Welfare Rights Essay

Welfare rights are a modern phenomenon in which citizenship is extended to the social reproduction functions of the state. Premodern social protection was often punitive, removing recipients from mainstream society and citizenship. Welfare rights secure entitlement as a matter of citizenship and are constitutive of the welfare state. The major welfare rights are in the areas of basic income, health, pensions, and so forth, while the extent of goods and services that are distributed as a matter of entitlement rights varies across the welfare states.

Welfare rights are often attributed to the democratization of social reproduction, whereby the disadvantaged classes demand more fair forms of treatment and entitlement. Perhaps the most well-known statement of welfare rights is that of T. H. Marshall, a twentieth-century British sociologist who addressed the question of the impact of citizenship on social inequality (Marshall referred to welfare rights as social rights). Modern citizenship, he argues, unfolded in a three-stage process: it began with the eighteenth-century civil rights revolution, was furthered by the nineteenth-century extension of the political rights, and was completed in the twentieth-century construction of the welfare state and social rights. Marshall argues that in premodern (feudal) times, social protection came at the expense of civil liberty. Spurred by the Industrial Revolution and liberal ideology, civil freedom was connected to self-ownership of labor power and thus the free contracting of labor. With this transformation, Marshall argues that social protection had to reformulate itself in ways consistent with the commodification of labor.

According to Marshall, welfare rights developed to bridge the disconnect between the equality implied by citizenship and the inequality produced by free markets. However, welfare rights do not replace market-based incomes or fundamentally alter the class structure of market societies. Welfare rights leave in place inequality of “money incomes” (though it is diminished by progressive taxation) while equalizing “real incomes”—the basket of social goods individuals are entitled to regardless of market income. Welfare rights thus alter individuals’ experience of market-based (class) inequality. Marshall, then, was optimistic of the capacity of welfare rights to solve the problem of legitimation posed by class inequality to states that are legitimated by equal citizenship.

Social democratic political reformers used the strategy of universal welfare rights to create a sense of social solidarity among citizens and democratic majorities behind the welfare state. Delivering equal goods and services to all citizens, regardless of income and means, diminishes the political importance of class position while strengthening ties and loyalties to the state. As such, a primary political function of welfare rights is to diminish the salience of class position in political interest formation by extending social entitlement to the middle class. By creating shared interests and bases for political mobilization around social entitlement, welfare rights function as “power resources” for the stability and further expansion of the welfare state.

Welfare rights are not, however, a purely social democratic creation. Elites of all political persuasions have extended welfare rights in nation-building and state-building efforts. A well-cited example of conservative-led efforts to legitimize the central state through the extension of welfare rights is Otto von Bismarck’s effort to combat class-fragmentation, head off socialism, and secure working-class interests to the German state. Welfare rights also have been used by nation-building elites to work against other divisions such as territorial and cultural fragmentation. Welfare rights thus have the dualistic character of at times being “won” or acquired by citizens and at others imposed onto them.

It is suggested by many that it is inappropriate to conflate social entitlement and obligations with citizenship. Positive welfare “rights,” it is argued, differ in type from negative civil and political rights, as they are conditional on production levels and the revenue-raising capacity of the state, and so require prior productive duties. The ongoing politics of welfare state reform are characterized by the rise of conditionality on social entitlement, as expressed in the Third-Way slogan of “no rights without responsibilities” and seen in workfare policy reforms. Despite the politics and rhetoric of retrenchment, it is universal policies, those distributed as a matter of citizenship right, that have proven to be most stable by constructing cross-class solidarities behind them.

In addition to emerging in the context of the nation-state, welfare rights also have developed as part of the formation of international human rights law. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) includes rights to certain standards of living (housing, food access), opportunity resources (education, employment), and economic freedoms (collective bargaining, workplace safety). Such welfare-related human rights have become part of international law through treaties such as the European Social Charter (1961); the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966); and the Protocol of San Salvador amendment to the American Convention on Human Rights (1988). Like in the nation-state, international welfare rights function both as formal entitlements and aspirational goals modeled on progressive implementation, thereby addressing the issue of state capacity.


  1. Esping-Andersen, Gosta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  2. Giddens, Anthony. The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 1998.
  3. Goodin, Robert. Reasons for Welfare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  4. Marshall,T. H. Citizenship and Social Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.
  5. Rimlinger, Gaston. Welfare Policy and Industrialization in Europe, America, and Russia. New York: Wiley, 1971.
  6. Rothstein, Bo. Just Institutions Matter. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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