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What is social policy?

International, interdisciplinary and applied.

PlattLucinda

Professor Lucinda Platt

Department of social policy.

Social policy is concerned with the ways societies across the world meet human needs for security, education, work, health and wellbeing. Social policy addresses how states and societies respond to global challenges of social, demographic and economic change, and of poverty, migration and globalisation. Social policy analyses the different roles of: national governments, the family, civil society, the market, and international organisations in providing services and support across the life course from childhood to old age. These services and support include child and family support, schooling and education, housing and neighbourhood renewal, income maintenance and poverty reduction, unemployment support and training, pensions, health and social care. Social policy aims to identify and find ways of reducing inequalities in access to services and support between social groups defined by socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, migration status, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age, and between countries.

At LSE, social policy is explicitly international , interdisciplinary and applied .

  • International : LSE social policy explicitly addresses social and public policy from both the perspective of advanced welfare systems and that of developing countries. It pays close attention to the different configurations of public policy actors (state, family, market, civil society) involved in delivering social welfare in different contexts.
  • Interdisciplinary : The LSE approach to social and public policy involves a broad interdisciplinary understanding of the conditions, institutions and mechanisms of social change, drawing on perspectives from anthropology, criminology, demography, economics, political science, sociology, and development.
  • Applied : LSE social policy emphasises the analytical and conceptual skills necessary for interrogating social problems, analysing how social policies are implemented, and evaluating the (positive and negative) consequences of those policies, across a range of topic areas, and across high, middle and low income country contexts. 

History of the Department

The four founders of the LSE, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw were committed to establishing a fairer society by studying the causes of poverty and analysing inequalities. These concerns are at the heart of LSE Social Policy today. LSE social policy department itself has been addressing questions of social provision, inequality, and policies to address social problems since 1912. In this year, the Department of Social Science and Administration took over the School of Sociology, founded by the Charity Organisation Society to provide training for welfare workers, and also received a donation from Ratan Tata to support research into poverty, inequality and welfare. The department was thus jointly created for teaching and research. It was renamed the Department of Social Policy in 1999.

Learn more about key figures in the foundations of the LSE social policy department on the LSE timeline  and through the LSE digital library .

Learn more about LSE Pioneers in Social Policy here .

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Beatrice and Sidney Webb

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What is social policy?

by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby FBA

Social policy is a field of study rather than a discipline. It focuses on human need and what governments and other bodies can do to meet it. It developed as an academic practice in western countries after the Second World War, alongside the rise of the welfare state. The core areas of study were initially health services, personal social services and social care, housing and homelessness, cash benefits and pensions, education, and the government policies, regulations and financing that support and shape them.

As the welfare state developed, social policy scholars identified the gaps in welfare provision and the assumptions about priorities and about how people live that directed provision. Scholars pointed out the reliance of the welfare state on a particular form of family, with implications for gender roles and opportunities for women and men, and on particular patterns of employment and working life. They paid increasing attention to gender, race and ethnicity, poverty, wealth and inequality, child care, rights and inequalities in the workplace, ageing policy, mental health issues, how people think about the deserving and undeserving poor, and, more broadly, political attitudes as they influence welfare. They noted the ways in which some policies reinforce privilege and inequality and pointed to the implications of tax breaks, private schooling and subsidies for owner occupation and private transport. A new field of comparative, cross-national and global social policy emerged, examining the differences in human welfare and in provision to advance it in societies across the world.

The welfare state is now on the defensive. British society has become more diverse, divided and unequal. Social policy has responded by developing further new areas of interest: how climate change affects people’s lives, especially those of the most vulnerable; immigration and citizen’s rights and how government succeeds or fails in addressing these; social cohesion and social division; precarity in work, minimum and living wages and modern slavery; in regional inequalities and how they are developing; the policing of the poor; and education and social mobility, upwards and downwards.

Two men sitting on the ground by an empty glass building unit with a sign saying "To let". They're covering themselves with blankets and one of them is holding a plastic cup for change.

As the state retreats from social provision, social policy has addressed new providers alongside government: NGOs and charities, active in elder care, homelessness and housing, education, poverty and food banks, as well as in political lobbying to shape provision; the private for-profit sector, the dominant player in social care and increasingly important in health care, education, pre-schooling and day nurseries, and in relation to pensions; employers’ provision for both lower-paid and better-off groups; and local citizens’ groups, increasingly important in the politics of welfare.

Since it is not a discipline, social policy depends for its relevance on social need and social welfare and the nature of the agencies which seek to address them. Some commentators suggest that the contraction of the welfare state and the fragmentation of provision signal the decline of social policy as a field of study. The various areas and issues fit more or less into existing disciplines and could continue perfectly well without a separate area of focus. This ignores the merits of an approach which is multi-disciplinary and normative.

Social policy rests on sociology, demography, political science, social philosophy, psychology, economics and history. It’s concerned with measurement and meanings, with qualitative experience, with policy-making, regulation and finance, with understandings, and with social change. Academic social policy signals a concern with the complexity of human welfare and how our society fails and succeeds in meeting it.

Social policy is concerned with welfare and human need. These concepts are contested but are irredeemably normative. As the divisions between rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, frail elderly and young, well and poorly-educated, those who live in growing or declining regions and the lucky and unlucky grow wider, the need for a focus on people who lose out, for a commitment to the interests of the most vulnerable, grows ever stronger. This is the case for social policy as an academic practice.

Peter Taylor-Gooby  is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent . He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2009 and is part of the working group for the Cohesive Societies programme.

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Social Policy Association

What is Social Policy?

Social Policy is an interdisciplinary and applied academic subject concerning human needs, social justice and individual and collective wellbeing. It studies how governments, families, companies and organisations in different social sectors distribute and redistribute resources and opportunities to people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

See the Social Policy Association’s introduction to Social Policy below (subtitles appear behind play bar).

The videos below provide more information about the study of social policy.

Social policy can be theorised, evaluated, and prescribed from a number of different perspectives, each with its own ideology. This video describes some of these approaches.

The Quality Assurance Agency subject benchmark statement describes the nature of social policy as a subject, and sets out what social policy graduates can be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their studies.

Social Policy draws on a wide range of disciplines with research being undertaken across the UK and internationally. Much of this research has a significant impact on the policy and practice of institutions but also on the lives and outcomes of individuals and communities.

Click here for a range of examples of Social Policy Research projects.

Copyright: The Social Policy Association

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Article contents

Social welfare policy: overview.

