I realize that’s it’s a sort of “back to the future” idea, but I was reading an article about Diane Ravitch’s speech to The American Association of School Administrators, and I starting thinking about the idea of the social wage, or, rather, the destruction of the social wage. The social wage, according to the dictionary of Marxist terms, is “That part of workers’ means of subsistence which is provided as a free public service rather than purchased.” (You have to scroll down the page to get to the definition.) Republican budget cuts will make us all poorer most dramatically by continuing ongoing cuts in the social wage.
That sounds more narrow than it is. In fact, it’s one of the great human achievements of the last century. The social wage can also be thought of as a kind of standard, or base-line, for material affluence. It’s what everyone deserves (our historical entitlement, what we have earned together) simply for being alive, ideally, or, more practically, because we are citizens of democracies. The social wage includes legal protections, such as work safety and child labor laws, and food safety and minimum wage and work week laws. You could also include transportation infrastructure, as well as public education and pensions.
This is a collective measure of affluence, one that should exist alongside and support individual and family wealth. The ongoing assault on public education is, of course, an assault on the democratic distribution of resources and an acceleration of the concentration of individual wealth. It’s not simply quantitative, though. Here’s Ravitch’s description of those aspects of the social wage that have to improved if we are to improve education: “access to decent medical care; exposure to the arts and physical education programs… science and… nurturing programs for children up to age 5.” It takes a village, as the cliché goes.