Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

2.2 Rationales for conditional entitlement to welfare

The contingent relation between work and welfare has moved – unevenly over time and place – between extremes of conditionality and separation, with long periods of more complex relations that varied for different social groups and between localities. Early in the twenty-first century, in the UK and the USA, there is a powerful trend towards a return to the conditional nature of welfare with which state involvement began. What underlies this pattern of the rise and fall of unconditional entitlement to welfare for some provides a key to understanding how welfare policies and personal lives constitute one another.

Three rationales have been used by those who advocate conditional relations between welfare and work.

  1. Economic-regulatory rationales are based on the workhouse principle of ‘less eligibility’, which sought to encourage participation in the labour market by depriving workhouse inmates of material comforts. If the conditions of welfare provision are equal to or better than the conditions of those earning the lowest rates of pay, they leave employers short of workers and exert inflationary pressure on wages. So, if the least skilled workers are to choose low paid jobs, not welfare, benefit levels must always be less desirable, or ‘less eligible’. Here, Tamarla Owens' low wages provide some income and reduce the wage bill of employers like Dick Clarke.

  2. Personal-developmental rationales stress the importance of developing the skills base of the workforce in a competitive international economy. For those on the margins of work and welfare, enhancing employability is the key to reducing welfare costs and strengthening the economy. This may be best achieved by subsidised work experience, by job creation through public works programmes, or through education and training. Here, it is the skills gained from the experience of working that will benefit Tamarla Owens, while also serving the interests of restaurant-goers.

  3. Social-disciplinary rationales focus on the supposedly debilitating effects of welfare as a response to worklessness, stressing instead habits of industriousness to an impoverished and supposedly ‘demoralised’ class which becomes feckless and idle when lacking employment. On this reading, the workhouse was inspired by inculcating good behaviour and policing ‘degenerate’ behaviour. It is the moral effects of welfare dependency that are damaging. ‘Remoralising’ the poor by making welfare dependent on participation in work is therefore the main purpose of work programmes. It is the act of being on the early morning bus every day and being a good worker that benefits Tamarla Owens.

These rationales overlap, yet each embodies distinctive assumptions about the personal lives of those in need of welfare. In some cases, this is no more than a broad theory about human conduct. Neo-liberals who have drawn on the economic-regulatory rationale, for example, build their argument around the belief that people are rational economic actors who make calculated self-interested choices to optimise their own well-being. Reformists who use the personal-developmental rationale trace the need for welfare in shortcomings in individuals' abilities to compete for jobs. Alongside deprived backgrounds and poor provision, they portray personal lives marred by lack of self-respect and confidence.

In contrast, neo-conservatives use the social-disciplinary rationale to depict an underclass of demoralised welfare dependants who lack hope. Neo-conservative remoralisation discourses and their constructions of personal lives have exerted a particularly strong influence over the shifting contingency of welfare and work, notably in the USA, but also in the UK.

Activity 1

Read the following quotations from two influential US authors. Make a note of how each quotation construes the place of ‘the personal’ in welfare and identify any significant differences in their approaches.

… surprisingly little has been made of the distinction between the behaviors that make sense when one is poor and the behaviors that make sense when one is not poor.

(Murray, 1994, p. 156)

Self-sufficiency [is] no longer taken to be an intrinsic obligation of healthy adults.

(Murray, 1994, p. 180)

A greater number [of poor adults] are simply defeatist about work or unable to organize their personal lives to hold jobs consistently.

(Mead, 1997, p. 12)

… bureaucracy – unpopular though it is – increasingly must manage the lives of those who are seriously poor.

(Mead, 1997, p. 14)


Personal lives are regarded as the source of welfare dependency, but the first two quotations see claimants as rational, the second two as demoralised. Charles Murray's (1994) work, from which the first two quotations come, was highly influential on welfare policy-making in the USA in the 1990s. It focused on the formation of a welfare underclass, particularly amongst black American lone mothers and unemployed fathers. He identified what he viewed as their rational self-interest in responding to the ‘perverse incentives’ of the US welfare system in the 1960s and 1970s to qualify for welfare by having ‘illegitimate’ children as a means to gaining income and security in the face of poor job opportunities. While his work is infused with assumptions and implications about the personal lives of black Americans, his focus remains on their pursuit of their own best short-term interests by ‘using’ an ill-conceived welfare system to their advantage (see also Morris, 1998).

Lawrence Mead (1997) is the author of the second two quotations. He shared many of Murray's views of welfare, but had a significantly different analysis. To Mead it was the personal conduct of impoverished welfare claimants that was the key to their dependency. Their need for welfare is a reflection of their worklessness, which in turn is the product of individual de-motivation, despair and self-defeat that result from a ‘culture of poverty’. As the third and fourth quotations suggest, Mead was not persuaded by the standard explanations for dependency. To him, the main cause of poverty ‘is no longer social injustice but the disorders of (dependants’) private lives’ (Mead, 1997, p. 15). This view is echoed by some conservatives in the UK. Green (1999), for example, depicts the stereotypic self-destructive behaviour of an unqualified, unskilled school-leaver and father of illegitimate children, for whom only a change of attitude from within will bring an escape from dependency. It is this ‘new politics of conduct’ (Deacon, 1997, p. xv) and its social disciplinary rationale that underpin their arguments for constructing a binding connection between work and welfare.

It is vividly clear that these commentators locate poverty and the need for welfare in personal lives and ‘pathological’ behaviours. It is unskilled men, lone mothers and the black population whose personal lives are implied to underlie the need for welfare. The influence of these commentaries on government policies has been extensive, as much because of their work of legitimising and authorising perceptions and representations as by originating them (Deacon, 1997; Clarke, 2001). And it is through these processes of discursive construction, in which particular readings of individual circumstances become sedimented into dominant truths about the causes of poverty and ‘dependency’, that representations of personal lives come to shape social policies.


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