  • Diana M. DiNitto Diana M. DiNitto University of Texas at Austin
  •  and  David H. Johnson David H. Johnson Millersville University of Pennsylvania
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.607
  • Published online: 11 June 2013
  • This version: 29 October 2021
  • Previous version

Social welfare policy may be defined as government’s response to human needs such as food, housing, healthcare, employment, and other necessities. Many contemporary U.S. social welfare policies have roots in the New Deal programs of the 1930s, which were responses to the Great Depression. The civil unrest of the 1960s, the “Great Recession” of 2008, and the COVID-19 pandemic also brought about major policy responses. There are basic philosophical differences in approaches that Americans believe the United States should take to meeting human needs, often described in liberal and conservative perspectives. Social insurance and public assistance programs are major responses to poverty and other needs. Disparities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors may also be addressed through social welfare policies, sometimes in the form of civil rights legislation. Racism and other forms of systemic discrimination, however, continue to prevent many Americans from reaping the benefits that others enjoy. The National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics calls for social workers’ political involvement. Social workers participate in all aspects of policy processes to improve the biopsychosocial well-being of Americans and people across the globe.

  • social welfare policy
  • social insurance
  • public assistance
  • human needs
  • macro social work

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Introduction and Definitions

The concept of social welfare refers broadly to the resources and opportunities people need to lead satisfying and productive lives (Midgley & Livermore, 2009 ). Virtually everything the government does affects social welfare, from tax and national defense to education and healthcare policy, but so does government inaction; that is, the failure to respond to human need (DiNitto & Johnson, 2016 ). More narrowly, definitions of social welfare policy focus on policies and programs that provide income assistance and social services to those in need.

In the United States, with its tradition of federalism or shared government, social welfare policy is made at local, state, and national levels. Policy is made by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government in the form of laws, executive orders and administrative regulations, and court decisions. A broad view of social welfare policy also recognizes that corporations as well as nonprofit and for-profit social service agencies make policies that affect the well-being of those they serve and the broader community and therefore have social implications. Many of today’s social welfare policies address basic human needs such as food, housing, healthcare, and employment, and many of them have roots in the New Deal programs of the 1930s, which were responses to the Great Depression. The civil unrest of the 1960s, the “Great Recession” of 2008 , and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 have also brought about social policy responses.

Policies, including social welfare policies, rest on who has the power to make policy and how they conceptualize and respond to human need. Poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare and housing, and child maltreatment have been targets of social welfare policies, but the forces that vie to influence policy often view these problems differently. The same is true for policies that affect the civil rights of people who have been disenfranchised, such as women, people of color, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities. Social workers, with their intimate knowledge of human needs, influence policy by helping to define social problems and develop corresponding policy responses. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and its policy and political arms engage in the policy process, and the 2013 program Grand Challenges for Social Work, initiated by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare ( 2021 ), is a major response of the social work profession to addressing human needs in contemporary society.

To meet human needs, conservatives (sometimes called neoliberals) have generally supported “residual,” means-tested, time-limited social welfare policies and services, whereas liberals have argued for “universal” or “institutional” social welfare policies that provide assistance to citizens as communal rights. Universal social insurance programs (primarily the Social Security retirement and disability programs and Medicare, which focus largely on helping older people) have become part of the fabric of the U.S. social welfare system. However, institutional social welfare policies adopted by other countries that can meet needs across the lifespan have never received broad political support in the United States; instead, residual programs providing limited assistance to those regarded as having genuine need have been favored (Patterson, 2000 ).

Socially constructed norms strongly influence how social issues are defined. Traditions of public debate and discourse encourage interest groups to influence the definition of social problems and lobby for policies that will advantage their members. Sometimes social issues are redefined in the policy arena, such as in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 , which allowed for government financing of healthcare programs for certain populations. Before the passage of this legislation, the U.S. Congress had largely rejected the federal government’s involvement in such programs. Sometimes it is the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than the 535 members of the U.S. Congress who resolve policy conflicts. For example, the Court’s 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson defined policies regarding race for decades, but in 1954 , in Brown v. Board of Education , the court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (DOCSTeach, n.d. , p. 11). Debates about the meaning of “family” and “marriage” also exemplify how social policies, such as the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 , may enforce specific norms and delegitimize behavior deemed inappropriate by those who hold power. The federal government and state legislatures clashed over the meaning of marriage and whether state recognition of same-sex marriage, also labeled “marriage equality,” violated federal policy until 2015 , when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally in Obergefell v. Hodges (Street Law, Inc., n.d. ).

U.S. history is rife with abuses of indigenous people and those brought as slaves and their successors who were denied the same rights as Whites, leaving a legacy of social and economic disparities. In the current social policy environment, some experts believe that corporate and business sectors have become so powerful that they dominate the policy process, making government (the president, Congress) less responsive to the social welfare needs of all but the wealthiest (Stiglitz, 2012 ). For example, opening public lands to oil, timber, and mineral corporations can have devastating effects for people and environments if appropriate safeguards are not in place (Gore, 2007 ). The dynamics of the competitive, globalized marketplace have adversely affected the industrial U.S. work force as corporations downsized, disappeared, or moved operations to other countries. The well-being of the American middle class has been affected by loss of purchasing power and reduced opportunities for upward social mobility. Tax legislation favoring the wealthiest Americans has exacerbated income inequality. The structural obstacles to social advancement faced by those with few economic resources and those who are targets of systemic discrimination remain numerous. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and racial protests in 2020 magnified these disparities.

Discrimination can take many forms. For example, in 1941 , after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, discrimination against people of Japanese heritage resulted in the internment of Japanese Americans in camps for fear they might act against the United States. Survivors of internment eventually received meager reparations. Recently, Asian Americans again became targets of violence over beliefs about the origins of COVID-19. The early 21st century in the United States was marked by the September 11, 2001 , terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the wake of these events, the civil rights of Muslims in the United States were threatened, and more resources were allocated to national defense and homeland security.

Given the range and importance of policy choices, social welfare competes with all other choices for attention and resources. Conservatives often oppose policies and programs directed at public social welfare provision as ineffective and inappropriate interference in the marketplace, and, at least since the Reagan administration, as causing dependency. Social policies that transferred and redistributed income from the wealthy to those who are poor, such as programs assisting women with young children struggling at the margins, have been harshly criticized and their recipients demonized. Since George W. Bush’s administration, efforts have been made to alter the structure of the Social Security system, which is the most universal and effective U.S. social welfare program for reducing poverty.

