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Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum

  • 29 Jun 2017
  • 30 Jun 2017
  • Oñati

Workshop at the IISJ.

Coordinators: Michael Adler. University of Edinburgh

Jeff King. University College London

Sara Stendahl. University of Gothenburg

The aim of this workshop is to bring together a group of social scientists and lawyers who are committed to ensuring that poor and vulnerable people achieve basic minimum standards of nutrition, health care, housing, income, employment etc., and to consider two controversial sets of questions that divide the academic and policy communities. The first set of questions, which are concerned with specifying the social minimum, include: (i) what set of minimum standards should be protected, (ii) what level of protection should be given to them and (iii) how can people’s circumstances in relation to these standards be measured; while the second set, which are concerned with securing the social minimum, focus on what instruments, e.g. national policies, international conventions, targets and development goals, on the one hand, and bills of rights or other forms of constitutional protection, on the other, or what combination of instruments, is most likely to be effective. The first set of questions are the domain of social philosophers and empirical social researchers with backgrounds and training in economics, social policy and sociology while the second set are the preserve of public lawyers and policy specialists. Unfortunately, there is little contact between experts from these separate academic communities.

In this workshop, experts from these two communities will be brought together in the expectation that they will learn from each other and that the cross-fertilisation of ideas will lead to a new synthesis. In addition to academics, the participants will include practitioners and policy-makers, e.g. from the ILO and the UN. This is because we think it will be helpful to include people with practical experience of these problems as well as people who spend their time thinking about them. After the workshop, the coordinators plan to produce an edited book based on the papers presented at the workshop.

The relevance of securing a social minimum for relatively poor countries is obvious. There may simply be too few resources to ensure that everyone has enough to eat or a roof over their head or that all children receive an education. As a result, malnutrition, low life expectancy, homelessness ‒ especially in cities where people come to look for work ‒ and illiteracy are endemic. Yet, even in these countries, large inequalities in the distribution of income, wealth and access to resources often mean that a small minority lead comfortable lives while the large majority are destitute. The key question here is what combination of national policies, international conventions or targets, and development goals on the one hand, and bills of rights or other forms of constitutional protection on the other, is most likely to make a difference and to ensure that everyone achieves a social minimum.

However, it is important to point out that securing a social minimum is also relevant for relatively rich countries. There are a number of reasons for this. Rich countries often include significant numbers of poor people and the extent of inequality in many rich countries is increasing. Rich countries may also include minorities, e.g. Roma, who experience various forms of discrimination and are cut off from the social mainstream. In an era of mass migration, illegal migrants may be unable to claim social support while asylum seekers may, as a matter of policy, be prevented from working and provided with inferior, and inadequate, social benefits or with no support at all. Rich countries may also pursue policies, such as conditionality in social security, which penalise those who are in receipt of benefits and who, for whatever reason, fail to meet the behavioral requirements that are expected of them and, consequently, have their benefit reduced to a level beneath the social minimum or terminated altogether.

Policies such as these have led to a significant increase in the number of people living on very low incomes, to the proliferation of food banks and second-hand clothing shops, and to significant increases in the number of rough sleepers and in the amount of street begging in many wealthy societies. Such developments support the case for placing limits on the ability of governments and legislatures to reduce the social rights of poor and vulnerable people for whom they have a responsibility.

The workshop will comprise a total of ten sessions and could include about 20 papers. The papers on the first day of the workshop will deal with what constitutes a social minimum while those on the second day will deal with how best to secure a social minimum.

An attempt will be made to ensure that as many as possible of these questions are addressed. Participants will be asked to submit papers in advance and to prepare a two-page summary of their main arguments and all the other particpants will be expected to have read this. The papers and the summaries will be available on the Edinburgh University Global Justice Academy’s website, which can be accessed at: http://www.globaljusticeacademy.ed.ac.uk/ Papers will not actually be delivered at the workshop; rather, each paper will be assigned a respondent, who will draw attention to salient points that would benefit from discussion. During the session, the author will be given an opportunity to respond to the points that have been made. The intention is to give everyone the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the main arguments in the paper before the workshop and to maximise the time for discussion. The authors of papers that are selected for inclusion in the edited book that the coordinators plan to put together will have a further opportunity to revise them after the workshop, in light of comments made by the editors and the other participants.

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