Op-Ed; Opinion

Vital Minimum: Basic Income and Mexico City’s Constitution

In September 2016, Mexico City’s Chief of Government, Miguel Mancera, called for the development of a city constitution to grant formal recognition of the rights of all residents. An initial draft of the constitution included an article stating that each Mexico City resident is “entitled to a standard of living that is adequate for him or herself and their family, as well as to the continuous improvement of their living conditions,” a provision inspired by the basic income movement in Mexico (see the previous report in Basic Income News).

However, the proposal for an income guarantee was eventually dropped in the face of opposition from right and center parties. Instead, an article specifying the right to a “vital minimum” is the closest approach to a basic income to appear in the constitution ultimately ratified in February of this year.

In this Basic Income News special feature, Pablo Yanes of BIEN-Mexico describes the process by which a minimum income guarantee came to be replaced in the constitution by the idea of a “vital minimum”, and discusses how this might nonetheless be perceived as a victory for basic income supporters.

THE STRAIGHT LINE AND THE CURVED LINE:

BASIC INCOME, VITAL MINIMUM AND THE CONSTITUTION OF MEXICO CITY [1]

Pablo Yanes, BIEN-Mexico [2]

In Mexico, the discourse around basic income achieved never before seen dimensions and intensity this year due to the debates held by the Constitutional Assembly that deliberated and approved Mexico City’s Constitution.

As we will see later on, in the original proposal, the Chief of Government proposed the recognition of basic income as a right for all persons, from birth.

Finally however, after many negotiations, the universal right to a vital minimum was agreed upon as a compromise with regards to recognizing basic income. This was not the original proposal, but the phrasing contains the original intent and is close to its philosophical content. There is no doubt that this is a great step ahead in the never-straight path of politics.

Because of this, it is important to highlight that the basic income debate in Mexico now has a new status: it’s a political discussion with legislative implications. It’s a part of the discourse around different alternatives for the country’s development, which will only grow with the coming election cycle that will culminate in July of next year. In Mexico, within a very short timespan, basic income went from an idea confined to small academic and political circles, to one of the most important debates held in the Constitutional Assembly of one of the most relevant cities on the American continent.

A non-minimalist vital minimum

Thoughts on basic income, citizen income or a right to a vital minimum have been present at the heart of the Supreme Court of the Nation, which, in 2007, published a judicial thesis whose reading could help illuminate much of the ongoing debate. Due to its relevance I quote it extensively:

“The Constitutional right to a vital minimum is fully in force from the systemic interpretation of the fundamental rights enshrined in the General Constitution […]. A  principle of underpinning for a Democratic State of Law is one that requires individuals to have, as a starting point, conditions such that they are allowed to lead a fully autonomous life plan, such that those who are governed can fully participate in democratic life. In this way, the enjoyment of a vital minimum is a principle of underpinning without which the central coordinates of our Constitutional order lack meaning, insofar as the intersection between the Powers of State and the trappings of rights and fundamental freedoms consist of the determination  for dignified and autonomous subsistence, protected by the Constitution. This parameter constitutes the content of the right to a vital minimum, which coincides with the competencies, basic conditions and social benefits needed so that a person can lead a life free from the fears and burdens of misery, such that the aim of the right to a vital minimum encompasses all of the positive or negative measures that are indispensable in order to stop a person from being unconstitutionally reduced in his or her intrinsic value as a human being, because of a lack of material conditions needed for dignified existence. Thus this right seeks to guarantee that the person – the center of judicial ordering –  does not become an instrument for other ends, objectives, purposes, goods or interests, no matter how important or valuable these are”. [3]

Even if a vital minimum and basic income are not the same thing, it can be deduced that a guaranteed basic income is a fundamental tool for enjoying a vital minimum alongside universal access to other rights and decommodified services such as health care, education and diverse social protection mechanisms. Basic income fits perfectly into a definition of a vital minimum that calls for a guaranteed basic income and access to different public services and goods to achieve maximum possible well-being.

