Applying Rawlsian Social Justice to Welfare Reform: An Unexpected Finding for Social Work

Article excerpt

This paper sketches social workers' understanding of social justice and reliance on Rawls (1971), highlights findings about "hard to employ" welfare recipients facing welfare reform, and articulates the parameters of Rawlsian justice (Rawls, 1999a; 2001) with particular emphasis on people who have been on welfare for long. The paper shows that social workers do not have any space to maneuver in Rawlsian justice to uphold justice for long-term welfare recipients, and welfare reform's "work first" stipulation does not violate Rawlsian justice. The paper raises some questions about social workers' continued reliance on Rawls. It suggests social workers update the literature to reflect Rawls's revised and clarified vision of justice and apply it appropriately.

Keywords: Social justice, long-term welfare recipients, work first, Rawls


In a Theory of Justice and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls (1971; 1999a; 2001) conceptualized the meaning of social justice, and laid out the foundation that would allow all citizens to get justice in society. Rawls encapsulated his very elaborate thinking about social justice in two elegant principles. The second principle of justice brings disadvantaged people to the forefront: "social and economic inequalities ... are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society" (Rawls, 2001, pp. 42-43). Given such strong and clear emphasis on maximizing the well-being of poor people, it is not surprising that social workers unanimously agree that Rawlsian justice is highly suited to furthering our justice concerns related to various people with whom we work (Figueira-McDonough, 1993; Reisch, 2002; Reisch and Taylor, 1983; Van Soest, 1994; 1995; Van Soest and Garcia, 2003; Wakefield, 1988a; 1988b; 1998). The question is: Can Rawlsian justice also help social workers to promote justice for long-term welfare recipients in the context of the welfare reform of 1996?

It is important to answer this question for three reasons: a) social workers are committed to bringing about social justice with and for people who are poor, vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized (NASW, 1999; Reamer, 1998); b) social workers have uniformly and heavily drawn from Rawls (1971) to promote social justice in micro to macro levels of practice; c) social workers critique the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act [PRWORA] (1996, P.L. 104-193), henceforth welfare reform, as unjust because of its sole emphasis on individual responsibility to gain economic self-sufficiency without a concomitant focus on social responsibility to make this possible (Anderson, Halter and Gryzlak, 2004; Long, 2000; Stoesz, 2000; Reisch, 2002; Taylor and Barusch, 2004).

Interestingly however, despite social workers' reliance on Rawls (1971) to promote justice with varied populations, no social worker has applied Rawlsian justice to critique welfare reform. In light of social workers' high regard for Rawls to promote social justice for varied problems, and Rawls's apparently serious concern for delivering justice to poor people, as evidenced through the second principle of justice, it is worth examining whether Rawlsian justice can help us promote social justice as we define it for long-term welfare recipients in this era of welfare reform. Such an examination may help to clarify whether we can continue to rely on Rawls to develop a justification that would be needed by policy makers to attend to our advocacy demands related to long-term welfare recipients.

To this end, this paper briefly sketches social workers' understanding of social justice and their reliance on Rawls (1971), highlights some recent findings related to long-term welfare recipients in the context of welfare reform, and more fully articulates the main parameter and specific elements of Rawlsian justice (Rawls, 1999a; 2001) as they relate to adults compelled to rely on public assistance for long. …


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