The national Constitution is a singular document, but it is not unique. All fifty states of the U.S. and Puerto Rico have their own constitutions, some of which -- through text or interpretation -- stake out approaches that are very different from the federal document. It is worth thinking about the alternative paths that these state documents take, and the possibilities that they raise, as we celebrate and critique the national Constitution on this Constitution Day.
This entry focuses on one area of significant difference between state and federal constitutions: their treatment of economic and social rights.
The national Constitution addresses economic and social rights prominently but with little specificity. The Preamble states that an overriding purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to “promote the general welfare,” indicating that issues such as poverty, housing, food and other economic and social welfare issues facing the citizenry were of central concern to the framers. However, the Bill of Rights has been largely construed to provide procedural mechanisms for fair adjudication of those rights rather than carving out claims on the government to ensure that individuals actually have any social and economic assets to protect. Efforts to convince courts of alternate constitutional interpretations have generally failed. The Supreme Court has ruled, for example, that while the due process clause of the 14th amendment ensures fair processes for welfare recipients, there is no underlying constitutional right to a minimum standard of living. Similarly, the Supreme Court has not found a general right to education derived from the more explicit constitutional guarantees of political participation and equal protection that might be deemed to presuppose an educational baseline.