Workfare States

Jamie Peck, Workfare States (New York: Guilford Press, 2001).

Jamie Peck’s thesis is that the campaign to transform the rights-based benefit programs of the industrial-era welfare state into a post-industrial-era “workfare state” is an international movement or a “transnational regulatory project.” According to Peck workfare policies are “concerned with deterring welfare claims and necessitating the acceptance of low-paid, unstable jobs in the context of increasingly ‘flexible’ labor markets” (6). Peck acknowledges that the United States is the “undisputed pioneer” in workfare and that there are differences among countries, but he nonetheless maintains that the bastion of neo-liberalism is not alone.

Peck does an admirable job of exploring a range of workfare projects and policies, theoretically and empirically, in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including newspaper accounts, reports by various levels of government, research, speeches, personal interviews of program staff, social activists, and trade unionists, and, of course, other studies of the subject, Peck has provided a valuable resource to anyone concerned with the current course of the welfare state. Among the many telling commentaries that he passes on is this gem: the Wall Street Journal’s characterization of the British tax credit for working families as the “workfare subsidy” (324). Peck’s conclusion that “it is time to reform work as well as welfare” (366) is one that I share (Goldberg & Collins, 2001), although I wish he had provided a model for such reform or discussed its feasibility. “Ultimately,” Peck writes, “workfare is a political choice, not an economic necessity” (80). This is an important distinction, although here, too, I would have liked him to prove the primacy of politics or directly refute the economic exigency rationale.

Several other important questions can be raised about Peck’s interesting study and provocative conclusions. One pertains to the use of the term “workfare states”; another is the extent to which the current system of labor regulation is a significant change from the former one; and still another, is whether Peck is justified in suggesting that workfare is an international movement.

Peck uses the term workfare broadly to apply to work requirements and time limits for welfare recipients. Traditionally, however, workfare applies to working for one’s welfare benefits or working them off. This is in contrast to public job creation programs, like those mounted in the United States during the Great Depression and in the 1970s through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA). These programs employed jobless workers in projects separate from relief administration and paid them a wage larger than a welfare benefit (a “security” wage in the case of the New Deal job programs). These have been characterized as “fair work” instead of workfare (Rose, 1995; Goldberg et al., 1995).

Neither workfare, traditionally defined, nor job creation programs are common in what Peck calls “workfare states.” Rather, as he is at pains to point out, relief officials increasingly and typically take the cheaper route of simply making relief time-limited and contingent on taking an existing job, indeed, any job. Instead of providing employment, education, training or a combination of these, relief officials more commonly push the poor into the labor market as fast as possible. Peck makes the point that conservatives find themselves in a bind, bent on work requirements and reduction of the rolls but unwilling to pay the price of training or job creation. Hence the emphasis on the “work-first” approach¾named for the Riverside, California program that developed this model. Riverside “aggressively ‘jobclubbed’ recipients into private sector jobs” (189f). “This has the effect, within local labor markets of driving down both the reservation wage of the unemployed and the prevailing market wage for low-paid workers, while also further destabilizing contingent employment” (ibid.). Peck, however, does not cite evidence of these hypothesized effects.

Peck emphasizes that this model of pushing the poor into the labor market with little else but cheerleading and benefit restriction “works” only so long as there are available jobs. (It probably goes without saying that Peck clearly recognizes that the welfare reformers’ criterion for what “works” or for “success” is reduction of the welfare rolls, not reduction of poverty.) Following Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who wrote the foreword to Workfare States, Peck points out that restrictive welfare policies are likely to be undertaken when unemployment is low or falling. However, efforts to restrict welfare in the United States were accelerating when unemployment reached the double-digit mark in the 1980s and during the recession of the early 1990s. In 1996, when Aid to Families with Dependent Children was repealed and replaced by a program significantly named Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, recovery was underway, but unemployment was still above 5 percent (5.4%). In any case, it would have been interesting to know what Peck anticipates when unemployment rises.

How different is the “workfare state” from the “rights-based welfare state?” Peck himself cautions against exaggerating the rights granted by the industrial-era welfare state in the United States. In this respect it seems important to point out that in the United States protection from being forced to accept undesirable jobs at inadequate wages (or no job at all) applied largely to destitute single mothers-and even then, with exceptions. (Some workers experiencing short-term unemployment have been covered since the Great Depression.) Throughout its 60-year history Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) largely confined benefits to single mothers and their families. Two-parent families with an unemployed parent were always less than 10 percent of recipient families. This left single adults of both sexes and most men in two-parent families without federally aided public assistance. Their recourse was to state general assistance programs that were meager and often available only on an emergency basis. Furthermore, given the very low level of public assistance benefits (all below the federal poverty level, even when the cash value of food stamps was included) and, at least until the 1960s, denial of benefits based on moral criteria or seasonal need for their labor in the fields, many poor, single mothers of dependent children were obliged to work, on or off the books, in order to survive (Bell, 1965; Piven & Cloward, 1993; Edin & Lein, 1997; Spalter-Roth et al., 1995). Indeed, one might say that in 1996, with the repeal of AFDC, many low-wage workers lost their welfare supplements.

