The twin issues of need and control

Written circa mid 1980s

A recurrent theme in discussions about the welfare system in Western democracies which requires discussion is that of the relationship between need and control. Marxists and feminists express considerable concern about the amount of control which is exerted on beneficiaries; this issue is also raised when dealing with the role of the family in social policy and in relation to categorical versus income guarantees. Conservatives, and to a lesser extent classical liberals, see the control functions of the welfare system as a benefit in so far as they help assure stability, conformity, and maintain traditional relationships.

The needs based approach to welfare

The needs based approach has been a central component of welfare relief since before the Poor Law was introduced. The concept of less eligibility which lies at the heart of the method of determining who shall be assisted and who will be refused can be identified in the Speenhamland system’s restriction of assistance to labouring families. The various charity systems which operated in English parishes (prior to the Poor Law) only assisted the worthy, leaving those considered undeserving to die. The process of determining whose behaviour and circumstances warranted relief allowed the parish, and later the state, to exert controls on behaviour through the distribution of largesse.

Needs based welfare programs are those in which the agency provides minimal clarification of its eligibility requirements. Agency pronouncements can be as general as “we will assist people in need” without setting out under what conditions and at what rate, an approach allowing frontline welfare workers or their immediate superiors enormous discretionary power.

Such a needs based approach is claimed, by its supporters, to be the most cost effective method of removing poverty. It contains a number of technical assumptions and is grounded in an ideological network in which residuals definitions of welfare are a prime part. The assumptions on which such assertions are founded are:

(a) those in need can be identified,
(b) need can be understood and satisfied,
(c) take-up by the needy will be near total,
(d) the greedy will be prevented from receiving benefits, and
(e) the impact of processes such as stigmatisation are not socially costly.

These assumptions have drawn serious criticism from a range of writers on the left, from social democrats to Marxists, all of whom have pointed to the lack of empirical support for such assumptions. Despite this they continue to have a strong influence on welfare practice.

The desire to assist all those “in need” is in effect a determination to refuse assistance to all those whose circumstances do not fit into some societally approved, arbitrarily defined (albeit undeclared and somewhat flexible) set of rules.

It is possible to define need to mean purely financial need and to clearly specify what constitutes financial need in relation to some arbitrary level such as Professor Henderson’s Poverty Line (Henderson 1975, Social Welfare Policy Secretariat 1981, Manning 1985, Fincher & Niewenhuysen 1998). In such circumstances it would be a simple task to specify the levels of financial assistance considered appropriate to satisfy such need.

Current practices in welfare departments have for many years allowed inordinate discretion to the people who determine whether to assist and what level of assistance to provide: these procedures are still justified as a way of ensuring that the Department will be able to address the needs of individuals in the most appropriate manner. Griffiths (1975) did not mince words when he declared “Discretion as it applies to the present provision of emergency relief is a euphemism for discrimination.”(p.27). Even many statutory income maintenance provisions are dependent upon the assessor determining the need cum worthiness of the applicant.

Even when eligibility requirements and rates of assistance are specified, as are Social Security payments, it is still possible to create situations where the discretionary powers of officials are substantial. This was apparent in the so-called “dole bludger” campaign orchestrated through the press by conservative forces aimed to limit the number of out of work people who would apply for and/or obtain unemployment benefits.

Despite the claims made by Centerlink personnel that they rely on Federal legislation and regulations, the general rule of law, and legal precedents, many officers of that Department have refused to interpret the cohabitation rule in line with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruling, preferring to stay with the old Departmental instructions which are more moralistic in tone and application.

Need – a non-explanation

The generally nebulous nature of needs based assistance coupled with the obvious difficulty encountered by expert committees in coming to an adequate definition of need requires us to ask why administrators and other service providers continue to use the concept of need to explain their everyday actions in assisting their clients. I would argue that there is a conscious reliance by administrators and other service providers (who operate on a needs based response to clients) on the concept of need so as to mystify the restrictive nature of the assistance provided. The reasons why this happens probably differ between administrators and social workers: the administrators simply seeking to limit expenditure, the social workers using this method of operating to extend professional power over both their clients and the junior administrative levels in the agencies.

Clearly the expression of eligibility for assistance in such nebulous terms as “being in need” allows agencies to avoid publicising just how restrictive their assistance programs are. Agencies know that the more precisely they specify their eligibility requirements the greater will be the take-up rate by eligible people. If people do not know their entitlements they are less likely to attempt to enforce their rights and will be more likely to see whatever assistance they are given as reasonable(Mishra 1981, p.37, George & Wilding 1976, p.124).

Stigma is what many agencies rely on to ensure they see only the most “needy”. It is the most determined rather than the most financially “needy” who are advantaged by needs based welfare programs.

The take-up rate of benefits could be raised by increasing efforts to inform potential clients of their eligibility, and making the eligibility requirements and ways of applying simple; through removing stigma; by presentation of the benefit as a right rather than as a privilege; by making eligibility dependent upon financial rather than social considerations; and also by defining eligibility in general rather than specified categories (Cass 1985).

