Event—Public Programming

Work Requirements: Toward a Literary History of Social Welfare


From colonial poor laws to twentieth-century workfare, it has long passed for common sense that only people willing to work deserve help. But what counts as work, and why should work count for so much? I take up these questions by turning to the explosion of industrial print culture in the late nineteenth century, an era when social welfare became a specifically textual project. I show how the documentary genres used to distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving” circulated promiscuously across the domains of public policy, social science, and literature. These itinerant trajectories reveal the effort that went into making work seem naturally meaningful. But they also illuminate how amateur writers reproduced, remade, and even refused the model of economic citizenship they were offered.