When the term poor is used and when we discuss poverty, there are commonplace definitions that we always rely on. To be poor relates to a lack of money or income. But that is a tautology in many senses; a definition that already presumes that poverty relates solely to income and while commonplace is essentially misleading. A far more useful definition of poverty relates to a broader range of things within a social context. Let’s begin with some definitions of poverty in the context of the modern debate on poverty:

Let’s start with that advanced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

“Relative Poverty – When we talk about poverty in the UK today we rarely mean malnutrition or the levels of squalor of previous centuries or even the hardships of the 1930s before the advent of the welfare state. It is a relative concept. ‘Poor’ people are those who are considerably worse off than the majority of the population – a level of deprivation heavily out of line with the general living standards enjoyed by the by the majority of the population in one of the most affluent countries in the world (http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/poverty-definitions.pdf).”

Additional definitions address the impact of poverty on ensuring accessing fundamental notions of rights, like the European Commission definition. In its Joint Report on Social Inclusion (2004) the EC defined poverty in the following way:

“People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live. Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantage through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted (http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/poverty-definitions.pdf).”

What we can do is link the existence of poverty directly to property ownership, or the lack of it. Essentially poverty is a direct result of a system of property ownership and hence the rise of classes in human society. At its most fundamental level, poverty relates to a lack of ownership of property which thereby requires people to labour to ensure their subsistence. That sounds like all of the working class is essentially poor; by definition yes it is … the fact that people need to work to sustain themselves is due to the fact that they have limited ownership of property on which to survive without working.

While this sounds incredibly Marxist, actually this definition actually goes back to Jeremy Bentham’s defence of wealth inequality and his argument that we cannot eliminate poverty; we can eliminate destitution or indigence, but not poverty. According to Bentham, poverty (the state of having no recourse to property) is the general state of mankind. It is the fact that the vast majority of humanity does not own property that forces them to sell their labour to obtain their subsistence.

If we accept Bentham’s argument and quite honestly it is far more sensible than arguing that people are poor as they have insufficient income or money as that is meaningless, then an obvious question arises in this context: what happens when people are unable to labour (due to age or infirmity initially)? No one with the slightest bit of morality would argue that they should be left to die. But let’s add another condition which relates specifically to a situation in which the economic system produces large numbers of people that are unable to find employment deriving from the way in which the system reproduces itself and also are unable to produce their own subsistence due to private ownership of land and also means of production?

Class Relations and Provision

How the subsistence of people that are unable to labour is provided and what is the role of the ruling classes (in its various incarnations) in this provision became relevant once people become separated from directly producing their own subsistence. This is the topic which this piece addresses; this is essentially an old question and arises with the existence of towns and in societies based upon trade; that is, it is a long-standing problem of human existence and the interrelationship between those in the countryside and surviving in the towns are inextricably linked.

What also needs to be addressed are the various attempts to address provision for the poor in the context of various systems, addressing the differences between charity (both religious based and secular) and the social welfare state seems an obvious question. The issues that need to be considered in this context are the relationship between access to wealth and property and the maintenance of the status quo in the context of provision for the poor.

An important question that relates to this point is whether the creation of the social welfare state would have occurred in the absence of working class movements as the ruling class recognised that the required reproduction of the working class was threatened due to the inadequate provision provided by charity requiring a more systematic manner of maintenance of a reserve army of labour or was this forced upon them by the demands of the working class through the strength of various forms of working class movements.

I would argue the latter; the specific forms of general protection were those fought for and demanded by the working class and their demands conditioned and influenced what was ultimately instituted by the ruling class. But would these have been done if they weren’t in the interest of capital? Certainly not, the need to balance keeping workers incomes as low as possible with ensuring the subsistence and reproduction of the next generation of workers provides a basic socially accepted level to which wage income cannot fall below at least without considerable resistance and time. This is a socially determined level and as such differs between countries and over time and space. Access to healthcare, pensions, education, housing, decent working conditions become a part of general social subsistence and if it could be provided independently of wages so much the better. However, the provision of these things independently from employment breaks down the link between work and subsistence that is such an important part of maintaining and justifying class societies.

