Work is central to much of life and to many areas of law, including recent transformations in the American welfare state. Despite this pervasive importance, work is notoriously difficult to define. Yet doing so is essential to the design and functioning of a work-based welfare system.

This Article provides the first comprehensive analysis of how to define work for the purpose of satisfying welfare work requirements. Work should be understood contextually, its meaning shaped by the underlying normative justifications for linking work to transfer eligibility. Starting from this premise, the Article probes what should count as work according to three major types of justification for work requirements: those emphasizing self-sufficiency, self-improvement (work’s noneconomic benefits), and reciprocity. Each work rationale leads to distinct—and often conflicting—work definitions. Deciding which to adopt requires hard choices between competing normative approaches to work and poverty. This conflict belies the superficial consensus in favor of work requirements in the abstract.

Thinking systematically about work in context also opens up new critical perspectives on particular activities. On all accounts, work is less easily identified with paid employment than commonly assumed, something borne out by the actual practices of work-based programs. To illustrate this, the Article concludes by sketching a new avenue for feminist analysis of family caretaking as work, one that exploits rather than rejects a link between work and self-sufficiency.

Send to KindleSend to Kindle