Generalised statements about helping the most needy ensure that not all of those who would meet that definition (in financial terms) apply for assistance. The failure to specify exactly what services are provided and on what terms allows agencies to avoid admitting the restrictive nature of the services provided. Further, the power of the workers in welfare agencies is increased vis a vis the client if the client is not certain as to what his or her actual entitlement is.

I chose to concentrate on needs based welfare programs because in these programs the judgemental aspects of eligibility determination, the disregard of common or shared features between clients, and the excessive concentration on individual differences (often of an inconsequential nature) all show clearly how the determination of need is used to restrict service delivery. Although it is often not as obvious, eligibility determination in categorical programs, such as the Widows Pension, rely as heavily upon judgements made about personal attributes. Such a process differs markedly from income guarantee programs where only a person’s financial status is examined.

Whose needs?

Spokespersons for the welfare industry, when they reflect on the motivations of staff, speak in terms of their “altruism” as they go about the task of satisfying the needs of their clients. Not all observers of the way social workers and welfare officers behave see it in these terms. McKnight (1977) has put the relationship that exists between professional and client as follows:

Removing the mask of love shows us the face of servicers who need income, and an economic system that needs growth. Within this framework, the client is less a person in need than a person who is needed. In business terms, the client is less the consumer than the raw material for the servicing system. In management terms, the client becomes both the output and the input. His essential function is to meet the needs of servicers, the servicing system and the national economy. The central political issue becomes the servicers’ capacity to manufacture needs in order to expand the economy of the servicing system (p.74).

For the same reasons that most Marxist sociologists (Corrigan and Leonard 1979 , pp.104-105) reject the notion that the state is simply the Committee of the Bourgeoisie, I discard the suggestion that administrators and social workers are simply agents of social control (that is, they are the Welfare Committee of the Bourgeoisie). Many of the people working in social welfare agencies are genuinely trying to liberate people and provide them with benefits. Such people are often articulate exponents of liberal or socialist philosophical positions and are committed to limiting the excesses of the state and of capital. For example, the workers in some women’s refuges around Australia are engaged in a constant battle to counter patriarchal control of women’s lives and the workers in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander run agencies are engaged in a daily struggle against racism.

On the other hand, the intimate connection between welfare personnel and the bourgeoisie or the petty bourgeoisie cannot be overlooked. There are many aspects of decision making occurring in welfare agencies which are clear expressions of the operators’ role as agents of capital.

Benefit and control

The majority of Marxist and socialist commentators argue that social welfare provisions are the result of the struggle of the working class (or some particular segment of it) with either capital or the state. The main thrust of such pronouncements is that the state in a quasi-Bismarckian style grants concessions to head off protest and to aid production. The ruling class is seen as benefiting through increased legitimisation; for the working class and welfare recipients in particular the question is one of benefit versus control.

Drawing on both socialist and Marxist reasoning, I share the view that the delivery of social welfare benefits allows the state to control beneficiaries and, in the short term, limits the capacity of the working class to demand a fair distribution of surplus value.

However, there are writers, such as Pemberton (1982) who suggest that it is unlikely that the ‘control’ thesis can be maintained because:

In Australia social work and welfare is mainly about assistance to the elderly, the handicapped, widows, and war veterans; to that extent the radicals’ ‘control’ thesis simply seems irrelevant. For instance, why do the elderly need ‘controlling’ by welfare? This has not been made clear in the radical analysis of welfare.  And, if the elderly (or widows, or single parents, or the disabled) have been controlled by welfare, what were they doing (or were likely to do) to necessitate such ‘control’? Answers to these questions must be forthcoming if the radical critique is to be salvaged even in modified form. Where the control thesis might be thought to be appropriate, in the case of the unemployed, we have seen that strong counter argument and counter evidence exists (p.34).

Pemberton himself has not always held such views. For instance, he wrote:

Social workers play a crucial part in the management of systemic conflict by alleviating the more severe effects of the unequal distribution of economic resources and political power that exist under capitalism. They are among the ‘technicians of consent’; the range of understanders, adjustors and instructors, from the industrial psychologist through to the primary school teacher, who defuse the discontented and ‘train’ the potentially rebellious (Pemberton & Locke, 1971, p.101).

The payment of welfare benefits may not be necessary to prevent an uprising by such citizens, but in a country where federal elections have been held on average every couple of year, citizens do not need to mount the barricades. They can bring down a government with a pencil in a voting booth. Any government wishing to stay in power has to ensure it does not alienate its citizens – the maintenance of their support is a form of control.

The control process

Apart from feminists, the most articulate exponents of the control thesis have been Marxists or socialists. Writers of these persuasions see the welfare system as an integral part of the capitalist mode of production, not an appendage “one step removed from” the productive aspects of that mode. They see the welfare system as the means by which the working class obtains concessions from capital – via the state (Gough 1979, pp.58-59), – and the way the state ensures for capital, the reproduction of the working class (McIntosh 1979, Mishra 1981, p.82). Such writers see the welfare system as the method both of distributing the social wage and of ensuring internal peace in society.