Daring, voting and negotiating

Because of this, the inclusion of basic income as a right in the Mexico City Constitution Project is hugely important, as it attunes the proposal to the fundamental contents of the Human Rights reform in Mexico in 2011 and with the emerging international debates in anticipation of the challenges of the 21st century.

In it’s original proposal, the draft of the Constitution of Mexico City read as follows:

“Every person has a right to a standard of living that is adequate for them and their family, as well as a continued improvement of existence conditions. The right to a basic income is guaranteed, with priority for people in situations of poverty and those that cannot fulfill their material needs by their own means, as well as priority attention groups. In order to access basic income, this will defer to the common dispositions in this article.”

This wording generated intense debate, one of the most intense ones in the Constitutional Assembly, due to the opposition of certain political forces to the recognition of the right to basic income derived from the condition of being a person or from citizenship. The arguments for financial unsustainability and for the undesirability of the program due to possible political manipulation (thinking of it as a program and not a right) as well as the possible counter-incentives to work and personal effort were repeated. Nothing new.

It’s noteworthy that, in the original wording, this article not only recognized basic income as a right for all people, as well as including the principle of an adequate standard of living and the constant improvement of living conditions, but also included an operational element that watered down the strength of the recognition of the right by mentioning priorities (non-exclusivity) in its implementation regarding impoverished people and those lacking their own means.

These limitations notwithstanding, the recognition of basic income as a right was submitted to a vote by the Assembly and obtained 57% of the vote, a clear majority, but not the 66% majority required by the Assembly rules. This led to a round of negotiations just as or even more intense than the original debates.

Several alternatives were proposed by the different committees in the search for new wording. Fox example: “Art. 14: Every person has a right to a basic income.” and “Art. 22: Basic income will serve as a mechanism that will, progressively, guarantee access to a minimum basis of well-being, beginning with people in situations of poverty and vulnerability.”

This was not accepted because it mentioned income. Another proposal was made.

“3. Every person shall have the right to a minimum subsistence income that will cover the various dimensions of socio-economic well-being and contribute to a free and dignified existence. The authorities will progressively ensure its fulfillment.”

However, this was not accepted because it mentioned a minimum income for every person (universal).

A variant of this last proposal was created after some more negotiations:

“Every person, from birth, will enjoy the right to a subsistence minimum that covers the various dimensions of well-being and covers their basic human need. The authorities will progressively guarantee its fulfillment.”

This also was not accepted because of the mention of the various dimensions of well-being, in particular as a right for every person since birth.

Finally, after several long days and before the risk of not reaching a two thirds majority, the following wording was agreed upon:

“Article 9. Dignified Life

  1. Every person is entitled to a vital minimum to ensure a dignified life by the terms of this Constitution.

(Article 17) The mechanisms to make the right to a vital minimum, giving priority to people in a situation of poverty, which will be established according to the criteria of progressiveness, with the indicators determined by the appropriate federal Constitutional organism and the measurable goals established by the corresponding local organism.”

The debate on basic income in Mexico City’s Constitution coincides with both the Senate of the Republic and Congress having proposals for a Constitutional reform recognizing basic income as a right on a national level, introduced by Senator Luis Sánchez and Congresswomen Araceli Damián and Xóchitl Hernández.

That another state in the Republic, Jalisco, also introduced the concept of vital minimum as a guiding axis of its planning is also relevant, even if its relationship to basic income as a right is less clear than in the case of Mexico City. In any case, it is relevant and even older than the Mexico City case.

The Constitution for the State of Jalisco reads:

“Article 4. The human rights recognized for the people within the territory of the State of Jalisco are those in the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States as well as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emitted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in the American Convention on Human Rights, […] and in the treaties, conventions and international accord that the Federal Government has signed or that is otherwise a part of, attendant to the principle of a vital minimum as an axis for democratic planning via which the State must create the conditions  so that every person can fulfill his or her life plan.”

