This article discusses the classic welfare state problem of balancing universal values with an attention to particular individuals and needs. Welfare for marginalized citizens is addressed as a particular urgent case in point. The article first considers Baumann as emblematic for a postmodern position on welfare. In contrast, Luhmann's systems theory is then presented to form a program of observation of concrete welfare services, using the ‘rigour’ of the latter to bound the ‘liquidity’ of the first. Instead of suspecting modern institutions tout cout, the article analyses in detail the discursive ordering practices of welfare services for marginalized citizens, i.e. the homeless. On this basis, it contrasts what we term a ‘modern’ versus a ‘postmodern’ perspective upon organized welfare. Some limits to a postmodern position are indicated, in particular with respect to the ideal of including ‘the whole person’ in modern welfare arrangements.