France Is Setting a Powerful Example for How to Treat the Poorest Citizens
France, a nation famous for its strenuous efforts to protect the leisure time of its workers, is now on its way to passing an expansive law to protect its poor.
According to the Guardian, which cites a paywalled Times of London report, France is "set to adopt" legislation that would make it illegal to "insult the poor" or to discriminate against them in employment, health care or housing. If someone is found guilty of discrimination against the poor under the proposed law, they could be punished with up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros, or around $49,700.
The bill has passed the senate and is reportedly likely to pass the lower house in a matter of months.
The law is meant to protect the poor from being denied services because of their economic status, a practice that is common in France. For example, one study cited by the Times showed that 9% of general practitioners and nearly a third of dentists and opticians in Paris refused to treat patients without private health insurance out of fear they would not be compensated for their services.
Could this happen in the U.S.? The U.S. would likely never adopt a similar law. Making it illegal to insult the poor would be a clear violation of the First Amendment, and in the current political and legal climate it's doubtful that Congress would entertain adding socioeconomic status as a category eligible for special treatment under anti-discrimination laws. The poor in the U.S. do have some legal protections, such as the right to free legal counsel, but federal law offers little in the way of extending positive rights, such as guaranteeing a right to housing.
This is not for lack of need. American society is brimming with all kinds of discrimination against the poor. To name a few: Several states require welfare recipients to take drug tests before receiving benefits, despite the absence of compelling evidence that welfare recipients use drugs at higher rates than the general population. Employers can legally use credit checks to turn away qualified job applicants. Landlords can employ a variety of methods to make renting an apartment virtually impossible for low-income applicants. A stunning percentage of doctors still refuse to see poor Medicaid patients.
Today there's a remarkably vibrant progressive subculture that celebrates the diversity of identities that make up the American melting pot and swiftly condemns any prejudice against them. Gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability status are front and center in their spirited advocacy for the people who are marginalized based on those characteristics.
But class is a glaring absence in this conversation. The poor are rarely pointed out as a category of identity that merits sustained attention and protection. If they were, perhaps France's attempt to better their lot wouldn't look so far-fetched. Most Americans would have little interest in abridging freedom of speech when it comes to discriminating against the poor, but many could be open to improving routes for the poor to get a job and have a decent roof over their heads.