In the United States, groups such as the Poor People’s Campaign work to maintain a focus on meeting needs as social welfare policy faces continuous challenges. However, during the latter part of the 20th century , as political parties continued to debate how to promote overall economic growth, solutions to poverty and inequality largely faded from the public policy agenda (DiNitto & Johnson, 2016 ). The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths of Blacks at the hands of police shed new light on these issues. Joseph R. Biden’s administration sought to address these issues by appointing a cabinet marked by racial and gender diversity and supporting legislation such as a new COVID relief package called the American Rescue Plan. This legislation provided stimulus checks to individuals and families, extended unemployment benefits, increased subsidies to help Americans afford health insurance, and aided small businesses, among other provisions. Biden also accelerated the pace of administering COVID-19 vaccinations so the country could return to normalcy. While many of the plan’s provisions were short-term solutions to address the pandemic, Biden also hoped to achieve longer-term solutions that liberals or progressives identified as necessary to reduce income and wealth disparities. These proposals include a $15 federal minimum hourly wage; an increase in taxes for the wealthy to support free prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, 2 years of free community college education, and paid medical and family leave; an extension of tax credits included in the plan; and programs to help Blacks close the homeownership gap.

Philosophical and Ideological Underpinnings of U.S. Social Welfare Policy

The notion of citizenship carries specific rights and obligations. Individualism, personal liberty, and the rights of persons to pursue activities freely and without excessive governmental intrusion are hallmarks of U.S. political philosophy that inform policymaking. Political and social conservatives support market-oriented, limited government and private activities to promote social well-being and social welfare for those who are poor. Accordingly, conservatives support social welfare policies through tax spending initiatives that focus on the private social support systems such as homeownership, small business assistance, and other programs that tend to distribute wealth upwards. Liberals also support many such initiatives. Recognizing that social conditions often limit people’s ability to access opportunities that can increase self-sufficiency, liberals also promote public social programs that offer direct support to those who are economically disadvantaged, including the country’s working poor. These programs include Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program), and others that provide either direct cash or in-kind assistance and distribute wealth downward (Faricy, 2015 ). Both liberals and conservatives support the largest cash assistance program for lower-income workers: The Earned Income Tax Credit, which conservatives endorse because it is based on recipients’ employment and liberals endorse because it provides significant cash payments to lower-income earners.

The conservative Tea Party, established in the early 21st century , proclaimed government itself to be regressive and nonresponsive to human needs. The radical left and progressive critics generally reject both conservative and liberal social policy perspectives because they believe that social inequality and social problems can be resolved most effectively by active social planning. They want to see government redistribution of wealth to those who are economically disadvantaged in order to combat the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich. For example, instead of giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest Americans, government could ease the burden of skyrocketing student debt as the costs of public higher education are increasingly shifted from government to students and their families.

The Republican Party has long held that government should limit business regulation because they believe that giving entrepreneurs freer rein to take risks will create new jobs. Ostensibly, to reduce the federal debt, Republicans encourage cutting back government programs and services, including social welfare programs, but instead of using the savings from these cutbacks to pay down the debt, they use them to reduce taxes on “job creators.” Evidence of this is seen in legislation such as the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (Williamson, 2018 ). Democrats argue that the best way to attack national debt is to create a more progressive tax system that will increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help fund critical government social programs, while offering tax incentives and other supports for businesses to sustain the workforce with a living wage (Democratic National Committee, 2021 ).

Social Welfare Policy History

The Progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States was marked by rapid industrialization and influxes of immigrants. Many Progressive-era policies focused on employment, such as workers’ compensation laws, which provided income support to injured workers. Conservative businessmen supported these policies because they realized it was better for the state to aid injured workers than to subject business to the uncertainties of injured workers’ negligence lawsuits and unpredictable jury verdicts (Herrick, 2009 ). Other improvements in labor legislation included minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and protections for women workers. Minimum wage laws favored White men since employers were less likely to offer higher wages to immigrants of color and women (Leonard, 2016 ).

During this era, Jane Addams and other social work and allied reformers believed that government was obligated to protect poor women and children, who were seen as victims of industrialization. Despite opposition from both business and organized labor, “maternalist” reform achieved some success. Many states enacted mothers’ pensions that provided limited cash support to women and children in dire economic need (Gordon, 1994 ). Some states also established assistance programs for those who were elderly, blind, or had other disabilities. These programs were administered locally, and standards used to determine eligibility or payment levels were inconsistent, allowing local prejudices and biases about who were “worthy” recipients (Abramovitz, 2018 ). People of color were not the targets of the meager local and state government-sponsored social welfare support that did exist. Instead, African Americans faced rampant discrimination and the horrors of lynchings, especially in the South. With leadership from prominent African Americans such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National Urban League were founded to fight for African Americans’ civil rights and meet their social welfare needs (Lewis, 2020 ). Separate government policies and programs for Native Americans were marked by continued cultural degradation and abuse in programs such as boarding schools, first established in the late 1800s (Bear, 2008 ).

A major transformative social welfare policy termed “the New Deal” was enacted in the 1930s during the presidential administration of liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in response to the Great Depression. Unprecedented unemployment, poverty, and social unrest led FDR to note in his famous second inaugural speech in 1937 that he saw “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Policymakers understood that private charities, voluntary organizations, and local and state governments were unable to provide enough economic assistance to address the needs of millions of unemployed Americans. Nearly one third of private social-service agencies ceased operations between 1919 and 1932 (Trattner, 1998 ). The federal government assumed previously untapped authority to intervene in the economy, resulting in opposition from conservatives who felt New Deal policy innovations were unwarranted government interference in the lives of Americans. They branded it “socialism” to ward off support.

The Social Security Act of 1935 , the most sweeping New Deal social welfare legislation (crafted in part by two social workers in FDR’s administration, Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins), created new social insurance and public assistance programs. Social insurance included the Social Security pension (retirement) program, financed by payroll taxes on employees and employers. From the liberal perspective, Social Security was a way to transfer income to those in need, while conservatives viewed it as a cost savings measure. Unemployment insurance, a joint federal–state program, was also included. Residual “means-tested,” cash public assistance programs (often called “welfare”) were also a part of the Social Security Act. Similar to early Progressive-era programs, public assistance included Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) to help children in poor families, Old Age Assistance (OAA) for those aged 65 and older, and Aid to the Blind (AB). These programs were jointly financed by federal and state governments and administered locally. Benefits remained limited to the neediest, and discrimination persisted. Women of color, for example, were routinely denied ADC benefits on the grounds that their homes were not suitable, they were employable, or a man was living in the home, making them undeserving of aid (Nadasen, 2016 ). Progressive and radical critics, including some social workers, felt that the New Deal’s liberal reforms did not go far enough in addressing social inequality and the needs of working Americans; they argued for national planning and an institutional welfare state to distribute national wealth and end poverty (Reynolds, 1951 ; Selmi, 2005 ).

