I agree with Jody Heymann’s description of the present state of U.S. social policy, in particular its treatment of working-class and poor parents and their children—treatment that becomes increasingly disgraceful as one descends the uniquely unequal American income ladder. And I agree, also, with her description of a more ameliorative social policy for working families. But I am less confident that the equal opportunity idea that she cites at the start of her essay provides the critical leverage that she needs.

Gunnar Myrdal said that the American credo comprises a short list of common beliefs including the “dear belief that all people have an equal opportunity…an equal chance at succeeding…if one works hard.” Heymann suggests that a better deal can be achieved for working families by wrapping policy demands in the language of this “dear belief.” The credo is sound: what we need to do is “modernize” its realization in light of changed family structures, work arrangements, and the like. Because the value of equal opportunity is widely shared, it is a rhetorical strategy that might plausibly help organize needed political support, as well as provide a principled basis for judging policy alternatives.

But precisely because the rhetoric of equal opportunity is so widely shared—by progressives and conservatives alike—the message may not be very effective. Equal opportunity has now become something of a political mantra, and may serve more as a smokescreen than a useful guide to policy. One must not forget how deeply moving Governor Bush was during his 2000 campaign as he promised to offer to all American children an equal opportunity to live out the American dream.

In reality, no current U.S. policy initiative truly embodies the principle of equal opportunity in the real life of American working parents and their children, at least when compared with equal opportunity programs in European welfare states. The situation described by Heymann is a confirmation of the fact that social and economic rights have never been seriously extended to U.S. citizens. Perhaps in the end, the equal opportunity principle is a matter of rhetorical commitment more than practical credo. Perhaps it is time to rethink the principle itself.

That rethinking should start with a shift of attention from opportunity to capability. The concept of capabilities, developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, takes into consideration the scope of a person’sactual choices: the alternatives that a person really could pursue if he or she chose, as opposed to those that are permissible but not really available. It is not only a semantic change, but also a change of focus: it looks at one’s real chances in dealing with the various requirements of life (working, family, etc.) in a fair way.

Founding a vision of social justice on a conception of rights in terms of opportunity does not seem suitable for today’s challenges. Indeed freedom of choice is not merely a matter of personal virtue, individual opportunity, and private resources. Nor is it a simple matter of substantive redistribution through state policies. Instead, it depends importantly on the ability to coordinate actions with other people.1 A capability-based approach to social justice may allow us to address the collective dimension of social life that appears decisive in today’s situation.

Indeed, to tackle the problems of working families caused by the new patterns of work in our capitalist post-industrial societies, we need to reconfigure regulatory practices. In today’s world of flexible work and fragile democracy, state regulation should seek to build a new public framework to provide real means for citizens to act together. Looking for ways to improve capabilities of citizens to pursue joint actions requires taking the collective dimension of life (and thus, democracy) into consideration.2 In policy terms, this implies that working parents not only deserve days of paid family leave, and that elderly and disabled adults deserve opportunities and anti-age-discrimination policies in the workplace. It means that they all deserve true capabilities to meet, discuss, and be partners in decisions regarding their own lives, (i.e., at work and at school) and also regarding areas of common concern (public administration, health, transportation, and so on). That is the meaning of collective rights, both social and economic.

Applied to policy, this strategy would not only mean providing more funding for schools, particularly those serving underprivileged populations, but also—drawing some examples from the Belgian experience, which I know best—setting up participatory boards (Belgium’s Conseils de participation) where pupils or their delegates meet with the different school stakeholders and participate in defining the many aspects of life at school (from the educational project to the need to get a smoking section in the cafeteria). For clerks, the strategy would mean participating in a team (Belgium’s îlots-caisses) that can negotiate individual schedules based on the specific needs of both the employer (opening hours, sales requirements, number of patrons, etc.) and their family lives. By pooling employees with different backgrounds (single mothers, students, older people without children), this mode of work organization—under the supervision of both the employer and union representatives—gives employees the opportunity to reclaim their own capacity for organizing their lives out of work while addressing their employer’s need for flexibility. For those living on welfare, the strategy would bring beneficiaries together on a local basis in committees (Belgium’s Comités d’usagers) to help define their own needs and to engage in important acts of self-definition and negotiation.

At a time when the state is no longer able to address every single problem, much less imagine and enforce a solution, it is of crucial importance to equip every citizen with the capabilities to participate in his or her society. And securing this participation is essential if “we the people” want to live in an effective democracy.


1 Amartya Sen observes that there are “systematic disparities in the freedoms men and woman enjoy in different societies, and these disparities are often not reducible to differences in income and resources.” See Inequality Reexamined, 1992, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 122. Regarding inequality between men and women in the Western societies, one of the main challenges is to make sense of why people (think of men and women) with the same amount of resources may still find themselves with very different real choices when it comes to orienting their own lives in accordance with their own desires.

2 For more on this, see Jean De Munck and Isabelle Ferreras, “Collective Rights, Deliberation and Capabilities,” in Towards a European Politics of Capabilities? eds. Robert Salais and Robert Villeneuve, forthcoming.