Disability and the Persistence of Poverty: Reconstructing Disability Allowances

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Disability policy has always been deeply immersed in questions relating to the relationships between disability and poverty. Ever since the Poor Laws of eighteenth century England there has been a constant effort to separate disability from poverty. This effort has been enhanced with the rise of the modern welfare state during the nineteenth century and has culminated in the 20 years that have passed since the enactment of the ADA. It is time, I argue, to reexamine the nexus between disability and poverty and attend to their co-constitutive relationships. I suggest a reconstructive reading of disability allowances as a locus of the transition from an understanding of disability and poverty as two overlapping categories to an emphasis on the constitutive relationships between them; a transition from a heavily civil rights based discourse to a social welfare oriented discussion that internalizes the actual needs of disabled people who live in poverty. These issues have generally gone unnoticed in the literature, rendering the understanding of the politics that surround disability allowances incomplete. Focusing on the construction and negation of disability allowances, the paper identifies and traces the roots of a fundamental tension that underlies disability politics with regard to disability allowances: Are cash benefits an archaic and outdated form of assistance to disabled people, or are they still a relevant mode of response to their systematic marginalization and exclusion? Based on a field study of the Israeli disability community the paper shows that while disability rights advocates tend to reject disability allowances as fundamentally wrong and to support the transformation of society's social structures, welfare activists tend to view disability allowances as a response to a pressing necessity, an expression of social responsibility, and a means to provide economic security for disabled people. The paper employs a disability legal studies framework to analyze the study’s findings, attending primarily to questions of power and difference, and offering a framework that considers both perspectives as two authentic voices that express genuine concerns. At the same time, the analysis maintains that both approaches lack a more complex understanding of the relationships between disability and poverty, within which the meanings of disability allowances are negotiated. It concludes with a call to re-conceptualize disability allowances, as a form of compensation that redresses disabled people – individually and collectively – for society's past and present continuing practices of exclusion and discrimination. The struggles of disabled people over rights and allowances become a fascinating site from which to draw the critical lessons that disability activism has to offer to social theory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)178-214
JournalNorthwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy
Issue number1
StatePublished - 26 May 2011


  • disability allowances
  • disability studies
  • disability law
  • social welfare


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