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Social Welfare, Human Dignity, and the Puzzle of What We Owe Each Other

Amy L. Wax

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Forthcoming

Proponents of work-based welfare reform claim that moving the poor from welfare to work will advance the goals of economic self-reliance and independence. Reform opponents attack these objectives as ideologically motivated and conceptually incoherent. Drawing on perspectives developed by luck egalitarians and feminist theorists, these critics disparage conventional notions of economic desert, find fault with market measures of value, debunk ideals of autonomy, and emphasize the pervasiveness of interdependence and unearned benefits within free market societies.

These arguments pose an important challenge to justifications usually advanced for work-based welfare reform. Reform proponents must concede that no member of society can hope to achieve complete personal and economic independence from others. Rather, self-reliance and dependency are always a matter of kind and degree. These states must be understood as having a "social meaning" that does not rest on conceptually pure absolutes, but rather on the fulfillment of normative expectations regarding conduct and participation in social and economic life. Within this framework, the fact that self-reliance can never be complete does not undermine its worth or importance as a goal. That dependency is sometimes unavoidable or even desirable does not mean that it should be indulged or accepted in all cases.

How might welfare reform advocates construct more effective arguments for minimizing dependency and fostering self-sufficiency among the poor? One approach would look to the distinctions ordinary people make between constructive citizenship and social parasitism. The challenge is to give the idea of constructive citizenship definite and rigorous content - content that serves as a useful guide to wise policy and that makes work-based reform less vulnerable to attack on theoretical grounds. The paper explains how the concept of conditional reciprocity, as it informs common notions of acceptable redistribution, can help achieve this goal.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 16

Keywords: Work-based welfare reform, social welfare, economic dependency, fostering self-sufficiency

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Date posted: December 12, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Wax, Amy L., Social Welfare, Human Dignity, and the Puzzle of What We Owe Each Other. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=478561 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.478561

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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