The change in the United States is that women as well as men have been commodified. In the nineteenth century, men were commodified, that is, denied all but what their labor would sell for in the market. In England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Poor Law reform of 1834 denied able-bodied men relief outside the poorhouse. In the post-Civil War period, when the United States was rapidly industrializing, one major U.S. city after another followed the English lead by abolishing outdoor relief or public assistance to the poor in their own homes (Mohl, 1983). Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, mothers’ aid programs were established in most states. Although a break with prohibition of public outdoor relief, mothers’ aid programs were meager, not available in all jurisdictions of the states, and largely confined to respectable white widows. The mothers’ aid programs were expanded with federal financial assistance in Title IV of the Social Security Act of 1935, Aid to Dependent Children (later AFDC). The exception was during the early New Deal, a time of mass unemployment and political unrest, when federal relief was non-categorical, that is, based on need alone rather than such criteria as employability, family composition, or age as well. A substantial proportion of the unemployed (although never the majority) had access to a work benefit through federal work programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), but these were terminated during World War II and only resumed for a brief period in the 1970s when unemployment reached what was then a post-war zenith.

Drawing on a model of Claus Offe, Peck identifies modes of labor-market regulation that include both negative sanctions (penalties) and positive sanctions (incentives). Yet, in his extensive treatment of labor market regulation, Peck confines himself almost entirely to penalties and barely mentions incentives. In its effort to move more women into the low-wage labor market, Washington has used both the restriction of public assistance (work requirements and time limits) and a wage subsidy or incentive, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which, by the mid-1990s, was costing the federal treasury more than either AFDC or its successor. For workers supporting two children or more and earning year-round wages in the range of the poverty level, income can be increased by about 40 percent. Significantly, the EITC’s advocates, when it was established in 1975, included southern legislators who had opposed the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), the federal public assistance program proposed by President Nixon that would have guaranteed all families with children a minimum level of assistance. Why? Because it would threaten low-wage labor: “Who will push the wheelbarrows and iron the shirts?” One can argue that the EITC is a subsidy to sweatshops and that it could reduce pressure to raise wages, to name only two reservations. Nonetheless, it should not be overlooked in a study of labor market regulation.

What about the claim to an international movement? In our study of nine wealthy countries, my colleagues and I found that although there is still considerable difference between welfare leaders like Sweden and France and welfare resisters like the United States and Japan, income support has become more restrictive and more closely tied to work at the very time when jobs have become less available or less desirable (Goldberg & Rosenthal, 2002). Restrictions on relief like those detailed by Peck are observable in countries with greater social protection than the three that he studied. For example, Gerhard Bäcker and Ute Klammer (2002) conclude that in Germany “.social protection is being diminished so that workers will be obliged to accept whatever job is available.” Peck bases his conclusion that the workfare trend is international on the study of three countries that have been classified as “liberal welfare states” (Esping-Andersen, 1990, 1999) and that are less generous in their social provision than most Western and Northern European countries. The United States and Britain have been founts of neo-liberalism, and Canada, though offsetting the effects of chronically high unemployment for a number of years, began cutting back and restructuring its welfare state in the early 1990s, notably dismantling its non-categorical Canada Assistance Plan (CAP). Peck may well be prescient in identifying an international movement, but it seems premature to draw such a conclusion in view of the size and nature of his sample.


Bäcker, G., & U. Klammer (2002). “The Dismantling of Welfare in Germany,” in Goldberg & Rosenthal.

Winifred Bell, Aid to Dependent Children (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

Edin, K., & L. Lein (1997). Making Ends Meet: How Welfare Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Goldberg, G. S., & M.G. Rosenthal, eds. (2002). Diminishing Welfare: A Cross-National Study of Social Provision. Westport, CT: Auburn House.

Goldberg, G. S., & S. D. Collins (2001). Washington’s New Poor Law: Welfare “Reform” and the Roads Not Taken, 1935 to the Present. New York: Apex Press.

Goldberg, G. S., S. D. Collins, H. L. Ginsburg & P. Harvey. (1995). “Welfare ‘Reform’: Where Are the Jobs?” Uncommon Sense 5 (New York: National Jobs for All Coalition, May).

Mohl, R. A. (1983). “The Abolition of Public Outdoor Relief, 1870-1900,” in W. I. Trattner, ed. Social Welfare or Social Control: Some Historical Reflections on Regulating the Poor. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Piven, F. F., & R. Cloward (1993). Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, updated ed. New York: Vintage Books.

Rose, N. (1995). Workfare or Fair Work: Women, Welfare, and Government Work Programs. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roberta Spalter-Roth, R., B. Burr, H. Hartmann & L. Shaw. (1995). Welfare That Works: The Working Lives of AFDC Recipients. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Reviewed by Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg
Adelphi University School of Social Work;
Chair, National Jobs for All Coalition

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