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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Disability Law Journal


Poverty, Welfare Reform, and the Meaning of Disability


The coincidence of poverty and disability has been widely acknowledged. The focus has been on the degree to which individuals with mental and physical disabilities face poverty because of their exclusion from the labor market and societal discrimination. There has been less concern, however, with the degree to which disability and illness are distributed in ways that reflect gender, racial, and economic inequalities.

Historically, poverty and disability have been addressed by separate governmental agencies and social assistance programs. With minor exceptions, disability has been addressed through programs structured on a social insurance model while poverty has been dealt with by a means-tested public-assistance model. The nature and mode of assistance provided through both models reinforce a social and economic system in which the ideal citizen is a male engaged in waged work that provides sufficient income for family support and who is without responsibility for caretaking work within the home. Because this ideal neither reflects the lived experience of most families nor addresses the structural causes of poverty or the inequitable distribution of poverty and disability in society, the development of a new ideal or ethic must be promoted.

In this article, the authors examine the nature of the association between poverty and disability with the goal of encouraging more comprehensive forms of social provision that confront the inequitable distribution of illness and disability as well as the economic and social structures that generate these patterns. These measures would benefit individuals who experience disability or impairment but who also confront the forces that maintain widespread poverty.

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