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Something for Nothing: Liberal Justice and Welfare Work Requirements

Amy L. Wax

University of Pennsylvania Law School

March 2002

U of Penn Law & Economics Research Paper No. 02-11

Welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, makes entitlement to federal poor relief conditional on fulfilling work requirements. The article addresses the following timely question: whether just liberal societies should require work as a condition of public assistance for the able-bodied, or whether aid should be provided unconditionally through, for example, a basic guaranteed income for all.

Drawing on the work of liberal egalitarian theorists, the article investigates whether standard liberal theories of justice can help make sense of arguments commonly voiced in favor of work requirements: that unconditional welfare guarantees, such as a universal basic income, "exploit" workers, license "free riding," and violate basic principles of social reciprocity.

The article concludes that the view that unconditional benefits are "unfair" or exploitative is difficult to derive from liberal notions of just societies. Liberal egalitarians start from a baseline of equal initial shares of resources, skepticism about desert and market allocations, and an obligation to hold persons harmless for unlucky outcomes and endowments that does not clearly yield a bedrock obligation to work for a living.

Drawing on an evolutionary analysis, the article concludes that any tension between liberal theories and politically popular notions of fairness are due to the failure of political theory to capture dynamic historical conditions that gave rise to basic norms against shirking. The logic of evolutionary development is fundamentally at odds with the static, contractarian thought experiments that liberal theorists favor. The article speculates on the implications of this explanation for the divergence between principles derived from rational analysis and the realities of political psychology.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 91

Keywords: welfare economics, welfare reform, welfare work requirements, unconditional benefits, liberal justice, liberal egalitarian theory

JEL Classification: I3

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Date posted: July 8, 2002  

Suggested Citation

Wax, Amy L., Something for Nothing: Liberal Justice and Welfare Work Requirements (March 2002). U of Penn Law & Economics Research Paper No. 02-11. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=316579 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.316579

Contact Information

Amy L. Wax (Contact Author)
University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )
3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-5638 (Phone)
215-573-2025 (Fax)
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