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date: 23 February 2017

Welfare Rights

Abstract and Keywords

Welfare as a right has long been an objective of advocates for social and economic justice. During the 1960s, the right to welfare was championed by legal scholars as well as the activists who created the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). With the demise of NWRO in 1975 and the subsequent ascendance of conservatism in social policy, notably the 1996 welfare reform act, momentum for welfare as a right flagged. Since the 1990s, a capability approach to well-being has been proposed, and various instruments have been constructed to evaluate the welfare of populations across nations as well as subnational jurisdictions. Variables such as income, health, education, employment, and satisfaction measures of well-being have effectively replaced the idea of welfare as a right. The transition from welfare as a right to well-being varying across populations provides more information social workers can use to advocate for marginalized populations.

Keywords: welfare, well-being, social policy, advocacy, poverty, international social work

Welfare Rights

Welfare rights are of direct interest to social workers because of the profession’s historic commitment to achieving economic and social justice for the disproportionately minority poor. While the right to welfare has been advanced by legal scholars in the United States as well as human rights advocates internationally, the idea that people should be entitled to public assistance has been seriously compromised. At the same time, the emergence of well-being as an objective for social welfare is more flexible than has been welfare.

In the United States, a right to welfare represents a social entitlement, like Social Security or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) which could, if benefits were high enough, eradicate poverty. Yet current public assistance programs—primarily SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), among dozens of others—are so limited with respect to the adequacy of benefits, complicated eligibility requirements, and fragmented program management that they have been suboptimal. Regardless, billions of dollars are spent on public assistance programs. As two Brookings Institution scholars observed,

if we divide annual federal and state spending on means-tested programs by the number of people in poverty, there would be more than enough money to lift everyone in America above the poverty line. Indeed, there is enough money from federal and state spending on means-tested programs to provide each poor person with $15,000 a year, or each three-person family below the poverty line with $45,000 a year. (Haskins & Sawhill, 2009, p. 46)

However, such arithmetic is moot given the evolution of welfare programs in the United States. Conditioned by culture, policy, law, and administration, the right to welfare has not been realized; rather, in practice, receipt of welfare in America has been a privilege.


Welfare first appears in the form of charity during the Progressive Era, provided by Charity Organization Societies (COSs). Adhering to their credo, “not alms but a friend,” COSs were long on moral guidance but short on material assistance, evidence of a Christian sense of noblesse oblige. With the Great Depression, the capacity of COSs was overwhelmed by an unprecedented level of destitution, unemployment reaching 25%. An architect of the New Deal, Harry Hopkins, made a strategic decision not to divert relief funds to COSs but to allocate them through governmental agencies. With passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, government assumed primary responsibility for benefits to the poor, eclipsing private, nonprofit sources. The Social Security Act included public assistance, welfare benefits to the poor; however, as a concession to Southern Democrats, federal funds were contingent on state appropriations. This concession gave elected officials in the South the leverage to control poor residents, who were disproportionately African American (Quadagno, 1994; Katznelson, 2013). Thus, public assistance served to continue the discriminatory legacy of Jim Crow in the South.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson used public sympathy to legislate a broad initiative, the Great Society, which included social programs to aid the minority poor, the War on Poverty. During the 1960s, a slew of federal laws were enacted that, with the exception of Medicare, included benefits to the poor: the Manpower Development and Training Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Community Mental Health Acts, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, Job Corps, and the Economic Opportunity Act. In addition, President Johnson advocated civil and political rights for African Americans through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, laws that, as a concession to the Civil Rights Movement, antagonized the southern aristocracy. The last decades of the 20th century thus witnessed two consequential developments. First, welfare benefits expanded significantly for low-income, disproportionately minority families; second, conservative Republicans and Democrats objected vehemently to government welfare programs.

In his attempt to rein in Johnson’s War on Poverty, his successor, Richard Nixon, considered a radical shift in benefits to the poor that would provide a guaranteed annual income by way of a Negative Income Tax (NIT). By assuring the poor a base income, the NIT was the closest the nation would come to instituting a right to welfare. Advocated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the NIT would be refundable, providing taxpayers with very low income in the form of a check from the Treasury in a sufficient amount to cover their basic needs, effectively decommissioning the government welfare programs that had evolved up to that point. President Nixon’s initial support of the NIT evaporated in the face of congressional opposition, especially that of southern Democrats who objected to a benefit that would subsidize black, single-parent households. Ultimately, the NIT would be modified to provide a refundable tax credit to working families, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), later augmented by a Child Tax Credit. As a tax entitlement adjusted for inflation, the EITC would eventually eclipse the primary cash benefit for low-income families.

