To be self-reliant has been a dominant norm in Western societies since early Christianity. Today the concept has the symbolic purpose of maintaining individualism and the work ethic in capitalism and reducing dependency on the state. This article contrasts the original meaning of individual self-reliance with its contemporary use in public discourses on welfare. We demonstrate the vagueness of the term and its varying interpretations. Using examples from the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway, the article attempts to demonstrate that the hegemonic use of the concepts of self-reliance and dependency today provides ideological justifications for keeping people in poverty and outside the mainstream of life. It increases social distance and promotes marginality. The article concludes by suggesting that other ways for solving problems of balancing rights and duties of citizens have to be found in order to maintain a fair distribution of dignity and social integration.