If historically, work was the manner in which non-propertied people’s subsistence was obtained, and if the linkage between work and subsistence is severed, this creates a problem especially in a system which relies upon the exploitation of the work of the vast majority to function. In the context of the capitalist system, where obtaining paid labour to survive in order to produce exchange values is essential for the system to function, the introduction of the possibility of obtaining subsistence through assistance of the social welfare state introduces a serious tension.

Part of the problem derives from the manner in which work is done in the context of the system where human creativity and endeavour is rarely part of the job; the other part of the problem is the lack of recognition of work which is unremunerated like women’s labour in the home, that is it produces use value for the society at large, but not exchange value in the context of the system. Additionally, rather than see work in a broader sense that contributes to the society at large (which is something that people do constantly irrespective of remuneration), work in capitalism is tied to paid labour in the interests of capital itself and this means that the introduction of guaranteed incomes in the absence of work introduces a threat to a system dependent upon the exploitation and deskilling of labour. This has led to attempts to both dilute the social welfare state and reintroduce the linkage between work and subsistence, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform (1996) and the introduction of workfare should be seen in this context. This tension and attempts to deal with it are still being played out today in the advanced capitalist world.

Social Responsibility: Horizontality and Verticality

Poverty exists in economic systems prior to the consolidation of the capitalist economic system. There is ample evidence from religious texts and laws specifically to address the importance of charity and caring for the indigent, the sick or infirm, and the elderly and these texts pre-date capitalism by quite some time. Clear commandments to give charity are an essential part of what it means to be a good Muslim and Jew for example. It is not considered to be a voluntary; it is incumbent upon you to provide for the less fortunate as part of your obligations to others.

We can discuss social responsibility for family members and members of the community as it was addressed in the context of some different modes of production; we can break it up as pre-capitalist and then capitalist. Secondly, framing the discussion in terms of the relationship between vertical and horizontal provision of subsistence for all members of society is helpful. This is especially so when we are able to put the discussion into the context of how everything gets subsumed to verticality due initially to the nature of religion and later social provision in the context of the social welfare state when it became obvious that religious and philanthropic organisations could not cover the quantity and quality of assistance required due to the large numbers of unemployed created by a system in which profitability is the primary consideration.

The term “horizontality” refers to the idea of equality in a relationship coinciding with the receipt of subsistence as part of a group (irrespective of definition from small family unit to member of the human race); that is, you are entitled to subsistence due to simply being part of the group. This implies no power relationship or obligation; it is merely a relationship of entitlement. “Verticality,” on the other hand, relates to this being received through the basis of beneficence due to power relationships of leader or representative of ruling class to member of group; this can be from god’s representative, from the leader of the community to their “dependents” or “subjects” (father to child, king to subjects, “god” — or his representatives — to the faithful, or state to citizens). This connotes a sense of obligation and power relationship as it is the organisation of work or society by the leader(s) that ensures the existence of everyone’s subsistence.

Whether the property was under control of a group to ensure the group’s subsistence and reproduction of the next generation and hence the creation of a more horizontal relationship between group members or whether it was more vertical under the control of a leader, ensuring subsistence and reproduction of the group was essential.

The interesting question that already begins in such an early time was to ensure reproduction of the group, and if property was already privatised, maintenance of control over this property ensuring that the property-less were provided for was an essential component of maintaining control.

Justification of the maintenance of property and the assertion of leadership means that at an early stage of human societal development leaders needed to demonstrate that subsistence of community would be ensured due to their leadership. Then there are those who irrespective of the division of labour cannot provide for themselves due to age (too young or too old) or infirmity (whether temporary or permanent) and they need to be provided or accounted for in the context of the social grouping as a whole. The relationship between kinship, community, and social provision ensuring subsistence and reproduction of all is strongly intertwined.

This is something that has persisted even as human societies transformed through various modes of production. However, what has altered is the horizontality or verticality of the relationship between people within a social or religious grouping, community, society, nation and nation-state.

