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

By Wax, Amy L. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Wax, Amy L., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


In a recent book about the American anti-poverty movement, Joel Schwartz argues that the moral improvement of the poor was a central goal of anti-poverty reformers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although moral reform was considered intrinsically valuable, it was also thought to be instrumental. The emphasis on the character and personal conduct of the poor during this period was directed primarily at "reduc[ing] ... dependence on either charity or government relief." (1) The vices these reformers decried--"indolence, intemperance, improvidence--were attacked because of their role in fostering or exacerbating dependence," and good behavior "was. largely synonymous with behavior furthering self-reliance." (2) The twin aims of reducing dependence and fostering self-reliance account for many features of the early anti-poverty movement in this country. Those goals shaped the moral outlook of reformers, informed their recommendations, and determined which efforts were endorsed to help the less fortunate.

Anti-poverty policy has come a long way in the past century, in some ways returning full circle to its moralistic roots but in others departing from them never to return. There has been increased willingness recently, at least in some quarters, to decry "dependence" on the government in the form of reliance on cash entitlement programs or handouts. That willingness has found concrete expression in the reforms enacted in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996, which imposes strict time limits and work participation requirements on recipients of public aid. But a century of theory and politics has transformed the call for reduced dependence--at least in its public guise--into one that is less moralistic and more pragmatic. That transformation reflects a deep ambivalence about public moralism generally and moral prescription specifically. (3) It is also rooted in a growing conceptual uncertainty about the roles of dependence and self-reliance in a modern, market-driven society.

As Alan Wolfe documents in his book One Nation, After All, moralism--and especially public moral exhortation--has fallen out of fashion over the past 50 years. (4) Very few public figures are willing to assert unequivocally that some ways of life and some types of character are "better" than others, to identify particular values as central to the good life, or to tell others which personal mores they should adopt. The stance translates into unease about holding up the so-called bourgeois values--those values associated with the Protestant work ethic--as the ones the poor should strive to adopt. Although welfare reform efforts have spawned some (mostly private) programs that attempt to get the poor to adopt habits that will help them be more economically successful (including the very practices associated with the Protestant ethic), the government rarely endorses or "preaches" bourgeois values to the poor outright, and certain of those values--such as sexual continence, cleanliness, marital fidelity, and frugality--are not considered fit subjects for official (or unofficial) public exhortation.

Furthermore, the very idea of economic self-reliance has become the target of a sustained, multi-pronged attack. Old guard proponents of welfare rights have long cast aspersions on the idea of economic "self-sufficiency," arguing that the notion is an incoherent and cruel conceit in the context of an intricate and intrinsically interdependent system. For some, the principle sources of poverty are obviously "structural" rather than "personal." For others, the lack of rhyme or reason in the rewards that markets assign to participants and the key roles played by luck and unearned endowments in determining economic success fatally undermine the ideological basis for valorizing "self-reliance." Practical economic realities of competitive employment markets also play a role in this skepticism. The intransigence of low pay for unskilled workers has forced an acknowledgment that good habits and conscientious efforts may not always be enough to guarantee workers' economic self-sufficiency.

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