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Shelby, Tommie. Justice, Work, and the Ghetto Poor
2012, The Law and Ethics of Human Rights. 6 (1): 69-96
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Added by: Deryn Mair Thomas
Abstract: In view of the explanatory significance of joblessness, some social scientists, policymakers, and commentators have advocated strong measures to ensure that the ghetto poor work, including mandating work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. Indeed, across the ideological political spectrum, work is often seen as a moral or civic duty and as a necessary basis for personal dignity. And this normative stance is now instantiated in federal and state law, from the tax scheme to public benefits. This Article reflects critically on this new regime of work. I ask whether the normative principles to which its advocates typically appeal actually justify the regime. I conclude that the case for a pro tanto moral or civic duty to work is not as strong as many believe and that there are reasonable responses to joblessness that do not involve instituting a work regime. However, even if we grant that there is a duty to work, I maintain that the ghetto poor would not be wronging their fellow citizens were they to choose not to work and to rely on public funds for material support. In fact, I argue that many among the black urban poor have good reasons to refuse to work. Throughout, I emphasize what too few advocates of the new work regime do, namely, that whether work is an obligation depends crucially on whether background social conditions within the polity are just.

Comment: This text is useful for several reasons. First, it introduces an argument examining a civic obligation to work; second, it discusses that obligation in relation to structural injustices regarding socio-economic and racial inequality. It can be used to discuss the intersection of these topics more generally, or to further discuss philosophical questions concerning who should have access to good work and why.

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