Remembering Joel Handler (1932-2022)

October 6, 2022

Joel Handler
Joel Handler

Joel Handler, Richard C. Maxwell Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at UCLA School of Law and a seminal interdisciplinary scholar who helped define the field of poverty law, died on September 22, 2022. He was 89 years old.

For more than five decades, Handler’s decorated work broke new ground by drawing attention to how law shaped the experiences of poor people and how it could be used as a tool to promote equal justice. His work consistently brought rigorous analysis to reveal inequalities others ignored and pioneered the use of empirical methods to study the impact of law on poor people and other marginalized groups. His remarkable influence and range made him one of the world’s leading scholars of social welfare policy and administration, government bureaucracy, law and social change, social citizenship, and sociolegal theory. For his remarkable work, Handler received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a German Marshall Fund grant, and a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Bellagio, Italy.

A foundational figure in the Law & Society Association, he served as its president from 1991 to 1993, and won its Harry J. Kalven, Jr. Prize for career achievement in 1999. He is widely remembered for building the sociolegal community by mentoring countless new scholars from a range of disciplines and defining the Law & Society Association as a welcoming space of critical engagement on the most pressing social issues of the times.

Joel Handler with UCLA Law students
Joel Handler with UCLA Law students.

He brought the same community-building ethos and generosity of spirit to his more than 25 years on the UCLA School of Law faculty, where he left an indelible imprint on a generation of students and colleagues. At UCLA, Handler led the growth of the LL.M. program, supporting a generation of international scholars whose work has carried on his influence, and helped organize what is now the School of Public Affairs. For two decades, he taught what was one of the nation’s only courses on law and the poor—requiring students to spend time in the local welfare office to understand the experience of welfare recipients—of which he was extraordinarily proud. He received the ACLU Foundation of Southern California’s Distinguished Professor Award for Civil Liberties Education.

On the occasion of Handler’s retirement, in 2011, the UCLA Law Review hosted “Poverty and the Bureaucratic State: A Symposium in Honor of Joel Handler.” Seventeen distinguished scholars, ranging from Handler’s generation of law and society pioneers to those still early in their careers, gathered to comment on and discuss Handler’s many contributions and the ongoing vitality of the research traditions he influenced.

Handler was renowned for unsurpassed productivity and extraordinary intellectual breadth. He authored twenty-three books, the best known of which are The “Deserving Poor”: A Study in Welfare Administration (with Ellen Jane Hollingsworth) (1971), Social Movements and the Legal System: A Theory of Law Reform and Social Change (1978), The Conditions of Discretion: Autonomy, Community, Bureaucracy (1986), The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America (with Yeheskel Hasenfeld) (1991), and Social Citizenship and Workfare in the United States and Western Europe: The Paradox of Inclusion (2004). His classic, Down from Bureaucracy: The Ambiguity of Privatization and Empowerment (1996), won the Gladys M. Kammerer Award for the best political science publication in the field of U.S. national policy.

Joel and Betsy Handler
Joel and Betsy Handler.

Handler earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1954 and graduated from Harvard Law School three years later. Before coming to UCLA in 1985, Handler had spent more than twenty years at the University of Wisconsin, where he was the George A. Wiley and Vilas Research Professor of Law, having also served as a senior researcher in the Institute for Poverty Research and chair of the Governor’s Task Force for the Reform of General Relief. As a mark of his status and influence, Handler was invited to be a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee on the Status of Black America and chaired the academy's panel on high-risk youth.

In 2004, Handler was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the highest honors in the nation recognizing interdisciplinary leadership and vision.

Handler is survived by his beloved wife, Betsy, whose work as a public interest lawyer was a source of enormous pride and admiration. Handler also left a loving, and growing, family of three children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild – with twins on the way.


Contributions in Joel Handler’s memory can be made to UCLA’s Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy or the University of Wisconsin Law School.

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