American social welfare programs grew incrementally, subject to political pressures and changing priorities (Jansson, 2020 ). In 1950 , another joint federal–state public assistance program, Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (APTD), was added to the Social Security Act. In 1962 , ADC became Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to recognize the family unit. The Social Security retirement program expanded in many ways. Agricultural workers, many of whom were people of color living in the South, and others not originally covered such as domestic workers were added. Dependents and survivors were made eligible for benefits. As of 1956 , workers who became disabled were also eligible. However, gender and racial equity continue to be concerns. Although Social Security provides a measure of economic security in retirement for those who worked for many years, those whose employment has been limited or who earned less, primarily women who have assumed home and family responsibilities, receive smaller pensions. Whether African Americans, with higher disability rates and shorter lifespans than whites, benefit equally from the program has been debated (DiNitto & Johnson, 2016 ). The social insurance programs do enjoy broad political and public support, and the Social Security retirement program has kept many retirees from falling into poverty.

Well-designed social policies can boost homeownership, education, and civic and political participation among less advantaged individuals as exemplified by policies such as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (Mettler, 2002 ). Better known as the G.I. Bill, this act continues to assist those who have served in the U.S. military. Such policies can also be undermined through discriminatory practices. For example, Blacks were denied benefits through redlining, in which banks refused to provide home loans in certain areas or denied loans to members of certain groups, exacerbating racial disparities in wealth and assets (Blakemore, 2021 ). President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services” came in 1948 . It faced opposition, and although military desegregation did follow, neither the word “desegregation” nor “integration” appear in the order (MacGregor, 2001 ). Furthermore, with regard to housing, the federal government did not pass the Fair Housing Act until 1968 .

Social welfare policies and programs were expanded during the War on Poverty and Great Society programs of the 1960s under the administration of liberal President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Major achievements in 1965 were enactment of Medicare, the federal government’s health insurance program for retired workers and their spouses, and Medicaid, which provides health insurance to many in poverty. The Food Stamp Program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was enacted in 1964 , and the Older Americans Act of 1965 continues to support many services for older adults, including meals provided at senior centers and home-delivered “meals on wheels.” The Head Start preschool program, aid for elementary and secondary school education, community health centers, major housing legislation, and many other social programs providing benefits and services were also adopted during President Johnson’s term in office.

Although considered a conservative, Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, who followed LBJ as president, proposed standardizing the nation’s major public assistance across states and communities and guaranteeing an annual income to those in poverty. The plan was debated, with the left asserting it provided too few benefits and the right viewing it as a deterrent to work (DiNitto & Johnson, 2016 ). AFDC was not reformed, but OAA, AB, and APTD became the new Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that guaranteed those who qualified a minimum federally financed payment, which the states could supplement (Diamond, 1973 ; Moynihan, 1973 ).

Public assistance programs remained controversial, with growing ADC/AFDC and SSI program rolls at the heart of the controversy. Between 1960 and 1980 , ADC/AFDC enrollment rose from 3.1% to 11.5% of U.S. families with children (U.S. House of Representatives, 1998 ). This encouraged critics, including President Reagan, to argue that “cheats” and “welfare queens” were abusing public assistance programs. The Work Incentive Now program, which required AFDC recipients to work to obtain aid, began a long retreat from support for families living in poverty. AFDC provided only a modicum of support, but conservative pundits and writers went on the offensive against “liberal” welfare policies.

The Reagan era brought antiwelfare sentiments to a new pitch. President Reagan was influenced by conservatives such as economist George Gilder ( 1981 ), who called public assistance programs “devastating” for the poor. The Reagan administration espoused the ideas of supply side economics with federal spending and tax cuts and business deregulation to improve the economy rather than Keynesian economics, which focused on stimulating consumers’ demand for goods and services. Reagan established a “new federalism” of “devolution,” that is, limiting federal involvement and spending and using block grants to return more responsibility for social welfare programs to the states. President George H. W. Bush, also a Republican, promised a “kinder and gentler America,” focusing on state responsibility and privatization of social services to improve efficiency. He also promised “no new taxes,” but escalating budget deficits caused him to retreat and raise taxes (Elving, 2018 ). A significant accomplishment during his administration was passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 , which expanded civil rights protections for people with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, and other sectors.

President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, campaigned to “end welfare as we know it” and angered liberals when he agreed with conservative Republican legislators who took control of Congress to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 . The act abolished the AFDC program and ended the federal entitlement to public assistance for children in economically needy families that had existed since the New Deal. In its place, the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program gave states block grants to establish public assistance programs consistent with changing social priorities. New rules required a “work first” approach, limited cash assistance to 5 years, and largely ignored approaches that would provide training and services that could lead to better jobs and more stable workforce attachment (Oh et al., 2020 ).

President George W. Bush favored an approach he called “compassionate conservatism,” which emphasized state and charitable programs rather than federal programs. He proposed federal funding for faith-based community services, based on the premise that local service providers could deliver the most humane and cost-effective human services, and he used his executive authority to fund an array of nonprofit faith-based social services (Smith, 2007 ). Private charitable organizations do play an important role in social welfare, but they lack the capacity to replace public programs (Konczal, 2014 ).

The Great Recession began in December 2007 , and the need for a strong federal response became more than apparent just as President Obama became the first African American president. The recession was due in part to stock market declines followed by the bursting of the housing bubble caused by the subprime lending debacle. Many could no longer afford their mortgage payments, and home foreclosures were rampant. Stock market losses depleted investment accounts causing many to put retirement plans on hold. Recent college graduates’ job prospects were dimmed. High unemployment (reaching a national rate of 10% in 2009 ) challenged local and state governments and social-service agencies to respond to increased needs for unemployment compensation, job retraining, and services to assist those in economic straits. To stave off a depression, the U.S. Congress passed two major pieces of legislation. President George W. Bush, a conservative Republican, signed the first, the Economic Emergency Stabilization Act of 2008 . It included the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was primarily a bailout for financial institutions. President Barack Obama signed the second, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 , which provided funds to aid states and localities and tax cuts for individuals and businesses, increased the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, extended unemployment insurance, and assisted unemployed workers with paying health insurance premiums. Significant funding went to help bolster Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing assistance, energy bill assistance, and public schools in low-income areas. Child care also received additional support (Smeeding et al., 2011 ). These were largely temporary measures to help Americans weather the economic downturn. No Republican representative and only three Republican senators voted for the ARRA. This period was also marked by corrosive political conflict, incivility, and vociferous debates about social welfare policies juxtaposed against “corporate welfare,” that is, aid to big business.

