Behind the Contract for Welfare Reform: Antecedent Themes in Welfare to Work Programs
Ono Academic College Faculty of Law
January 3, 2008
Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2008
Welfare-to-work programs throughout history and across jurisdictions exhibit similar traits, in form as well as in substance. After several decades that are now termed 'the classical age of the welfare state,' numerous Western countries have made significant changes to their welfare and employment policy. In many ways, these changes constitute a reversion to the latter days of the poor laws, based on nineteenth century economic theory that viewed the market as central in determining wages and employment. This shift may be perceived as changing the nature of the welfare state or as completely abandoning the concept of the welfare state, in favor of a different model: a contractual relationship between the state and its members, manifested in conditioning access to welfare entitlements on fulfillment of obligations. Though antecedent elements of this format have been exhibited throughout history, the dominance of this perspective, especially in a period that follows the establishment of the welfare state, is a remarkable phenomenon.
The purpose of this article is to attempt to deconstruct the reigning umbrella ideology of contemporary welfare reform. Welfare reform is often framed in reference to the concept of the (social) contract, which includes the conditioning rights on the fulfillment of obligations. I argue that the importation of contractual discourse to the welfare debate conceals certain economic and ideological agenda that should be brought to light. Even though the notion of welfare reform is now common currency in most of the industrial world, they tend to differ in their ideological emphasis, enforced through law. The relevant ideological emphasis, explored here, reveals the true character of a given program, and thus should provide the true basis for its normative analysis. Strikingly, the poor laws, which were in force throughout the English-speaking world for three and a half centuries, were justified by very similar motivations as the contemporary welfare programs in the United States. The advantage of placing the past and the present side by side arises from the fact that poor laws advanced policies that were unencumbered by legal and moral reservations that putatively restrict contemporary welfare reform. Because of the similarities between the poor laws and modern programs, the juxtaposition of past and present, therefore, grants us a unique opportunity to detach ourselves from the reigning ideologies of the twenty-first century, and to view current policies with the wisdom accrued over several centuries.
In retrospect, the poor laws are now perceived as cruel and inhumane, and their implementation tainted by arbitrariness and lack of respect for the situation of the impoverished individual. It is expected, therefore, that modern society would distance itself not only from the poor law institutions, such as the notorious workhouse, but also from the ideology and rationales by which these laws were governed. This article questions whether the stated objective of breaking clear from poor law ideology was fulfilled.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 50
Keywords: welfare to work
JEL Classification: I38, K31Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: January 4, 2012
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