SCOTUS demands national minimum income

Where the magic happens

The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions. Base limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee while aggregate limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees.

In the 2011–2012 election cycle, appellant Mason contributed to 1  federal candidate, complying with the base limits applicable to that candidate. She alleges that poverty induced by a low minimum wage and lack of minimum income prevented her from contributing to 12 additional candidates and to a number of noncandidate political committees. She also alleges that she wishes to make similar contributions in the future, all within the base limits.  The District Court denied her motion for a preliminary injunction and granted the Government’s motion to dismiss.

Held: The judgement is reversed, and the Supreme Court hereby calls for the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income sufficient to allow unlimited political speech by all US citizens.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, joined by JUSTICE SCALIA, JUSTICE KENNEDY, and JUSTICE ALITO, concluded that the minimum wage and lack of minimum income are invalid under the First Amendment.

(a) Significant First Amendment interests are implicated here. Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political ex- pression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a “modest restraint” on those rights. The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse. In its simplest terms, the high incidence of poverty caused by increasing income inequality and falling inflation-adjusted wages prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of as many candidates as she chooses, even if all contributions fall within the base limits. And it is no response to say that the individual can simply contribute less than the base limits permit: To require one person to contribute at lower levels because she has a low income is to penalize that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” her First Amendment rights. Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U. S. 724, 739.

In assessing the First Amendment interests at stake, the proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as useful to the democratic process. The interest of large businesses and the wealthy in reducing their tax burden, holding the minimum wage to a poverty level, and refusing to pass a guaranteed minimum income is in clear conflict with poor citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Money given to the poor may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech supported by a guaranteed minimum income despite popular opposition.

[Thanks to the justices for the original text.]


The poor are different from you and me…

Ugh, Charles Murray again? This week US bloggers and news commentators are rehashing Ye Olde Culture of Poverty argument. The basic idea is this:

1] Cursory observation reveals that poor people live differently than non-poor people.

2] These differences appear to have increased during the same decades poverty has increased.

3] THEREFORE poverty results from the different ways poor people live, that is, “culture.” (You know, correlation proves causation!)

4] Conclusion: If only poor people lived more like “us”! If they stopped using drugs, got jobs, got married, had fewer kids “out of wedlock”! (Note the implied audience for these musings is almost always generically middle-class, white, traditionalist.)

In the linked op-ed, Kristof notes that he has some objections to Murray’s argument, but thinks the new Murray book is raising some good points:

But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.

But is he, really? Highlighting the social dimensions, in Murray’s case, isn’t a matter of pointing out the social impacts of poverty in the US today. It’s a normative argument, blaming poverty on individual choices and behavioral patterns, and has the effect of reinforcing a very traditionalist set of values. Here’s Kristof:

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

AH, there we go! We can solve the problem of crime by marrying troubled young men off to women who can then take responsibility for them as wife-cum-parent-cum-parole officer. A thoughtful critic might wonder why Kristof wants to push marriage instead of prison reform and ending the War on Drugs. He tosses a sop to the standard liberal solutions to close his essay, but only after he’s reinforced the notion that there’s something different, something pathological, about the way poor people live.

I could note in response that drug use is widespread among all economic strata–but some end up in rehab while others go to prison. That unemployment has much more to do with the health and restructuring of the economy than with marriage status. That cohabitation and non-marital childbearing have gone up among highly educated people as well. (Weirdly, I hardly ever see op-eds about how we should blame cohabitation and relaxed attitudes toward pre-marital sex for the increase in women earning doctorates, even though the correlation exists!) Does it really make any sense to attribute poverty to cultural shifts that have happened across much of US society, not just among the poor? What useful perspective do we actually gain by “highlighting the social dimensions” of poverty?

I could go further, emphasizing that nearly all of us use some chemical compounds to alter our mood, health, and consciousness–from caffeine to meth, pot to Xanax–but that some of us have access to safer or more socially-approved drugs, some have greater susceptibility to addiction, and so on. I could ask what results when we begin viewing marriage as a legitimate sphere for government management, what the effects might be if we make a higher rate of marriage an explicit goal of government policy. What would it mean for young women’s own hopes and dreams for us to hold them responsible for “civilizing” young men, and what does it say about us, that we believe young men need to be “civilized”?