Policymaking is challenging because policymakers must contend with the competing goals of different constituent groups. In the case of social welfare, policymakers attempt to alleviate need, promote work, and decrease public assistance use among the most vulnerable Americans (Grogger & Karoly, 2005 ). From 1997 to 2011 , TANF caseloads dropped 50% (Loprest, 2012 ), but many single mothers (and others) who left public assistance programs were not on stable financial footing (Radey et al., 2016 ). Low-wage jobs with few, if any, benefits, such as health insurance, do not offer a decent standard of living. Public, nonprofit, and for-profit agencies often provide training and temporary services to assist those transitioning from “welfare to work”; however, changes in labor markets—the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, changing skill needs, and greater reliance on contract labor—make finding stable, full-time employment difficult. Other systemic barriers include the lack of universal child care and preschool, health insurance, and sick and family leave. If the goal is to reduce the need for public assistance, those living in poverty will need help meeting their basic needs so they can engage in education and training programs that will allow them to acquire the skills needed to obtain good jobs (Andersson et al., 2005 ; Austin, 2004 ).

The Obama administration’s signature achievement was fulfilling the promise to increase the number of Americans with adequate health insurance through passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 , often called the ACA, or “Obamacare.” The ACA helped more than 20 million Americans gain access to health insurance, and it made many other reforms to the organization and delivery of healthcare. Americans could no longer be denied health insurance due to preexisting conditions. Young adults could remain on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26. Additionally, a majority of states adopted Medicaid expansion that added more low-income Americans, including adults without disabilities and children who previously did not qualify, to the Medicaid program. Many Americans, especially those without employment-related health insurance, have used the federal and state exchanges established under the ACA to shop for health insurance, and many of them have qualified for subsidies to help pay their insurance premiums (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020 ).

After defeating Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 , Donald J. Trump pivoted to conservative government policies in both the social and economic arenas. He promised to abolish the ACA and succeeded in eroding some of the ACA’s major provisions, and he was accused of exacerbating racial, religious, gender, and nativist divisions in the country. As of this writing in 2021 , the administration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (the first woman and second person of color [Gershon, 2021 ] to be elected Vice President) signals a shift back to a more liberal ideology.

Poverty and Inequality

Reducing poverty and inequality has been a major focus of the social work profession since its inception. As the history of U.S. social welfare policy reveals, it generally takes a crisis to impel significant or new policy responses, and sometimes these responses are short-term. Emergency responses are necessary for at least three reasons. One is that the United States lacks universal social welfare programs such as national health insurance and children’s allowances or family support programs that can help Americans maintain stability when crises arise. A second is that many Americans’ wages are stretched so thin that they lack the financial assets to weather even a short-term economic crisis. Third is persistent racial discrimination and class divides that leave many Americans with insufficient income. Put another way, poverty and economic inequality are enduring social problems that underlie most other social problems.

U.S. poverty rates fluctuate along with the country’s economic health. The way poverty is measured is itself a source of controversy (Madrick, 2020 ), but according to the federal government’s official definition, in 1965 , 17.3% of Americans were poor compared to 11.1% in 1973 , 15% in 2012 , and 11.8% in 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021 ). Poverty rates also vary substantially by population group with differences persisting over time. In 2019 , the U.S. Census Bureau ( 2021 ) reported that 7.3% of non-Hispanic Whites, 7.3% of Asians, 18.8% of Blacks, and 15.7% of Hispanics were poor. The poverty rate was 14.4% for those under age 18, 9.4% for those aged 18–64, and 8.9% for those aged 65 and older. The child poverty rate was 8.3% for non-Hispanic Whites, 6.3% for Asians, 25.6% for Blacks, and 20.9% for Hispanics. It is likely that the poverty rate increased again in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic devastation.

Data from sources such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have long confirmed that U.S. poverty rates exceed those of many other developed nations, with child poverty rates particularly vexing. One way these other countries avoid such high child poverty rates is with more generous work supports and cash assistance for single mothers, and in doing so they produce better health and educational outcomes for children (Smeeding & Thévenot, 2016 ).

The states play an important role in social welfare policy, but they vary considerably in their demographic composition, rates of need, resources, and responses to human need. For example, in 2019 , poverty rates ranged from 3.7% in New Hampshire to 19.2% in Mississippi (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021 ). The rate of residents without health insurance was 3% in Massachusetts and 18.4% in Texas (Keisler-Starkey & Bunch, 2020 ). Without federal support for social welfare programs, state disparities would likely be greater.

Income inequality in the United States has grown considerably since the 1950s. In 1950 , families in the lowest-income quintile earned 4.5% of all U.S. personal income compared to 3.9% in 2019 , while those in the top quintile earned 42.7% in 1950 and 49.5% in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 ). Families in the middle quintiles have also lost income shares. During the late 20th century , as conservative, neoliberal, market-oriented perspectives came to dominate approaches to social welfare provision, the focus on the roots of structural inequality waned. As the wealth gap accelerated, some social scientists felt compelled to focus on enduring social and structural issues that impede progress. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz noted that the income of the top 1% of Americans amounts to nearly 25% of total national income, and that the top 1% controls 40% of total wealth (Stiglitz, 2012 ). In addition to income and wealth (asset) inequality, rates of economic and social mobility in the United States are lower than that of many national competitors. Rates of upward economic mobility are substantially lower and rates of downward mobility are higher for U.S. Blacks and American Indians than Whites, though Hispanics are making gains in upward mobility (Chetty et al., 2020 ).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the “Citizens United” case based on free speech rights opened the door for unlimited amounts of money to be used in political campaigns, thereby allowing wealthy interests to disproportionately influence candidate selection and social policy agendas. Political and government systems capitulate to powerful interests that deploy massive financial resources to influence policymaking, such as efforts to make the tax system favorable to corporate interests. The AFL-CIO ( 2019a ) reported that, following the 2017 corporate tax cut, corporate taxes fell by $93 billion in 2018 , a 31% reduction, and that 60 of the nation’s largest profitable corporations paid no federal income tax in 2018 . Effective social policy must also acknowledge the roles that campaign policy and tax policy could play in creating a much more just society.

