The New Moralists

the Rent Relief Act and talking down to the poor

Kamala Harris and three other Democratic Senators recently unveiled the Rent Relief Act, a national plan to subsidize rent beyond 30% of income in the form of a tax credit.

It’s a centrist solution to a familiar problem: the rent is high and getting higher, especially in cities, where the best jobs increasingly are. The Rent Relief Act has been catching flak from both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives object on principle to a government intervention in the free market. Leftists say the Act doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Conservatives and left-wing folks both point out that the Act would incentivize landlords to raise rent, causing many people to pay higher rents than before. Both wings agree that the Act doesn’t address the obvious root cause of high rents, a lack of affordable housing.

I’m not qualified to get into the policy details. I’ll just say it seems like a tepid response to an urgent problem, especially given that Harris represents deep-blue California and is a 2020 presidential hopeful. Any Democratic bill that can be criticized from the left by a libertarian economist writing in Forbes raises red flags.

What I want to discuss instead is the pernicious rhetoric surrounding the bill. “Every American deserves to have a roof over their head and keep the lights on if they work a full-time job,” Harris tweeted on Saturday. That if-clause means the bill has a moral dimension, one as old as US capitalism. If you want a roof over your head, if you want to avoid the social death of homelessness or imprisonment, then get a job. While the bill does not have an explicit work requirement, work is the crystal-clear subtext since the tax credit is graded by income and only kicks in above 30% of income.

The Rent Relief Act doesn’t propose to help people as such, it proposes to help workers. That’s the crucial distinction. In the video, Harris mentions the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness in the US, but only to highlight that the figure includes “thousands of people who are working full-time jobs” — as if it’s the fact that they’re employed that makes their homelessness a scandal in the richest country in human history. I’d add that the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor people in this country is often a racialized one.

As a professor of medieval literature, I’ve seen this kind of logic before, under feudalism (more accurately, the system of lordship that preceded capitalism in Europe). Medieval Europeans tended to moralize human relations. Nowhere was this tendency more in evidence than on the topic of the poor.

Reeve and serfs

On the one hand, the virtue of Christian charity enjoined the faithful to give to the poor, who were considered to live admirable, Christ-like lives. The thought of the righteous poor suffering in the streets was supposed to stand as a profound rebuke to the consciences of the rich. On the other hand, according to the ideology of three estates, the poor were understood as a divinely sanctioned labor force. When individual poor people did not fulfill that function, they excluded themselves from their community in the eyes of their social superiors — an early version of social death. Death by ideal.

A Kamala-Harris-like logic of work requirements comes through strongly in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a 14th-century English poem. Piers Plowman dreams successive re-foundations of society from scratch, searching out utopian solutions to contemporary ills. The most Rent-Relief-Act-like of these visions is one in which the title character, the quasi-Christ Piers, convenes a knight, ladies, and laborers on his half-acre of farmland.

Though the knight is willing to get down in the mud and dig ditches (this is utopia, after all), Piers lets him off the hook, assigning him the socially appropriate role of protecting the half-acre from animals and thieves. “By Saint Paul,” says Piers, “you offer yourself up so nicely / That I will work and sweat and sow crops for the both of us.” Everything is dandy until the workers decide to knock off to the bar and sing songs instead of working, a situation that Langland imagines as literally apocalyptic. Only by conjuring the allegorical figure of Hunger can Piers bring the recalcitrant workers to heel.

Langland’s visions of the deserving poor (who work) and undeserving poor (who refuse) was informed by contemporary legislation. In the wake of the Black Death of 1348, which wiped out something like a third of the population of England, a series of labor statutes sought to prevent wage increases associated with decreased supply of able-bodied peasants. These statutes are, among other things, maximum wage laws — nothing Kamala Harris would support. But they all include. . .work requirements. The statutes show a persistent concern to criminalize serfs who refuse work when it is offered to them. Unemployment is not an option, not thinkable in the ideal society projected by the statutes.

So the Senate Democrats’ big new idea to help low-income people is, in a certain rhetorical sense, reminiscent of legislation under feudalism. Bernie Sanders is no exception, by the way. He is furthest to the left among sitting US senators, and yet he too is fond of the if-clause.

In one respect, at least, Langland was more introspective than the new moralists. A low-level cleric, he included himself in his debates about work. Will, the narrator of Piers Plowman and an avatar for the author, spends much of the poem worrying that writing poetry isn’t real work, that he’s part of the very undeserving poor he’s been castigating. In one poignant sequence, Reason and Conscience grill him about why he isn’t doing a normal job, since he’s clearly neither independently wealthy nor physically disabled. This line of interrogation should sound all too familiar.

While it’s organizing and policy, not individual acts of personal humility, that can create justice in our society, I do want to end by asking whether we could take a cue from Piers Plowman and imagine a politics that foregrounds the real-world experiences of poor people— not as a political abstraction, and not insofar as those experiences are experiences of labor. Could we draft a society that accords basic dignity and social life to people, not just to workers? As various political organizations have already realized, such a project must start by making it far easier than it currently is for poverty-class people to vote and to run for political office.

Universal housing without work requirements remains outside of mainstream political discourse in the US, though it was featured in the platform of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won a surprise primary Congressional victory in the Bronx. Her opponent? Joe Crowley, who had brought forward the House version of the Rent Relief Act last year.