George and Wilding (1984) in The Impact of Social Policy consider the basic components of the welfare system which the state utilises in order to control the workless to be: its reliance on the establishment of individual need, its imposition of non-challenging definitions of social problems, its support for authority and hierarchy, and its constant attempt to replace class conflict with group competition (such as home owner/tenant, old/young (pp.194-220).

This analysis is extended by Baldock (1983) who argues that control is exercised through artificial segmentation of the workforce on the basis of alleged differentiation of skills resulting in the destruction of working class solidarity. She notes that such segmentation is reinforced by ideologies of race and gender, dividing workers from workers, and, in turn, workers from the workless. The artificial divisions between different categories of welfare recipients is effective, in her view, in controlling the poor, just as skill differentiations are among the working classes. In her words:

A most effective aspect of bureaucratisation, effective that is as a form of social control, is the development of artificial divisions between different categories of recipients by means of varying eligibility criteria and slightly different formulas for payment.

Feminist writers are particularly conscious of the twin aspects of control and benefit delivery and have identified the major purpose of the control functions stemming from the needs of patriarchy.

Central to feminist concern about the control aspect of the welfare system is their analysis of dependency, implied and real. The most obvious example of this is provided by the rules and regulations applying to the supply of benefits to unmarried mothers and deserted wives. Feminists argue that the eligibility for Social Security benefits is so structured that it allows the state to become “a more jealous husband than the man they left”(Glassman 1970, pp.102-103).

Many writers who have looked at the social welfare system and its effects on groups such as Aborigines in Australia; Asian and Caribbean immigrants in Britain; or American Indian, Black and Spanish Americans in the United States, have pointed to racism as an underlying ideology supporting social control (See Chapter 3##).

Whether the perceived need to control the recipients derives from patriarchy, racism or ruling class fear of the less affluent, it may be argued that there is a propensity in modern social democracies to use the welfare system rather than military or para-military forms of social control whenever possible. Althusser (1977) expressed this idea as the State’s preference for ideological rather than repressive control. This use of welfare operatives to pacify or deflect unrest, to make recipients feel they have a stake in the future, to present the state (or a department of the state) as a caring institution, has been recognised by many writers in social work circles and is referred to as the “soft cop role”.

Leonard (1979) operating from a Marxist perspective has pointed out that:

The concept of the welfare state as a humane response to need has performed an invaluable ideological function in the control and discipline of working-class populations, for in the name of welfare much can be achieved which would be impossible by more direct methods of repression (p.vii).

In Western democracies, such as Australia, the control exerted by the state is seldom exemplified in overt police or paramilitary forms – Bowral following the Hilton bombing, or the regular showdowns between Aborigines and the police notwithstanding. Repressive tolerance was the term coined by Marcuse (1964, 1968) to account for the gentle but firm control exercised over the populace. Gramsci (1977, pp. 53, 170-172, 185-189, 1978, pp. 233-235, 255-266, 443-459) pointed to the importance of the development of hegemonic forces by the ruling classes to underpin the enforcement of their will. Poulantzas (1978) argued that the ruling classes rely on ideology rather than direct repression in their efforts to control the working people. All these accounts share a common feature. They all maintain that the state and the ruling classes ensure that a ruling class version of the ongoing reality is accepted by the bulk of the citizens by means of ideological control.

But welfare recipients and those refused welfare assistance, encounter far more obvious control than do any other section of the citizenry. This control is manifested in the policy that the nuclear family shall be the “recognised” economic unit and shall be the locus for primary welfare help, as well as responsible for the reproduction of the next generation of workers and workless. Whether the state exemplifies its control functions by the enforcement of the work ethic, by being a more jealous husband than the man a woman has left, or by enforcing particular child care policies, the state is omnipresent in the lives of welfare recipients.

In supplying benefits and in containing dissent the welfare system serves a legitimating function for capital. By the way the welfare system delivers its benefits; the circumscribed nature of much social welfare research; the use particularly of residualist definitions of who will and who will not be helped; the very real limitations to the redistributive functions; and several other aspects of need determination; the welfare system serves to disguise the privilege of the more affluent and acts to support the status quo.


Althusser, L. (1977)For Marx. (trans. Brewster, B.) Verso, London.
Cass, B. (1985) “Poverty: Issues for further research and social policy” in Targeting Welfare Expenditures on the Poor, Policy Co-ordination Unit, Department of Community Services, Canberra.
Corrigan, P. and Leonard, P.(1979) Social Work Practice under Capitalism: A Marxist Approach. Macmillan, London.
McKnight, J. (1977) “Professionalised service and disabled help” in Illich, I. et al, Disabling Professions. Marion Boyers, London, 1977
Mishra, R. (1981) Society and Social Policy. Macmillan, London, 1981, p.37.
Taylor-Gooby, P. and Dale, J. Social Theory and Social Welfare, Edward Arnold, London, 1981, p.32