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The Public Assistance Policies of Cities and the Justice Concerns of Elected Officials: The Centrality of the Floors Principle in Addressing Urban Poverty


  • Paul Schumaker,

  • Marisa J. Kelly


City councils are significant, though seldom central, actors in local policy networks providing public assistance to disadvantaged residents. Mayors and council members in 12 American cities more often support than oppose public assistance initiatives. They claim that their own normative judgments are more important to their preferences and voting behavior on such matters than are public opinion, group demands, or economic considerations. While such elected officials hold a variety of justice principles, the most important of these affecting their positions on public assistance issues is the “floors” principle. A broad ethical commitment to providing social minimums enhances support for living-wage ordinances, for linking subsidies for economic development to assistance to less advantaged citizens, and for exempting spending on social services from budget cuts. We discuss the implications of these findings for major theories of urban politics and policies—collective-action theory, regime theory, and pluralism—and for advocates on behalf of the urban poor.