The Future of U.S. Social Welfare Policy

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 , the stock market was bullish and the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.5%, the lowest in 50 years (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020a ). America’s fortunes turned on a dime. In March 2020 , Congress quickly approved the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide economic stimulus payments to many Americans and aid for businesses. The act offered at least a modicum of financial relief to stave off economic peril. By April 2020 , unemployment had skyrocketed to 14.7% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020b ), and the number of those infected by the virus grew exponentially. Many blamed the lack of presidential leadership for the extent of these outcomes. By June 2020 , more than 40 million Americans, or more than one in four workers, had applied for unemployment benefits (Tappe, 2020 ). As of June 18, 2021 , the World Health Organization reported nearly 600,000 deaths due to the virus in the United States and more than 3.8 million worldwide.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, several states asked the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the ACA. For the third time, the high court rebuffed these Republican challenges, this time by a vote of 7 to 2. The presidential debates that preceded the 2020 election also demonstrated Democratic candidates’ divisions on the best way to increase the number of Americans with health insurance. Candidates’ plans ranged from Senator Bernie Sanders championing a national, single-payer health insurance plan dubbed “Medicare for All” to former Vice President, now President, Joe Biden’s plan to improve the ACA. COVID-19 is a stark reminder of the need for continuous health insurance coverage and public policy that acknowledges that healthcare is a right rather than a privilege as all other developed countries have done.

At the end of 2020 , attention was on state leadership’s responsibility for stemming infections and administering the approved vaccines. After months of vacillation, Congress passed a second, but smaller COVID-19 relief bill in December 2020 . With so many applying for or receiving unemployment compensation and others in economic peril as well, food insecurity was on the rise. Food banks ramped up efforts to meet demand. Evictions and mortgage foreclosures also loomed as the Biden–Harris administration took office on January 20, 2021 . The COVID-19 pandemic may match the Great Depression in its economic, social, and psychological impacts on the United States and has sweeping implications for other countries as well.

Vaccination rates increased under the new presidential administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on social distancing and masking. The hope was that new outbreaks would be abated and that economic recovery would continue. As Americans looked ahead, the time seemed prime to reassess the nation’s social welfare policies and programs, but agreement on how to do this was lacking. At a minimum, liberals called for shoring up benefits in TANF, SNAP, and other programs and making work and other requirements more responsive to national, state, and local economic conditions. On the other hand, several Republican-controlled state legislatures wanted to make it more difficult to obtain and retain SNAP benefits in an effort to force people to work given labor shortages.

Progressives hoped to see more comprehensive policies to address long-standing problems of poverty and homelessness as well as mental health and substance use problems. For example, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities face high unemployment rates even in the best of economic times, and they struggle to secure resources such as personal attendants to help them live in their own homes. Some policies encourage people with disabilities to work, but others threaten them with loss of Medicaid or other benefits for doing so (DiNitto et al., 2016 ). Attendants are scarce due to low wages.

Other social issues also need attention, including criminal justice and police reform. Civil rights and equal employment policies were attempts to increase opportunities for women, people of color, and other groups. While some have benefited, these policies have not fundamentally altered the ways many organizations and social systems operate (Ray, 2019 ). Women still struggle for pay equity, and reproductive rights are under constant threat of erosion. Old Jim Crow laws were replaced by policies that fueled the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of Blacks (Alexander, 2011 ). Voting rights are under attack. The racial wealth gap persists and racial disparities continue to ignite tensions that must be addressed. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death from cardiopulmonary arrest while an officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck and similar incidents erupted in days of protest and civil unrest across the United States. Policy alone cannot end the country’s racial divides, but policies may help improve officers’ responses in police encounters (Wood et al., 2020 ).

In 2018 , the chief executive officers of S&P 500 companies earned on average 287 times more than the median employee (AFL-CIO, 2019b ). Given labor market changes, residual social policy responses are insufficient to address increasing structural inequality in the United States (Stiglitz, 2012 ). The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009 . As the pandemic lingers, whether a bill to increase it to $15 an hour can pass remains to be seen, although several states have raised their own minimum wages. Job training programs focused on helping more low-income individuals prepare for jobs in high-demand sectors in their immediate locales are needed along with supports like living allowances, child care, and job coaches that can help them complete training programs and secure stable employment (Oh et al., 2021 ). Suggestions to improve the economic situation of Blacks also include going beyond traditional approaches (e.g., higher minimum wages) that may help one generation but not necessarily the next; more fundamental changes may accrue from efforts such as reducing Whites’ racial bias and fostering social interactions among racial groups (Chetty et al., 2020 ).

Efforts to privatize Social Security have fallen by the wayside since the Great Recession. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores that changes to Social Security’s basic structure are not worth the risk. Congress stalled on making adjustments needed to ensure the program’s solvency for the long run as the ratio of workers to retirees has shrunk and people are living longer. Congress may want to review how the 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act, an excellent example of bipartisan policymaking, kept the program solvent (Cohen, 1983 ).

Throughout the world, social workers support policies that alter social structures to reduce social, racial, and gender inequalities by giving people more power and control over government decision-making. In the United States, the election of more women and people of color to local, state, and federal office is encouraging. Increasing voter participation is essential.

Social Workers and Social Policy

Continuing the social action tradition of social work pioneers such as Jane Addams, Bertha Reynolds, and Whitney Young, social workers use their knowledge, skills, and values to advocate for those who are underrepresented in policymaking (Marsh, 2005 ; Schneider, 2000 ). Equally important is empowering others, especially those whose voices are often not heard, to do the same. The NASW’s ( 2021 ) code of ethics calls on social workers to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully” (section 6.04). To prepare social workers to do this, the Council on Social Work Education ( 2015 ), the accrediting body for social work education programs in the United States, requires that social work education programs teach undergraduate and master’s students about policy and how to engage in policy practice.

Social workers have critical knowledge of the human condition and engage in all aspects of the policymaking process. They advise policymakers informally and more formally by lobbying and providing legislative testimony. They also engage in advocacy through activities such as community organization and participation in public demonstrations. They administer and work on the front lines of agencies that implement public policy, serve as staff members to elected officials, and seek elected office. Social workers have held local, state, and federal elective offices, including as members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. They also participate in party politics and campaign for candidates of their choosing. NASW ( 2018 ) publishes the policy statements adopted by its delegate assembly, and at the federal level and through its state chapters it engages in lobbying to influence social policy development. NASW state chapters provide many opportunities for social workers to become involved in policymaking. Political Action for Candidate Election, NASW’s political action committee, endorses candidates who support NASW’s policy agenda. In 2010 , social workers in Congress established the Congressional Social Work Caucus, which works to create a strong safety net of services and programs to achieve social, economic, and environmental justice for all Americans. The caucus collaborates with NASW and with the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, established in 2012 , to increase social workers’ participation in federal policy processes.

The founding of the Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work in 2013 (Association for Community Organization and Social Action, 2021 ) and the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign ( n.d. ) established in 2017 are two examples of how social workers can be prepared to engage more effectively in influencing social policy. This includes promoting a robust macro social work education curriculum that focuses on community, organizational, and policy practice, as well as embedding voting and civic engagement in the classroom and field education. It also includes moving the Grand Challenges from policy papers to collective action (American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, 2021 ).