My own conclusion is simply that articles and books like these are looking for the wrong kinds of solutions in the wrong kinds of places. To adapt the apocryphal Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange: The poor are different from you and me. They have less money.

P.S. When will the professional classes learn that hard drug use leads to… the Hamptons!?

Four years ago, I was like any other young professional I knew: I worked hard at my job, then went out with friends on the weekends for dinner and cocktails. At 32, I’d tried drugs only once or twice, when someone at a party passed them around and I was feeling crazy. Then I met a woman I’ll call Jane. She had a cushy job and a ton of “society” friends, and went to all the best parties. The first night we hung out, Jane brought out some coke, and since everyone was doing it, I did too. […] soon, the two of us were inseparable. We even shared a beach house that summer in the Hamptons. (

Not to make light of this woman’s experience, but rather to note the difference class can make. [Edit: I include this story as a counterpoint to the ‘drugs ruin lives’ narrative often used in media about the poor. I can’t say much about its veracity, given the source.]

Are we back to the “culture of poverty” again?

Poverty is ruining children’s brains.

At least that’s the implication of Jonathan Cohn’s article, which is meant as a summary of the implications of neuroscience for developing anti-poverty social policies. Weirdly, though, he’s never totally clear about what “poverty” means, which leads him to conflate a host of radically different problems in a way that pathologizes poverty.

The article starts with a striking example of neglect: state-run orphanages in Romania.

It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support […]But ten years later, the new government […] was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction.

Unsurprisingly, many of these children suffer from severe cognitive and emotional problems. Research conducted on the children has suggested this extreme form of neglect even shows up at the sub-cellular level, very likely hampering brain development in early childhood. It is truly a tragic situation.

But this is where the article gets weird.

Cohn’s discussion shifts immediately from Romanian orphans into…

APPROXIMATELY SEVEN MILLION American infants, toddlers, and preschoolers get care from somebody other than a relative, whether through organized day care centers or more informal arrangements […]And much of that care is not very good.

Huh. I knew that the day care situation in the US wasn’t great. But I didn’t realize it was quite on the scale of a post-socialist Romanian orphanage. Good lord. But then…

Of course, children in substandard day care are not the only children at risk in the United States. There are also hundreds of thousands of babies born each year to American teenagers, about 60 percent of them poor. The vast majority of teen mothers are unmarried when they give birth, and frequently lack either family support or the financial resources to find capable outside help.

Ok, hold up. Let’s make a little equation to clarify the connections Cohn is making here.

Romanian orphanage = US non-relative caregivers = “not very good” day care = poor unmarried teenage mother

The next sentence makes it clear:

Then there are the children who begin their lives in traumatic circumstances for other reasons—because they have a parent with clinical depression, or they witness violence in the home. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, being born to an unmarried teen is a “trauma” akin to that of witnessing domestic violence or growing up in a Romanian orphanage. And that’s what I mean by “pathologizing poverty.”

Now, I don’t mean to deride Cohn for tackling poverty and its social effects. The article’s basic conclusion—that it would be worthwhile to fund more social support services for poor families—isn’t a terrible idea.

But there are a few too many gaps between the research cited and the proposed target population of these policies—and the implication that poor mothers under the age of 20 are traumatizing their children is a dangerous kind of exaggeration.

Furthermore, placing this under the umbrella of “problems caused by poverty” and treating those problems as primarily issues of ignorance, to be solved by counseling by experts, means we’re not looking for connections to broader social problems.

It’s great to offer counseling and training to help new mothers (those who want to and are able!) learn how to breastfeed. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make room in public and in the workplace for breastfeeding mothers.

Helping new parents develop strategies for childcare and managing their own stress is fantastic. But child abuse isn’t only committed by poor parents.

And to suggest that the “cycle of poverty” is has something to do with early childhood brain development is intriguing. But in the midst of a major recession, and after decades of income stagnation and even decline for the middle and lower classes, isn’t that a tiny bit myopic?