The Public Interest

The California work/welfare scheme

David L. Kirp

Spring 1986

FOUR CENTURIES AGO, plagued by mobs of angry peasants unable to support themselves, the French city of Lyon put in place its “vision of peace.” That “vision” seems peculiarly anachronistic, for what Lyon did bears marked resemblance to the schemes propounded by contemporary architects of welfare reform. The truly needy received cash assistance; the sick got free medical attention; schools were established to teach basic literacy, on the theory that this training would make its beneficiaries more readily employable; and manufacturers who accepted poor children as apprentices received a public subsidy. There was even a version of workfare for the incorrigibles, which took the form of ditch-digging.

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