In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Workfare

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Overview and History
  • US Policy Debate: Framing the Issues
  • Normative and Social Justice Issues
  • Workfare Policy Initiatives in the United States: 1969–1996
  • Assessing US Workfare: Implementation Studies
  • Assessing US Workfare: Sanctions Studies
  • Workfare Governance
  • Gender, Motherhood, and Workfare
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Workfare
  • Rights under Workfare
  • Active Labor Market Policies: Comparative Workfare Studies

Social Work Workfare
Evelyn Z. Brodkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0163


Workfare is a generic term referencing policies that require or promote work among welfare beneficiaries and the unemployed. Policies included under the rubric of workfare range from those that require beneficiaries to “work off” their benefits to policies that offer education, training, and work supports for unemployed individuals seeking labor market opportunities. Workfare is not a stand-alone policy. Generally, workfare requirements and programmatic features are incorporated into social welfare and labor market policies. In the United States, workfare assumed national significance as a key feature of welfare reform legislation in 1996, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF requires beneficiaries to participate in work or work preparation to continue receiving cash assistance after two years. Most states now require participation in a welfare-to-work program prior to the two-year limit, with the possible exception of mothers with infants or those with health or personal conditions that preclude participation. Work-enforcing and work-promoting policies also have advanced through European Union efforts promoting active labor market policies, often referred to as activation policies. These policies have some common workfare elements, including provisions that make social benefits conditional on participation in activation programs. However, active labor market policies tend to emphasize education and training (human capital building) rather than work requirements, sometimes referred to as work-first approaches. Recent shifts in this emphasis toward mandatory work-first requirements have provoked political controversy in some countries. Workfare, in its many varieties, has been incorporated into welfare state policies and programs around the world. Yet, it remains politically controversial in part because it raises questions about the state’s role in providing social protection to vulnerable individuals and also because it raises questions about the role of individuals as contributors to the economy and society. Research in this field crosses disciplinary and practitioner domains. It is the subject of philosophical debate, social science inquiry, historical comparison, and legal analysis. It also is the subject of applied research, engaging public policy analysis, social experimentation, public management, and social work studies. Each perspective highlights different questions and examines different dimensions of the workfare project. The literature identified in this article offers a guide to key dimensions of workfare research, drawing from a variety of perspectives and approaches. It emphasizes workfare research in the United States but also draws on international research that provides for comparisons across countries and policies.


The term workfare is not easily defined, at least not with any precision. Some analysts argue that the term is too ambiguous to be captured with a simple definition, suggesting that it is best understood as a political referential used to signal a tough stance on work for public beneficiaries (Barbier 2005). Others see workfarism as part of a general tendency toward minimizing social benefits and enforcing labor market participation (Peck 2001, pp. 9–10). The precise origins of the term are uncertain. Its popular usage in US politics and policymaking is generally traced back to President Richard Nixon. In a televised speech in August 1969, he argued that what “American needs now is not more welfare, but more ‘workfare’” (Peck 2001, p. 90). In the 1960s and 1970s, workfare largely referred to state-level policies requiring that certain recipients “work off” their benefits by engaging in unpaid labor as a form of benefit repayment. Community work experience programs were a primary example of this type of work-for-your-benefits arrangements. Over time, however, the term developed a less precise meaning, including programs that did more than simply require work but also offered work supports, including education, training, child care, and wage subsidies (Barbier 2005). Over the past few decades, different countries have used variants of workfare to require or support work among lone mothers, unemployed workers, out-of-work youths, and people with disabilities. Workfare-type schemes may operate under the nomenclature of welfare-to-work, active labor market policy, activation, or revenu minimum d’insertion, among others. Most often, these workfare arrangements attach conditions to the receipt of public benefits; that is, they require that individuals demonstrate an effort to work or prepare for work in the labor market. Peck 2001 offers an interesting history of the evolution of workfare as a policy feature. Kildal 2001 provides a good descriptive summary of various approaches to workfare in North American and Europe.

  • Barbier, Jean-Claude. 2005. When words matter: Dealing anew with cross-national comparisons. In Politiques sociales: Enjeux méthodologique et épistémologiques des comparaisons internationals/Social policies: Epistemological and methodological issues in cross-national comparison. Edited by Jean-Claude Barbier and Marie-Thérèse Letablier, 45–68. Brussels: Lang.

    This essay presents a critical assessment of policy language and the dangers of imputing meaning into terms commonly used in comparative policy research. Barbier’s examination of the term workfare offers insights into the difficulties of locating a common meaning (pp. 54–57). This article offers a useful perspective for researchers seeking a sociolinguistic understanding of workfare.

  • Kildal, Nanna. 2001. Workfare tendencies in Scandinavian welfare policies. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization.

    Kildal reviews different forms of workfare from a comparative perspective. The description of alternative workfare arrangements will be useful to researchers comparing differences in policy approaches across countries. Also see Active Labor Market Policies: Comparative Workfare Studies.

  • Peck, Jamie. 2001. Workfare states. New York: Guilford.

    Peck offers a brief history of workfare as a policy term. He regards it as part of a “discursive struggle” (p. 81) in which social needs and concern for the disadvantaged have been displaced by an emphasis on individual responsibility and the market. This discussion offers a critical perspective on workfare terminology. See especially chapter 3 (“Workfare: What Does It Mean?” pp. 83–126). Also see Overview and History.

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