Sometimes a completely vertical relationship can maintain the ideas underlying initial horizontal relationships, but the reality and provision are done under the control of those in power. One example of the persistence of initial horizontality can be found in the requirement to provide through charity for less fortunate members of the community. This is seen in many religions as an essential commandment for all members; provision for the elderly, children, the sick, the poor is required to be a member in good standing of the religion smoothing your access to heaven and/or earthly rewards. This does not have to take the more vertical form of actual provision of funds, but can take the more horizontal form of services to others for those that cannot give funds; giving of your time to assist others, providing access to water for all on a road well-travelled or sharing what you have with others.

More and more, the manner in which this was done was not through direct provision or support between people (although this clearly persists even today), but rather through the systematic intercession of religious authority; thereby providing legitimacy for the religion as provider of assistance for the poor. Initially, religion, rather than the state, became the main provider of assistance to those in need that had fallen through the cracks in terms of defined roles for working people in the society.

Overwhelmingly, responsibility for those in need belonged first to family; in the absence of family to be responsible, provision for the elderly, the disabled or sick, women and children would be provided. The fact that the provision of assistance to the destitute was deemed to be first the responsibility of family, then the local community and then the religion itself (or the state as representative of the religion in theocracies) is enshrined in most religions in discussions of provision of charity.

Essentially, charity of all sorts is limited and requires a network beginning at the level of the family and throughout communities. It requires sufficient wealth and income inequality to sustain provision. Simply enshrining coverage through religion does not cover everyone in the society and it cannot do so in the context of a capitalist system producing large numbers of unemployed people and the need for a group of unemployed people to be called into work when the opportunity arises during its industrial phase.

Initially, the state, as Le Gauchiste raised in his discussion of bread provision was tied into guaranteed subsistence for the non-propertied as a whole rather than for those that had fallen through the cracks in society. This discussion can be seen not only in the older discussions of bread and circuses of the Romans, and in the assize on bread that existed in large parts of Europe, but even in later discussions of the role of the state in the works of Locke and also the Physiocrats where the role of the state in civil society as an extension of the right to subsistence guaranteed by the right to life is argued to be ensuring the subsistence of all in the context of rising private property relations in land commensurate with the completion of the transition to capitalism and the bourgeois democratic revolution.

The state was essentially forced to step in when inevitably religious and philanthropic organisations proved unable to cover for large numbers of people unemployed through no fault of their own. Simply enshrining coverage through religion or philanthropy does not cover everyone in the society and it cannot do so in the context of a capitalist system producing large numbers of unemployed people and the need for a group of unemployed people to be called into work when the opportunity arises during its industrial phase.

Social Welfare State vs Philanthropic Provision

One would think in this day and age that the ruling class is aware of the inability of a small group of wealthy individuals providing sustenance for those in need in the context of a capitalist economic system. Much of this argument is wed to the idea that the social welfare state is essentially the same thing as charity and hence should be addressed under the rubric of a small group of wealthy individuals or foundations who ascertain the deservedness of the recipients. Control over whom gets assistance and the importance of the wealthy and powerful in providing it is an essential component for those advocating this form of provision to the poor. This can be seen quite clearly in the following from the Cato Institute advocating the elimination of welfare and its replacement by charity:

“The ultimate reform goal, however, should be to eliminate the entire system of low-income welfare for individuals who are able to work. That means eliminating not just TANF but also food stamps, subsidized housing, and other programs. Individuals unwilling to support themselves through the job market would have to rely on the support of family, church, community, or private charity.
What would happen to the poor if welfare were eliminated? Without the negative incentives created by the welfare state, fewer people would be poor. There would also likely be fewer children born into poverty. Studies suggest that women do make rational decisions about whether to have children, and thus a reduction in welfare benefits would reduce the likelihood of their becoming pregnant or having children out of wedlock. […] In sum, private charities typically require a different attitude on the part of recipients. They are required to consider the aid they receive not as an entitlement, but as a gift carrying reciprocal obligations. At the same time, private charities require that donors become directly involved in monitoring program performance (Cato Institute: Downsizing the Federal Government).”

