Citizenship and Welfare
Is welfare something citizens are entitled to? Perhaps it is – there is a reason we call it an entitlement. The right to a measure of support in a time of hardship is your entitlement as an American citizen. At least that’s the view we generally hold today, but it wasn’t always the case.
The British Poor Law reform of 1834 did not provide welfare as a right of citizenship – it provided a trade of citizenship for welfare. It provided a system for central government support for the destitute: food and housing paid for by the state. In exchange for this support, the destitute were required to move into a workhouse where they labored for the state. They were denied freedom of movement and most importantly, were disenfranchised. The intent of the Poor Law reform was in part to prevent Englishmen from starving to death – but in part to ensure that the welfare system was unpleasant enough that no one would choose it over working. The denial of the franchise, and the enforced alienation from civil society, was intended to ensure the poor would not vote themselves more and more benefits. Later scholars of the welfare state, such as Karl Polanyi, referred to this approach as “pauperization”.
The common modern-day refrain of “a safety net, not a hammock” echoes the pauperization strategy of Victorian England; this is not a criticism so much as a description. Pauperization is the impulse that underlies modern-day policy experiments such as endless invasive drug-testing of welfare recipients (recently struck down by an appeals court). The intent is not to save money but to discourage welfare seeking by making it terrible; not just unpleasant, but a loss of basic civil rights. Modern proposals have not included disenfranchisement but it is not so difficult to imagine. Perhaps it is a good idea to demand a sacrifice of civil rights in exchange for subsistence – perhaps it is really more effective at getting people to stay off welfare, and leads to a net healthier and better society.
But the idea of “a safety net, not a hammock” is not new or innovative policy – it’s in fact shocking how old it is. And it entails a vision of citizenship very different than the ideas most of us generally claim to endorse.