The election of Ronald Reagan fundamentally transformed government social programs. Although President Reagan was willing to negotiate around popular social insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, he was stridently opposed to welfare. The conservative critique of public welfare, promoted during the 1980s by Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984) and Lawrence Mead’s Beyond Entitlement (1986), suggested that providing the minority poor with cash unconditionally effectively subsidized their counterproductive conduct, such as dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock, engaging in petty crime, and becoming dependent on welfare. Although Reagan’s primary anti-welfare initiative, the Family Support Act, largely failed because of exemptions granted to welfare mothers who were mandated to seek work, the conservative assault on public welfare continued unabated.

Thus, when Bill Clinton sought re-election, he was criticized for failing to reform welfare, a prominent campaign promise. Presented with a Republican welfare reform bill, Clinton eventually conceded and secured his second term by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, emblematic of the conservative influence in social welfare. In replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), PRWORA’s provisions further propelled welfare away from being a right to being a more of a government privilege contingent on work. However, PRWORA included other provisions that subverted the liberal vision of welfare, including devolving TANF to the states, converting it to a discretionary program, instituting a five-year limit on receipt of federal benefits, and excluding immigrants and felons from federal funding (Stoesz, 2000).

The history of government public assistance programs thus shows a gradual shift from a liberal vision of welfare as a right to a conservative contention that welfare is a privilege. Accordingly, welfare has been increasingly contingent on the conduct of recipients as interpreted by the states. The consequences of this have been as significant as they have been paradoxical. Foremost, TANF benefits have plummeted even after the Great Recession. In 1996, 68 out of every 100 poor households received TANF; by 2010, only 27 out of 100 poor families received that benefit (Trisi & Pavetti, 2012). At the same time as family welfare was being reduced, refundable tax credits for families expanded significantly, the EITC exceeding $60 billion annually compared to TANF at $16.5 billion (Congressional Budget Office, 2013).

Legal Basis

Reducing the right to welfare, congruent with an ascendant conservatism, has not gone unchallenged by advocates of the left, including social work activists. As the War on Poverty unfolded during the 1960s, liberals invoked legal arguments that welfare was a right all citizens should enjoy. Noting that the relationship between industrial capitalism and government social obligations creates new methods for regulating activity and dispensing benefits, Charles Reich contended that a new form of property should be identified. His argument focused in part on welfare benefits:

The concept of right is most urgently needed with respect to benefits like unemployment compensation, public assistance, and old age insurance. These benefits are based upon a recognition that misfortune and deprivation are often caused by forces far beyond the control of the individual, such as technological change, variations in demand for goods, depressions, or wars. The aim of these benefits is to preserve the self-sufficiency of the individual, to rehabilitate him when necessary, and to allow him to be a valuable member of a family and a community; in theory they represent part of the individual’s rightful share in the commonwealth. Only by making such benefits into rights can the welfare state achieve its goal of providing a secure minimum basis for individual well-being and dignity in a society where each man cannot be wholly the master of his own destiny (1964, pp. 785–786).

Like regulation of industry and licensing of professionals, welfare benefits stood as an important indicator of not just opportunity in society but its adequacy toward those who were no longer engaged in market activity.

Reich’s argument complemented a nascent welfare rights movement consisting of activists energized by state restrictions on public assistance benefits, especially late-night “man-in-the-house” investigations by welfare caseworkers, as well as pent-up frustrations about lack of opportunity for the minority poor, a result of pervasive discriminatory practices in housing and employment. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was organized in 1966 to attain equity by welfare recipients (Piven & Cloward, 1977). Led by the charismatic George Wiley, NWRO grew to represent 25,000 members at its apogee, and organized demonstrations in cities around the country. Like the Civil Rights Movement and the Community Action Programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity, NWRO provided a forum for an emergent minority leadership to develop community organization skills that would propel many into leadership positions as big city mayors as well as members of Congress. The momentum behind NWRO would dissipate with Wiley’s death, however, and the organization closed its doors in 1975.

Despite its demise, NWRO contributed to political momentum that resulted in an important court ruling. If low-income citizens did not attain a right to welfare benefits, through Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), courts ruled that recipients at least had a right to redress when the state withdrew assistance. Yet, even with this ruling, welfare recipients were not entitled to a trial where formal evidence was presented, but only a “fair hearing” involving the recipient and representatives of the agency. As a result of Goldberg, welfare recipients’ rights to benefits were further compromised; when the state determined that benefits could be retracted, recipients were guaranteed little more than a review of their eligibility. Of course, recipients could request legal representation; however, the poor often resorted to Legal Aid lawyers who had been prohibited from class action litigation that would benefit recipients as a group, so this recourse did not offset the power of the state in determining welfare benefits.