Historically, this bears a strong resemblance to the arguments of Malthus in the 19th century; neither recognising that unemployment is part and parcel of the system and shifting the blame for poverty onto the poor. Like the Cato Institute, Malthus also advocated that assistance should primarily be done under the rubric of religious charities and philanthropic organisations in opposition to the generalisation of state support under the Poor Law (old and new) advocated both by Tories of the time and by Liberals such as Bentham who supported state provision for the poor.

In the US, the social welfare system is geared towards assisting the poor. In that sense, it differs substantially from the system created in Europe. There are clearly some general programmes in the US geared towards temporary conditions of unemployment and disability. There is also a state education system and a general pension system provided by social security (but the cap on contributions is pushing this more and more towards assistance for retired members of the working class rather than a general system).

The resort to a system of taxation (where the vast majority of money is provided as an intra-class transfer of income and not between the upper class and working class) and contributions towards provision of pensions and insurance (e.g., unemployment insurance, disability insurance) and to the state as guarantor of the social subsistence of the majority of society came about for a number of reasons. In fact, the intra-class nature of provision for the social welfare system is the first thing that differentiates it from charity (interclass based) as it is more horizontally defined; however, it is vertically administered through the state.

The impersonalisation of the social welfare state also serves the need of the bourgeois state legitimising the capitalist system and creating the illusion that it covers all. From the point of view of the ruling class, given the instability of the system resulting in economic crises, the need to limits costs of employers to ensure provision of services and pensions, state provision is incredibly useful to provide the illusion that the system covers the needs of all irrespective of access to private property and wealth. In the case of those unable to labour to obtain their subsistence, the provision of income for these people plays an important role in the system. It maintains the power of the ruling elite by keeping discontent and social disorder minimalized and as such protects the system; it provides income to ensure consumption of goods produced in the system keeping economic growth and ensuring profits are realised, and it ameliorates inequalities brought about by a system based upon private property, wealth and income inequality, where production is not based upon need but upon profitability.

This form of provision of the universal social welfare state (and even its inadequate relation in the US) has moved well beyond charity provided in earlier systems and is based not only on covering the poorest but ensuring access to services (e.g., healthcare) to ensure reproduction of the working class while not affecting substantially the reproduction of the economic system where the employer needs to provide for it. So, the notion of social subsistence (rather than assistance to the poor) is what defines the role of a universal social welfare state (as existing in Europe). In this context, social subsistence is made available to all and is not an extension of earlier forms of charity; social subsistence includes access to housing, food, transport, disability benefit (both sickness and long-term), provision of pensions, healthcare, general education, child-care, maternity benefits and extra income for those that have children.

Universality has made it far more difficult to accuse recipients as the lazy feckless poor and has forced a specific targeting on programmes that the poorest members of society receive (e.g., housing benefit, job seekers allowance, long-term disability benefits) while shifting more general benefits towards means-testing (e.g., winter fuel allowance, child benefit). This attempt in Britain to shift towards a system more similar to the US is undermining the universal nature of the social welfare state and will invariably undermine social subsistence in Britain by definition as access to services will be limited on the ability to pay and hence will not be available to all.

Where should the Left stand in the discussion?

As members of the Left, the defence of the universality of the social welfare state is important. Yes, it serves the needs of capital, but it provides an essential part of social subsistence for the working class as well. Fighting for the interests of the working class to provide both for short term assistance when invariably the capitalist system fails to provide for all and also to ensure provision of services that will not be guaranteed to be supplied to workers if privatised is essential. A cursory glance at the US health system should provide clear incentives to protect the NHS. In the case of a social welfare system (like the US) geared towards only the poor, fighting for extension of protections and making them universal is an obvious step forwards for the working class as a whole.

Additionally, we need to be helping to develop different forms of support that are more horizontally based. Socialisation of care to provide care to free women from these roles in the home could also not only provide jobs for women, but they can also ensure that this is more communal or cooperatively based. An excellent example of this would be community provision of childcare in the absence of state provision (with funds provided by the state or raised within the community). This has been attempted in Venezuela under the Chavez government. Another example concerns solidarity. Solidarity is horizontal, not vertical. It is a relationship based on equality where support, assistance and needs are being met in a shared relationship.