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Workfare is an alternative, and controversial, way of providing money to otherwise unemployed or underemployed people, who are applying for social benefits. The term was first introduced by civil rights leader James Charles Evers in 1968; however, it was popularized by Richard Nixon in a televised speech August 1969.[1] An early model of workfare had been pioneered in 1961 by Joseph Mitchell in Newburgh, New York.[2]


Traditional welfare benefits systems are usually awarded based on certain conditions, such as searching for work, or based on meeting criteria that would position the recipient as unavailable to seek employment or be employed. Under workfare, recipients have to meet certain participation requirements to continue to receive their welfare benefits. These requirements are often a combination of activities that are intended to improve the recipient's job prospects (such as training, rehabilitation, and work experience) and those designated as contributing to society (such as unpaid or low-paid work). These programs, now common in Australia (known as "mutual obligation"), Canada, and the United Kingdom, have generated considerable debate and controversy. In the Netherlands workfare is known as Work First, based on the Wisconsin Works program from the United States.


There are two main types of workfare scheme: those that encourage direct employment to get individuals off the welfare roll and directly into the workforce, and those that are intended to increase human capital by providing training and education to those currently in the welfare system.[1]

In less developed countries, similar schemes are designed to alleviate rural poverty among day-labourers by providing state-subsidised temporary work during those periods of the year when little agricultural work is available. For example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in India offers 100 days' paid employment per year for those eligible, rather than unemployment benefits on the Western model. However, a workfare model typically not only focuses on provision of social protection through a wage-income transfer, but also supports workers to get into work.


The purported main goal of workfare is to generate a "net contribution" to society from welfare recipients. Most commonly, it means getting unemployed people into paid work, reducing or eliminating welfare payments to them and creating an income that generates taxes. Workfare participants may retain certain employee rights throughout the process, however, often workfare programs are determined to be "outside employment relationships" and therefore the rights of beneficiaries can be different. [3]

Some workfare systems also aim to derive a contribution from welfare recipients by more direct means. Such systems obligate unemployed people to undertake work that is considered beneficial to their community.


Workfare schemes in the UK are controversial.[citation needed] In the UK, critics point out that the type of work offered by workfare providers is generally unskilled and is comparable to community work carried out by criminal offenders being punished on community service schemes.[4] Many charities and workers' unions have criticized workfare schemes for undermining the work done by actual charity volunteers, and acting as a threat to low paid unskilled workers.

In Australia, the Work for the Dole schemes have been linked to the concepts of “mutual obligation” and "compliance". Their effectiveness has been questioned by researchers.[example needed]

United Kingdom[edit]


In 2007, Singapore introduced a similar program.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peck, Jamie (1998). "Workfare: a geopolitical etymology". Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 16: 133–161. doi:10.1068/d160133.
  2. ^ Leman, Christopher (1980). The Collapse of Welfare Reform: Political Institutions, Policy, and the Poor in Canada and the United States. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 217.
  3. ^ Dietrich, Sharon; Emsellem, M.; Paradise, J. (2000), "Employment Rights of Workfare Participants and Displaced Workers", National Employment Law Project Second Edition, March 2000, NELP
  4. ^ Fuentes, Annette (6 Feb 1997). "Giuliani's Workfare: Slaves of New York". "The Baltimore Chronicle". Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  5. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Bertram, Eva. The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). 328 pp in the United States.
  • Lodemel, Ivar, and Amilcar Moreira, eds. Activation or workfare? Governance and the neo-liberal convergence (Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • Lødemel, Ivar, and Heather Trickey, eds. 'An offer you can't refuse': workfare in international perspective (Policy Press, 2001).
  • Peck, Jamie. "Workfare: a geopolitical etymology." Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16.2 (1998): 133-161. Online
  • Wacquant, Loïc. "Crafting the neoliberal state: workfare, prisonfare, and social insecurity 1." Sociological Forum 25#2 (2010). Online

External links[edit]