The importance of moral culture in questions of welfare deservingness – the case of the US

Jacob Didia-Hansen

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Deservingness theory is gaining popularity in the study of European welfare attitudes but has found little application in the United States. In this article, the author explores what happens if deservingness theory is applied in the study of American perceptions of deservingness and ask which criteria Americans use when deciding the deservingness of needy individuals.


To capture the variation in American perceptions of deservingness, the author compared qualitative data from two cases. The first case is the liberal northeastern city of Boston, Massachusetts, where 19 interviews were collected, and the second case is the conservative southern city of Knoxville, Tennessee, where 26 interviews were collected. To ensure that any differences in the use of deservingness criteria are due to differences in moral culture, the author chose to interview a similar segment in both cases – the white middle class.


The author found that interviewees in both cases defined deserving individuals as those whose neediness is due to factors beyond their control and undeserving individuals as those whose neediness is caused by their own poor work ethic. Furthermore, the author found three so-called context-related criteria that do not fit into the existing deservingness framework: a criterion following a cost-benefit logic, the principle of universalism and a principle based on family obligations.


These findings confirm trends in recent deservingness studies indicating that the sensitivity of deservingness theory to the importance of moral culture in the use of both deservingness criteria and context-related criteria must continue to develop.
TidsskriftInternational Journal of Sociology and Social Policy
Udgave nummer11-12
Sider (fra-til)1066-1079
Antal sider14
StatusUdgivet - 23 sep. 2022