Subsistence Level

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Subsistence Level


a socioeconomic category referring to the minimal means of subsistence physically necessary to maintain the life activity of the working people and reproduce their labor power.

Under capitalism, the subsistence level is directly linked with the value of labor power, which is a commodity. In analyzing the value of labor power, K. Marx emphasized that its lowest limits are regulated by certain objective factors, which make it necessary to provide the worker with a minimum of the means of subsistence. Anything less than this minimal level would make the reproduction of labor power impossible. Marx observed: “The minimum value of labor power is determined by the value of the commodities, without the daily supply of which the laborer cannot renew his vital energy, and consequently, by the value of those means of subsistence that are physically indispensable. If the price of labor power falls to this minimum, it falls below its value, since under such circumstances it [labor power] can be maintained and developed only in a crippled state” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 23, pp. 183–84). In Wages, Price, and Profit, Marx wrote: “The value of labor power is formed by two elements: the one merely physical, the other historical or social. Its ultimate limit is determined by the physical element; that is to say, to maintain and reproduce itself, to perpetuate its physical existence, the working class must receive the necessaries absolutely indispensable for living and multiplying” (ibid., vol. 16, p. 150).

As a result of the operation of the fundamental economic law of capitalism and other objective laws, in bourgeois society wages have a tendency to fall to the level that guarantees only the subsistence level. However, this trend is counteracted by objective and subjective factors associated with technological progress and the struggle of the working class. Consequently, the working people win increases in their nominal wages, but these increases are often completely swallowed up by the rising cost of living and by inflation (see). On the whole, wages are not sufficient to satisfy all the historically shaped needs of the working people, which grow (increase) objectively as society develops, especially under the conditions of the modern scientific and technological revolution (seeINCREASING REQUIREMENTS, LAW OF).

In each capitalist country, various government departments and scientific organizations calculate standard consumption budgets for families of a certain size, including subsistence budgets (seeBUDGET SURVEY). In 1972 the results of research on the social composition of the population were published in the USA. The research was conducted jointly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and several American universities and private research organizations. In the USA the “poverty level” (that is, the subsistence level) is defined as an annual family income of $3,700. Based on this definition, the official American statistical bureau and research groups at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan calculated that in 1970, 13.3 percent of the US population fell below the poverty level (21.2 million inhabitants, or 25.6 million, according to later estimates).

In socialist society the category of the subsistence level, as the value of the means of subsistence physically necessary for the workers’ survival, cannot serve as the criterion even for the minimal level of a person’s material well-being. Under socialism, the rate of increase in the standard of living is determined by the existing productive forces and by the necessity for the comprehensive development of every member of society.

Guaranteeing the subsistence level for all the working people in the USSR was one of the most important tasks during the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, especially during the early years of Soviet power. For example, Article 58 of the 1918 Code of Labor Laws states: “The amount of remuneration determined by the statute on wage scales cannot in any case be less than the subsistence level established by the People’s Commissariat for Labor for the population of each locality of the RSFSR.” In a socialist society with an adequate material and technical basis, the minimal limits for supporting and reproducing the vital activity of the working people are substantially raised, and they characterize the standard of living required for the normal reproduction of labor power and for the development of the individual.


Strumilin, S. G. Problemy ekonomiki truda. Moscow, 1957.
Aganbegian, A. G., and V. F. Maier. Zarabotnaia plata v SSSR. (Nekotorye voprosy teorii i praktiki). Moscow, 1959.
Sarkisian, G. S., and N. P. Kuznetsova. Potrebnosti i sem’i. Moscow, 1967.


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