Two steps forward, but one step back?

The discussion around basic income in the Mexico City Constitution was resolved, likely provisionally, by recognizing the right to a vital minimum.

This contains several positives which cannot be underestimated:

  1. The vital minimum was recognized as a right and basic income was left as an underlying part of this.
  2. This recognition was based on the Supreme Court’s definition, which is not a minimalist one. On the contrary, it’s a bet on satisfying the material conditions that make a person’s independence and autonomy possible.
  3. It was established as a universal right (all people). Even if priorities are mentioned, it was never proposed as a mechanism only for poor people, or that it would be means-tested.
  4. It was framed within the guarantee of a dignified life and not a program for combating poverty, even if it is a powerful tool for the eradication of income poverty.

These are all highly meaningful advancements beyond a doubt. On the other hand, some limitations or risks remain, such as:

  1. The original proposal mentioned basic income as a right; this was not included in the final wording.
  2. Basic Income can be argued for within the vital minimum, but it can also become diluted within it.
  3. Normative definitions were mixed with operational criteria, which leads to lingering ambiguity regarding the vital minimum as a universal emancipation tool or as a measure for groups in a situation of poverty or social disadvantage.
  4. Potential legal competency or conceptualization conflicts are introduced by mentioning the utilization of criteria from the appropriate federal organism (CONEVAL) and the local organism (The Planning Institute and Autonomous Evaluation Council for the City) for determining measurable goals and indicators.

I would like to stress that it is feasible for this to be a preliminary wording, as the City’s Congress will begin working next year and will not be bound by the compositional rules or the interplay of forces present in the Constitutional Assembly.  Consequently, new debates and modifications that are closer to the original project cannot be ruled out.

A balance of the content of the articles addressing the vital minimum in the Mexico City Constitution published on February 5th 2017 allows us to state that there is significant progress that will have to be landed later in the definition of the secondary legislation and the formulation of policies, without ruling out new debates and reforms for the Constitutional text itself.

Additionally, it must be remembered that Mexico City has been an entity that is advanced in the recognition of new rights (with strong repercussions at a national level) and that these rights have also gone through intermediate stages.

Here are some examples:

Today, the legal termination of a pregnancy is a reality in Mexico City.  However, in order to reach this state, an intermediate step had to be taken in 2000 with a partial reform of the penal code, which was limited to increasing valid reasons for terminating a pregnancy.

Today, the right to equal same sex marriage is fully recognized in Mexico City, including the capacity to adopt, but the intermediate step of civil partnerships (Sociedades de Convivencia) first had to be established in a legal reform in 2006.

And today, the Mexico City Constitution recognizes a vital minimum as a right for all people. It’s convenient to ask ourselves if the recognition of this right is an intermediate step towards the fully recognition of basic income as a universal right in Mexico City.

Even beyond this, the inclusion of basic income as a right proposal in the Constitutional project for Mexico City and the recognition of the right to a vital minimum constitute a relevant step ahead in the discussions regarding social policy, human rights and the social state in the 21st century.

It is a debate that has reached the legislative sphere and is here to stay, both in Mexico and many other parts of the world. What could have seemed a wild idea a few years ago is now treated respectfully and considered a rational, reasoned proposal that has to be debated and talked about.

This is a welcome debate and one that we must congratulate ourselves on. It’s a debate that is just beginning and that will intensify in the foreseeable future with the same speed with which changes and challenges replace each other in this vertiginous time of doubt and hope.

[1] This article is based on a presentation written for the 17 BIEN Congress.

[2] Research Coordinator for the subregional ECLAC headquarters in Mexico. The opinions expressed within may not be those of the United Nations System.

[3] SCJN. Tipo de Tesis: Aislada. Fuente: Semanario Judicial de la Federación y su Gaceta. Tomo XXV, Mayo de 2007. Tesis: 1a. XCVII/2007.Página: 793

 

Kate McFarland also contributed to this report.

Heidi Karow, copy-editor.

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