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Accepted Paper:

What is rightful? Moral logics of worth, deservingness and distribution among the South African unemployed  


Elizaveta Fouksman (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the moral logics of worth, labour and productivism among the unemployed poor in South Africa. It demonstrates the ways political demands around welfare emerge from deeply embedded notions of what is universally 'rightful' and what must be deserved through work.

Paper long abstract:

The idea of the deserving and undeserving poor - those who should and should not be helped with social policy and welfare - 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 recent writing (such as Ferguson, 2015) has proposed the existence of widespread demands for a new politics of distribution (universalized and thus 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 work plays an ongoing and crucial role in my interlocutors' understandings of wealth creation, accumulation and distribution, and thus their political demands. In particular, this paper explores the ways in which the universal distribution of certain goods, particularly land, housing and natural resource wealth, is seen to be 'rightful', while other forms of distribution, particularly that of cash, is understood to be something that must be deserved or earned through hard work and productivism.

Panel P038
Human worth in austere times: transformative welfare regimes, human needs and public policy