to reverse the damage done by the Great Recession, we must look beyond to the genuine, not merely rhetorical, abolition of material deprivation, the provision of mobility for all, and the universal participation in our society by all its members.


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