Social workers have long played a vital role in helping the United States address economic crises, political turmoil, and the need for civil rights reform by providing services and participating in policymaking processes. Today, those roles include helping the nation and the world address the public health and economic crises and racial and gender disparities posed and exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Links to Digital Materials

  • American Public Human Services Association
  • Association for Policy Analysis and Management
  • Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Common Cause
  • League of Women Voters of the US
  • Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Poverty Solutions, University of Michigan
  • Progressive Policy Institute
  • Social Security Administration
  • The American Prospect
  • Urban Institute
  • U.S. Census Bureau
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office
  • U.S. House of Representatives
  • U.S. Senate
  • White House

Further Reading

  • Day, P. J. , & Schiele, J. (2013). A new history of social welfare (7th ed.). Pearson.
  • DiNitto, D. M. , & Johnson, D. H. (2016). Social welfare: Politics and public policy (8th ed.). Pearson.
  • Jansson, B. S. (2020). Social welfare policy and advocacy: Advancing social justice through eight policy sectors (2nd ed.). SAGE.
  • Kingdon, J. W. (2003). Agendas, alternatives, and public policy (2nd ed.). Pearson.
  • MacGregor, M. J., Jr. (2001). Integration of the armed forces, 1940–1965 . U.S. Army Center of Military History.
  • Ritter, J. (2019). Social work policy practice: Changing our community, nation, and the world (2nd ed.). Cognella.
  • Sabatier, P. A. , & Weible, C. M. (Eds.). (2014). Theories of the policy process (3rd ed.). Westview Press.
  • Trattner, W. (1998). From poor law to the welfare state: A history of social welfare in America (6th ed.). Free Press.
  • Abramovitz, M. (2018). Regulating the lives of women: Social welfare policy from colonial times to the present (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  • AFL-CIO . (2019a, June 25). AFL-CIO releases 2019 Executive Paywatch report [Press release].
  • AFL-CIO . (2019b, June 27). 12 facts you need to know from the 2019 AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch report .
  • Alexander, M. (2011). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Rev. ed.). New Press.
  • American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare . (2021). Grand challenges for social work .
  • Andersson, F. , Holzer, H. , & Lane, J. (2005). Moving up or moving on: Who advances in the low-wage labor market? Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Association for Community Organization and Social Action . (2021). Special commission .
  • Austin, M. (2004). Changing welfare services: Case studies in local welfare reform programs . Haworth Press.
  • Bear, C. (2008, May 12). American Indian boarding schools haunt many . National Public Radio.
  • Blakemore, E. (2021, April 20). How the GI Bill’s promise was denied to a million Black WWII veterans . A&E Television Networks.
  • Chetty, R. , Hendren, N. , Jones, M. R. , & Porter, S. R. (2020). Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective . Quarterly Journal of Economics , 135 (2), 711–783.
  • Cohen, W. J. (1983). Social security: The compromise and beyond . Save Our Security Education Fund.
  • Council on Social Work Education . (2015). 2015 educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs .
  • Democratic National Committee . (2021). Building a stronger, fairer economy .
  • Diamond, R. A. (1973, August). Future of social programs. Congressional Quarterly .
  • DiNitto, D. M. , Eisenbaum, E. , & Johnson, D. H. (2016). Disability policy: Embracing a civil rights perspective. In D. M. DiNitto & D. H. Johnson (Eds.), Social welfare: Politics and public policy (8th ed., pp. 196–235). Pearson.
  • DOCSTeach . (n.d.). Opinion in Brown v. Board of Education . National Archives.
  • Elving, R. (2018, December 4). 6 little words helped make George H.W. Bush (a 1-term) president . National Public Radio.
  • Faricy, C. G. (2015). Welfare for the wealthy: Parties, social spending, and inequality in the United States . Cambridge University Press.
  • Gershon, L. (2021, January 13). Who was Charles Curtis, the first vice president of color? Smithsonian Magazine .
  • Gilder, G. (1981). Wealth and poverty . Bantam Books.
  • Gordon, L. (1994). Pitied but not entitled: Single mothers and the history of welfare . Free Press.
  • Gore, A. (2007). The assault on reason . Penguin.
  • Grogger, J. , & Karoly, L. (2005). Welfare reform: Effects of a decade of change . Harvard University Press.
  • Herrick, J. (2009). Social policy and the Progressive Era. In J. Midgley & M. M. Livermore (Eds.), The handbook of social policy (pp. 114–132). SAGE.
  • Kaiser Family Foundation . (2020, October 30). Explaining health care reform: Questions about health insurance subsidies
  • Keisler-Starkey, K. , & Bunch, L. N. (2020, September). Health insurance coverage in the United States: 2019 (Current population report no. P60-271). U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Konczal, M. (2014, Spring). The voluntarism fantasy . Democracy: A Journal of Ideas , 32 .
  • Leonard, T. C. (2016, April 5). Op-ed: Minimum wages were first designed to keep women and minorities out of jobs . Los Angeles Times .
  • Lewis, F. (2020). African Americans in the Progressive Era . ThoughtCo.
  • Loprest, P. (2012, March). Temporary A ssistance for N eedy F amilies program: Research Synthesis Brief Series. Brief #08. How has the TANF caseload changed over time? Urban Institute and DHHS Administration on Children and Families.
  • Madrick, J. (2020, April 16). Testimony: How we measure poverty is failing Americans . Century Foundation.
  • Marsh, J. (2005). Social justice: Social work’s organizing value. Social Work , 50 (4), 293–294.
  • Mettler, S. (2002). Bringing the state back into civic engagement: Policy feedback effects of the G.I. Bill for the World War II veterans. American Political Science Review , 96 (2), 351–365.
  • Midgley, J. , & Livermore, M. (Eds.). (2009). The handbook of social policy (2nd ed.). SAGE.
  • Moynihan, D. P. (1973). The politics of a guaranteed income . Random House.
  • Nadasen, P. (2016, August 22). Welfare reform and the politics of race . AHA Today .
  • National Association of Social Workers . (2018). Social work speaks (11th ed.). NASW Press.
  • National Association of Social Workers . (2021). Code of ethics .
  • National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign . (n.d.). The National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign works to integrate nonpartisan voter engagement into social work education and practice .
  • Oh, S. , DiNitto, D. M. , & Kim, Y. (2021). Exiting poverty: A systematic review of postsecondary education and job skills training programs in the post-welfare reform era . International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy .
  • Oh, S. , DiNitto, D. M. , & Powers, D. A. (2020). A longitudinal evaluation of government-sponsored job skills training and basic employment services among U.S. baby boomers with economic disadvantages . Evaluation and Program Planning , 82 , Article 101845.
  • Patterson, J. (2000). America’s struggle against poverty in the twentieth century . Harvard University Press.
  • Radey, M. , DiNitto, D. M. , & Johnson, D. H. (2016). Helping needy families: An end to welfare as we knew it. In D. M. DiNitto & D. H. Johnson (Eds.), Social welfare: Politics and public policy (8th ed., pp. 237–280). Pearson.
  • Ray, V. (2019, November 19). Why so many organizations stay white . Harvard Business Review .
  • Reynolds, B. (1951). Social work and social living: Explorations in philosophy and practice . Citadel.
  • Roosevelt, F. D. (1937). Second inaugural address . FDR Presidential Library, File No. 1030, p. 9.
  • Schneider, R. (2000). Social work advocacy . Wadsworth.
  • Selmi, P. (2005). Mary van Kleeck. In J. Herrick & P. Stuart (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social welfare history (pp. 413–415). SAGE.
  • Smeeding, T. , & Thévenot, C. (2016). Addressing child poverty: How does the United States compare with other nations? Academic Pediatrics , 16 (Suppl. 3), S67–S75.
  • Smeeding, T. , Thompson, J. P. , Levanon, A. , & Burak, B. E. (2011). Poverty and income inequality in the early stages of the Great Recession. In D. Grusky , B. Western , & C. Wimer (Eds.), The Great Recession (pp. 82–126). SAGE.
  • Smith, S. (2007). Social services and social policy. Society , 44 (3), 54–59.
  • Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality . W. W. Norton.
  • Street Law, Inc. (n.d.). Landmark cases of the U.S. Supreme Court: Cases
  • Tappe, A. (2020, June 4). Nearly 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic . CNN Business.
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . (2020a, April). Monthly labor review .
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . (2020b, May 8). The employment situation—April 2020 .
  • U.S. Census Bureau . (2020, September 15). Table F-2. Share of aggregate income received by each fifth and top 5 percent of families .
  • U.S. Census Bureau . (2021, April 4). Poverty figures: Tables 2, 3, and 19 .
  • U.S. House of Representatives . (1998). Background material and data on programs within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means (Green Book), Section 7 .
  • Williamson, V. (2018). The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” and the 2018 midterms: Examining the potential electoral impact . Brookings Institution.
  • Wood, G. , Tyler, T. R. , & Papachristos, A. V. (2020). Procedural justice training reduces police use of force and complaints against officers . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , 117 (18), 9815–9821.