The decline of the welfare rights movement left control of public assistance with the state, which often worked to disadvantage the welfare poor. Since the inception of government welfare programs, aid had been predicated on the means test, which left recipients with negligible prospects of upward mobility; once they acquired about $2,000, the value of a decent used car, they were ineligible for welfare. Since the 1980s, a neoliberal agenda has dominated welfare, emphasizing work mandates, reliance on markets, and privatization of management. All of these increased the conditionality of public assistance, further attenuating the right to welfare.

Anti-poverty Initiatives

Although the idea of a legal right is specific, “welfare” as a social program is comparatively more ambiguous. For example, does welfare include both social insurance and public assistance? Should assets be included as well as income? If benefits are the focus of welfare, should opportunity or mobility matter? Since welfare has been traditionally associated with poverty, the remediation of the latter influences strategies regarding the former. From the perspective of moral philosophy, attaching welfare to prosperity, specifically the American dream, not only diminishes stigma but also offers ways to secure public support. If, within the American context, welfare is not a right, then it might be optimized by introducing innovative antipoverty strategies. To the extent that Americans embrace self-reliance and upward mobility, welfare should benefit by association with these values.

Social worker Michael Sherraden (1991) observed that assets were more important than income as a means to address poverty, proposing Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) as a new policy strategy. Sherraden argued that traditional welfare was detrimental to the poor because it focused on consumption as opposed to savings. On the other hand, an anti-poverty initiative that encouraged low-income households to save in order to acquire assets would be more likely to lift them out of poverty. As promulgated in the 1998 Assets for Independence Act (AFI), IDAs encouraged the poor to save for three purposes, buying a first-time home, finishing secondary education, or starting a business. A household’s savings could be matched by an external source, multiplying their thrift. While the amount budgeted for AFI was only $125 million over five years, it was sufficient to mount demonstration programs. Significantly, think tanks in Washington, DC, especially the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the New America Foundation, raised the IDA banner and moved it forward; the Ford Foundation also endorsed the concept.

Prior to the Great Recession, a report on mobility sponsored by prominent policy institutes across the ideological spectrum concluded “it is fairly hard for children born in the bottom fifth to escape from the bottom: 42% remain there and another 42% end up in either the low-middle or middle fifth. Only 17% of those born to parents in the bottom quintile climb to one of the top two income groups” (Isaacs, 2006a, p. 5). Many minority children actually experienced downward mobility. Of black children with middle-class parents, 45% fell to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to 16% of white children. Poor black children fared the worst: 54% of children in families in the bottom quintile remained there, compared to 31% of white children (Isaacs, 2006b). The recession further slowed the upward mobility of minorities. A post-recession analysis of economic mobility concluded that one-fourth of middle-class children had fallen out of the middle class as adults, a prospect that affected 38% of African-American men (Acs, 2011, pp. 21, 11).

Different social programs vary with respect to their impact on poverty. Research shows that the largest reduction in poverty is achieved from social insurance programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Compensation, programs that enjoy wide popularity because they are funded by employee and employer contributions (Sherman, Trisi, & Parrott, 2013). Public assistance, which has been less popular because revenues are derived from general taxes, has less of an impact on poverty; however, that has changed in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has replaced Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in total funding for poor families (Ben-Shalom, Moffitt, & Scholz, 2011). Significantly, the EITC does not include an asset test, so its benefits are more widely disbursed than means-tested welfare programs. Overall, these findings suggest that programs predicated on employment are more effective at reducing poverty.

International Welfare

The global economy has changed welfare just as it has altered finance and manufacturing. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) states in part,

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Without invoking welfare, Article 25 suggests it, as well as the responsibility of sovereign states to assure an array of social rights to citizens.

As proponents of social and economic justice sought to reconcile the rights that were to be assured citizens with available national resources, international development made two important contributions to welfare rights. Significantly, these were extensions of the work of Amartya Sen, a development economist and Nobel Prize laureate who has sought to introduce a broader understanding of welfare in developing nations. Unhappy with the convention of assessing development through economic variables, Sen added longevity and education to per capita gross national product, then combined them into the Human Development Index (HDI) (United Nations Development Program, 2014b), which generated a ranking of national development. With increasingly available data on how nations fared, additional indices were constructed on multidimensional poverty and gender inequality. Thus, for 2013, the United States ranked fifth in the HDI as well as the gender inequality index (United Nations Development Program, 2014a); however, the high ranking of the United States was due to the variables selected as well as the weight attached to them. A women’s empowerment index, consisting of economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being, ranked America 17th, behind Ireland and above Costa Rica (Lopez-Claros & Zahidi, 2005).

