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The idea of the deserving and undeserving poor - those who should and should not be helped with welfare and social protection - dates back at least to the Victorian and the colonial era. It has been reborn in the age of austerity with the rise of workfare in the global North and conditional and targeted social protection in the global South, underscoring the long-held belief that the poor worthy of protection are those who are physically unable to work (children, the elderly and the disabled). But perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this discourse of deservingness is not that it is enforced by policy makers, development professionals and the wealthy, but rather the lack of opposition it has received from ordinary people. While some scholars of social protection have proposed the existence of widespread demands for a new, universal politics of distribution (e.g., cash transfers free of judgements of worth and deservingness), this paper challenges this view. Rather, my long-term fieldwork with the unemployed poor in South Africa demonstrates that worthiness through labour plays an ongoing and crucial role in my interlocutors' understandings of wealth creation, accumulation and distribution, and thus the framing of their political demands around social protection. In particular, this paper explores the ways the universal distribution of certain goods, particularly land, housing and natural resource wealth, is seen to be universally 'rightful', while other forms of social protection, particularly through cash, is understood to be something that must be deserved through hard work. Such findings complicate recent optimism around unconditional cash transfers and universal basic income as favored instruments both of social protection and just (re)distribution.


Dr Liz Fouksman

At this event

Liz Fouksman

Lecturer in Social Justice