Working Poor

In Capital, Marx suggests that labour-power, like all other commodities, has a value determined by the socially necessary labour-time required for its production and reproduction. Yet labour-power is a peculiar kind of commodity, which is inseparable from the living person who bears it, and so “the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner” (1867 [1976], 274). Such maintenance goes beyond mere subsistence: if a worker receives only the value of their “physically indispensable means of subsistence” then the price of labour-power “falls below its value”, and “can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state” (1867 [1976], 277). Moreover, it is one of Capital’s key insights that capitalist exploitation does not, in general, rely on paying less than labour’s value. Rather, labour-power is bought at value, in a “very Eden of the rights of man”, (1867 [1976], 280) and it is only when it is put to work that exploitation begins.

What, then, are we to make of the existence of a substantial group of people who sell their labour-power, yet do not receive from it sufficient means to maintain and reproduce themselves and their families? This is the group labelled by the term Working Poor, an old concept, but one that has made a dramatic return to public discourse in recent years. Broadly defined, it refers to those classified as in work but falling below the poverty-line. More specifically, in the European Union it refers to those living in households with at least one person in work but who earn less than 60% of the national median wage. In the UK, a 2017 report by Cardiff University academics suggested 60% of those in poverty were in work (Hick & Lanau, 2017), while a Manchester charity recently established a hostel specifically for the working homeless. While the British government insists that work is the best way out of poverty, tacitly denying that working poverty is even possible, its critics identify the working poor as a particularly urgent and egregious pathology.

What could Marx say about this group’s existence and the contemporary fixation on it? It is tempting to say: ‘not much’. If it is possible for labour to be sold at less than its value, even less than the basic subsistence which he describes as its minimum limit, then perhaps this shows the paucity of his approach. Indeed, the assumption that the value of labour-power is a fixed constant, a “known datum”, is part of what Michael Lebowitz (2003) calls the one-sidedness of Capital, a simplification that should (and perhaps would) have been abandoned in an adequate study of wage-labour. Yet, as Lebowitz insists, this one-sidedness does not mean that Marxism is completely blind to such questions. Crucially, Marx’s emphasis is on the social determination of the value of labour-power, that it “contains a historical and moral element” depending “on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which the class of free workers has been formed” (1867 [1976], 275). Such habits and expectations are not static, and, Lebowitz argues, cannot be easily held in check. Capitalism creates a world of new needs and desires in workers, which can only be met through demanding, and struggling for, higher wages. As Tithi Bhattacharya puts it (2017, 82), the worker is “always-already produced as lacking in what she needs.” In this sense, all workers under capitalism are poor, or at least poorer than they believe they should be, and could be.

This should not, though, distract from the specific phenomenon of those for whom wages fall to, or even below, a basic minimum, but a focus on the reproduction of labour-power might help here too. The report cited above made three substantive recommendations for addressing working poverty: tackling high rents, reversing cuts to in-work benefits, and improving the availability of free or affordable childcare to enable more than one parent to work. The third of these is particularly striking, since it points directly to the contradictions Nancy Fraser (2017) has identified in the latest manifestation of capitalist production’s tendency towards crises of reproduction. Capitalist production, she argues (2017, 24), both depends on, and systematically undermines, the reproduction of labour-power, which it approaches with a relation of “separation-cum-dependence-cum-disavowal”. In the contemporary period, social reproduction has been “commodified for those who can pay for it and privatised for those who cannot” while the ideal of the “family wage” has given way to that of the “two-earner family”. In recognising that this ideal is only sustainable in the context of subsidised or cheaply available childcare, the report acknowledges that this is merely deferring a deeper crisis, not merely of care, but of social reproduction. The working poor, then, are one symptom of this crisis, and public concern about them a hazy recognition of it.

Fraser’s work is part of a series of sustained attempts to renew and extend Marxism through a focus on social reproduction. In placing at the centre of analysis the question of how labour-power is reproduced, it allows for a rethinking of central questions of labour, class, and class struggle. First, understanding class struggle as involving first and foremost the struggle of workers to survive and reproduce themselves allows for a recognition that class struggle does not happen merely over wages. Access to healthcare, housing, and social benefits – precisely the things that make the working poor poor – are also significant arenas of struggle. Second, highlighting the importance of reproductive labour shines light on kinds of work that are not directly waged, and thus not officially recognised as such. This might also undermine one of the faulty premises of discussions of the working poor – that there is such a thing as a non-working poor.

A focus on struggle also reveals another important element in forming the working poor. The Cardiff report does not recommend, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strengthening of working-class organisation, consciousness, and solidarity as a solution. Yet if the value of labour is in part determined by the habits and expectations of a working class, then the working poor’s existence must also be seen in the context of defeats and decline that have lowered these expectations. In this sense, the notion of greater numbers of people falling below a poverty-line seems double-edged. On the one hand, it suggests a high watermark which more and more struggle to reach, an acceptance that there is a line beneath which people should not expect to live, but nonetheless do. On the other hand, that we can still see it might suggest horizons have not yet fallen so far. And such horizons can be expanded.