The recent concern to develop a radical but critical account of agency in social policy is to be welcomed. However this article questions whether the work of A. Giddens can provide an adequate foundation for such a project. Giddens's account of the welfare subject contains several weaknesses. It is voluntaristic and yet paradoxically it cannot offer an adequate understanding of radical change. It is also rationalistic and assumes the existences of a unitary and knowledgeable subject. As a consequence there is a danger that social policy develops a lop-sided model of agency which is insufficiently sensitive to the passionate, tragic and contradictory dimensions of human experience. A robust account of the active welfare subject must be prepared to confront the real experiences of powerlessness and psychic injury which result from injustice and oppression and acknowledge human capacities for destructiveness towards self and others. Only by exploring these different subject positions – victim, ‘own worst enemy’ and creative, reflexive agent – can we develop an understanding of the welfare subject which is optimistic without being naive.