A Minimum Living Standard in the World’s Wealthiest Country

In the last post, I illustrated how the positive right to an education is essential to a modern economy. Most Americans do not question the right to a public education, perhaps because it has been a fact of American life for over a century. Other positive rights adopted to some extent by American society, which are unfortunately more controversial, include the right of the disabled to a dignified existence, the right to food and shelter, and the right to life-saving emergency care. Most recently, through the 2010 Affordable Care Act, we adopted in principle the right to adequate comprehensive health care.

The physically and mentally handicapped should not be left to their own devices, particularly if their families are unable or unwilling to care for them. Many such individuals simply could not survive on their own. The alternative to having government guarantee the care of the disabled is unfathomable for any moral society. Some may recall that Nazi Germany believed that persons with disabilities were hereditarily unfit for German society and targeted the disabled initially with forced sterilizations and eventually euthanasia. In an ethical society, the more privileged assist the less privileged. We are our brother’s keeper.

And further, as moral citizens, we should guarantee that those who are starving or malnourished, especially children, obtain the life-sustaining nourishment they need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2010 that 17.4 million American families were “food insecure,” meaning that during any given month, those families would run out of money for food and be forced to skip meals or seek food assistance. For many of these families, programs like food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and subsidized school lunches, are a literal lifeline. I struggle to understand how someone who values the sanctity of life can oppose programs that provide these services.

The Poverty Myth

One myth about the poor that should be obliterated once and for all is that poor people are lazy. The vast majority of poor households in the U.S. have at least one working adult. The National Center for Children in Poverty reported in 2004 that 83% of children from low-income families had at least one employed parent. A 2002 Economic Policy Institute report observed that poor working adults spend more hours working each week than their wealthier counterparts. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in 1937, “our nation, so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied men and women, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” Unfortunately many full-time jobs in the U.S. do not pay enough to ensure that a worker can maintain an adequate standard of living for his or her family. It is the lack of jobs that pay living wages, and not indolence, that accounts for the prevalence of poverty in the U.S.

There is always going to be a segment of the population with low skills and little education. Our economy needs these people to work essential low-skill jobs. Can you imagine an America without store clerks, servers at restaurants, maids at hotels, agriculture laborers, etc.? In the wealthiest country this world has ever known, this class of full-time workers should be able to have adequate food, shelter and health care. Part of the American ethos is the belief that anyone who works hard should be able to earn enough money to buy at least the bare essentials. In the reality of a free market economy, that does not always happen. So we should guarantee these things as positive rights for those whose jobs do not pay living wages; this will ensure a minimum living standard. (As an aside, I think there is room for debate on where that minimum standard should lie. I believe the goal for such assistance should be more about subsistence and revival than comfort in order to maintain an incentive for individuals to work hard and seek upward financial mobility. The social safety net should be configured in a way that incentivizes work. While there is much I admire about Europe, I view the Western European welfare state as too generous.)


  1. At what point does it become better for an individual to live on welfare versus working? If welfare is easier to do and provides an acceptable standard of living why would one want to give it up? What is the appropriate level? That is the question. Along that line why would a government be the one to decide what is best? Are we not generous as individuals to see our brother in need and provide help? I don’t want the government doing something I can do for myself.

  2. No we are not generous as individuals. Not everyone, not enough. And there need to be systems in place to get resources to those who need them. As far as who decided, I sure can’t. So we vote for people whose job it is to find the experts to do that figuring…at least I think that’s how it is supposed to work. Good article. Thank you.

  3. Aaron – One story about the Welfare Queen, the person who beats the system and is, in fact, a fraud, will garner more attention than the single mom working at Walmart, paying the rent, raising 2 kids, who happens to need a bit of our help. To be clear, I believe the fraud is the exception, but unfortunately, it gets the press.
    Minimum wage jobs at Walmart have become the target of those wanting to look at the big picture. The minimum wage is not a living wage. And Walmart is responsible for putting many mom and pop businesses out of business. Now, one might suggest that if we force a higher wage, it’s Robin Hood economics. But when you look at the ownership of Walmart stock, you see more than half is owned by the Walton family. $130Billion dollars worth.
    When my taxes go to help a vet, or a single parent, etc, I’m ok with that. But every (most?) Walmart minimum wage worker is getting benefits because of their low wage. I am subsidizing the Walton family. What’s wrong with this picture? I’m willing to see the WMT shares that might be in my 401(k) drop like a rock to let these people have a living wage.
    The system is broken. You have any better ideas?

  4. And what about the many thousands of people who want to work, want a job, but can’t find one? What do we do for them? Turn them out into the street, and say “too bad.” Why can’t gov’t be employer of last resort? Don’t we have public parks and roads that need cleaning? As long as one person who wants a job, and a life, is told “no” & forced to live in the streets and go hungry, we are not a just society. We should do better. We can do better.

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