Charles Reich’s visionary 1964 article, The New Property, paved the way for a revolution in procedural due process. It did not, however, accomplish Reich’s primary stated goal: providing those dependent on government assistance the same security that property rights long have offered owners of real property.
As Reich himself predicted, procedural rights have proven largely ineffectual, especially for low-income people. In the half-century since he wrote, growing wealth inequality and repeated cutbacks in antipoverty programs have produced the pervasive disempowerment he predicted, but concentrated in one segment of society. This is incompatible with a healthy democracy.
Reich found that government largesse had become functionally equivalent to more traditional forms of property. Other analogies to property concepts can also protect low-income people, supporting recognition of the most important assets low-income people have, many of which are relational rather than tangible.
Like long-time trespassers obtaining ownership rights through adverse possession, families that have long lived together in this country should be able to continue doing so despite the unlawful immigration status of some of their members. The law should value the communities that offer mutual support to low income people in much the same way as it does common interest communities. Principles of equity that long shielded less sophisticated people against sharp operators should be revived to protect low-income people’s homes against abusive foreclosures. And modern Takings Clause doctrine should recognize subsistence government benefits as property.
A regime of property law that secures that which is most essential to the well-being of a broad swath of society, rather than just those items disproportionately held by the wealthy, will best promote social, economic, and political participation by all people.