Sen and his former student, Martha Nussbaum, also expanded the idea of welfare, proposing “capability” as a more relevant basis for developing nations. Sen’s approach expands welfare beyond cash assistance to a more relevant objective, “the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value—and have reason to value” (1999, p. 18). In this way, Sen introduces individual choice into the welfare calculation: “Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development” (1999, pp. 48–49). For her part, Nussbaum has oriented the capabilities concept to focus on women, proposing ten core capabilities, including ownership of property, enjoying sexual and reproductive freedom, and engaging in politics. These are essential in order to update welfare with contemporary developments: “Especially in an era of rapid economic globalization, the capabilities approach is urgently needed to give moral substance and moral constraints to processes that are occurring all around us without sufficient moral reflection” (2000, pp. 78–80).

The Metrics of Well-being

The idea that welfare is multidimensional has increased interest in measuring well-being. Within the United States, Kids Count has ranked states according to sixteen variables comprising four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. From 2005 to 2012, most variables comprising health and education improved, indicators of family and community well-being were mixed, while those assessing economic well-being worsened. Typically, the worst ten states have been those with large populations of minorities: African American, Hispanics, and Native Americans (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014). Sen’s HDI methodology has been applied to the United States. Among the findings was consistent improvement since 1960 in health and education, but median income in 2010 was lower than that of 2000. Among the states, Connecticut ranked first and Mississippi last. Washington, DC, ranked highest among metropolitan areas, while Riverside-San Bernardino ranked at the bottom. Asian Americans were the most successful race or ethnic group as regards longevity, education, and income, although geography played a significant role in the prosperity of groups. For example, Asian Americans in Baltimore lived eighteen years longer than African Americans in Pittsburgh (Lewis & Burd-Sharps, 2014).

Research on health disparities has also expanded the idea of welfare. For example, an analysis of eight clusters of Americans—Asians, north central rural whites, middle Americans, poor Appalachian and Delta whites, western Native Americans, blacks in middle America, rural southern blacks, and urban blacks—revealed significant disparities. Native Americans suffered from “very high rates of mortality from alcohol-related causes such as road traffic accidents and cirrhosis of the liver, as well as diabetes,” while urban African American adults had the same mortality as sub-Saharan Africans. The discrepancy between the longevity of Asian females and urban black males was 20.7 years, almost a generation (Murray et al., 2006, pp. 1519, 1520, 1513).

Data can be used to assess well-being according to the priorities of research organizations. The Legatum Foundation, founded in 2006, has established the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and publishes an annual prosperity index, consisting of eight domains: economy, entrepreneurial opportunity, governance, education, health, security, freedom, and social capital. For 2014, the United States ranked tenth, behind Netherlands and above Iceland with respect to global prosperity (Legatum Institute, 2014). Thus, the United States ranks higher internationally in the HDI, constructed of fewer variables, than in the prosperity index, which contains more variables, including several reflecting business activity.


Welfare rights have changed considerably since they were invoked initially during the 1960s. The prospect of welfare becoming a right of citizenship never advanced far in the United States. Consistent with a preference for residualism in social welfare, where families were encouraged to be self-sufficient or reliant on community-based organizations as opposed to the state, welfare has been highly conditional in America. Social insurance has been closest to welfare as a right, but even then citizens were required to contribute in order to receive benefits; public assistance, on the other hand, was predicated on a means test, which made benefits stigmatizing and inadequate. The political manifestation of cultural preferences that degrade welfare was most clearly evident in the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which dramatically reversed the liberal trajectory in social welfare, moving public assistance even further away from being a right.

More recently, philosophical and technological developments have altered social welfare significantly. The emergence of the capabilities approach combined with the evaluation of national and state efforts with respect to social welfare have yielded important information about social welfare effort. Consisting of multiple variables, indices of development permit the evaluation of nations as well as subnational jurisdictions regarding welfare. Among these, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been most inclusive, including government direct assistance as well as indirect aid through tax expenditures, combined with nonprofit programs. For 2012 the OECD ranked the United States twenty-third among developed nations in government assistance, but second to France once private-sector contributions were incorporated (OECD, 2013).

Conceptually, welfare rights have evolved from an ideal legal entitlement to a privilege highly conditioned on eligibility for public assistance to a capability that can be assessed by aggregating variables related to well-being. This transformation changes the idea of welfare from being codified in statute to a constellation of variables relating to income, education, health, employment, and satisfaction. Instruments measuring well-being offer advocates of social and economic justice the advantage of being able to assess the degree of welfare, how populations fare across jurisdictions and over time. At the same time, measuring well-being places a premium on statistical analysis.


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