What Is a General Welfare Clause?

Mary McMahon

A general welfare clause is a section of a nation's constitution, charter, or similar founding document spelling out a mandate for the legislature to address the welfare of the population. Many nations have these clauses and they are sometimes contentious because there are disputes about what “general welfare” means and what was intended when these clauses were written. In several nations, disputes have reached the court system and judges have weighed in on the debate with legal opinions intended to provide direction and guidance.

A welfare clause is a section of a nation's constitution.
A welfare clause is a section of a nation's constitution.

Broadly, general welfare causes generally direct the legislature to pass laws to protect the health and safety of the citizens. In addition to being important for individual citizens, this also promotes national security. Such laws can include regulations to control borders, establishment of public health agencies, and other measures intended to keep the population safe and healthy. Some people believe their governments should serve their citizens and argue that welfare clauses create a mandate for the government to look after the best interests of the people.

In many regions, a general welfare clause is also taken to mean that the legislature has a responsibility to establish school systems and to provide other social services to the population. This is where the crux of debate over these clauses often lies. Some citizens think the powers of the government should be strictly limited and argue against such interpretations of the general welfare cause on the grounds that if the document does not specifically enumerate a power, the power should not be assumed by the legislature.

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General welfare clauses are often tied in with sections of the document pertaining to taxes, tariffs, and other monies collected by the government. These monies are used to fund programs established under the clause. There are disputes over the situations when the government is allowed to collect money, how the money shall be used, and who decides how to use it. Many of these disputes involve challenges to the definition of “general welfare” and arguments about whether the government should be made responsible for paying for services needed by citizens.

Nations that include a general welfare clause in their founding documents often have an accompanying body of critical discussion and legal decisions dissecting the clause and probing its meaning. Disputes over such clauses can involve very stark ideological dividing lines between groups of people. As administrations and legislatures change, the general welfare clause may be interpreted more or less broadly in response to changing political thinking.

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