Related Articles

  • Social Policy: History (Colonial Times to 1900)
  • Social Policy: History (1900–1950)
  • Social Policy: History (1950–1980)
  • Social Policy: History (1980 to Present)
  • Congressional Social Work Caucus

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How is social policy different from public policy? 

As a global society, we face a raft of challenges in today’s world – discrimination, economic crises, the impacts of overpopulation, and ageing populations are just some of the social challenges we need to urgently address.  

Although both disciplines have a part to play in addressing these challenges, social policy and public policy aren’t exactly the same – there are key differences between the two and they’re distinct disciplines and areas of study.  

What is social policy? 

Social policy involves policies, principles, legislation and guidelines that aim to improve the welfare of people living in a society.  

Social policy can cover areas such as:  

Education  

Healthcare  

Employment  

Security  

Aged care  

Housing  

Community services  

Social policy also looks at how societies around the world address global challenges such as demographic, economic and social change, as well as migration, poverty, access to healthcare, inequality and globalisation.  

As an area of study, social policy is the interdisciplinary study of contemporary social, economic and political issues, such as inequality, poverty, discrimination, crime, unemployment, education, healthcare, and housing, and potential policy responses to these issues and challenges.      

What is public policy? 

Public policy relates to the policies and actions governments implement that impact the general public at large.  

Public policy can cover areas such as:  

Taxation  

Criminal law  

Labour laws  

Energy and emissions  

Agriculture  

Anti-corruption  

What’s the relationship between social policy and public policy? 

Although similar in that they both aim to improve and safeguard the welfare of society, there are key differences between social policy and public policy.  

Some of these key differences include:  

Social policy can be aimed at specific areas of society, such as specific marginalised communities, while public policy is generally aimed towards the general public

Social policy is focussed on addressing and resolving social issues specifically, such as racial and health disparities and educational and economic inequality, while public policy broadly covers any government-related actions concerning the general public at large

Social policy is essentially a subset of public policy, which means that while all social policies are public policies, not all public policies are social policies  

How can an MA Social Policy help you succeed in the social policy field? 

If you specifically want to make a positive real-world impact on the lives and wellbeing of societies and communities and help to resolve the social challenges facing them, social policy as an area of study and career is an ideal option that can be highly rewarding on both a personal and professional level.  

An MA in Social Policy will provide you with a deep insight into and understanding of the cultural, demographic, political, economic, and technological changes that globally shape social policy.  

This will enable you to carry out social research that’s informed by ethics, politics and methodology, and to create social policies with impact that help to drive society forward and promote human wellbeing, welfare and equality.  

With an MA in Social Policy , you’ll also gain the added benefit of developing a range of transferrable skills that are highly-sought-after by employers globally, such as advanced decision-making, problem-solving, analytical and critical thinking, and research skills.   

An MA in Social Policy will empower you to develop and implement social policies that improve our global society and create a positive impact in the lives of both current and future generations.  

Discover how the University of Central Lancashire’s online MA Social Policy can empower you with the skills and expertise you need to address global social issues and challenges and implement policies that have a positive impact:

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102 Social Policy Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best social policy topic ideas & essay examples, 🎓 good research topics about social policy, ⭐ simple & easy social policy essay titles, ❓ social policy essay questions.

  • Contemporary Issues in Social Policy The emergent problems need to be addressed from the perspective of treating the most vulnerable members of society, as well as define to what extent the unemployment rates and low-income rates influence the accomplishment of […]
  • Poverty, Inequality and Social Policy Understanding The roots of inequality can relate to both welfare and some other factors, for example, the judiciary. Therefore, the principle of equality is violated, and social norms cannot be considered to be respected.
  • Social Policy Regimes and Enhance the Social Conditions Social policy is a discipline that employs multidisciplinary approaches in the study of problems that affect social processes and the welfare of human beings in society.
  • Australian Social Policy and Child Protection The social policy of Australia considers the protection of children and the quality of their lives a central concern. The initiative of the policy is to change the way Australian child protection agencies approach the […]
  • Social Policy on Substance Use Disorders Notably, there is a need to account for all the specific needs of the different subsets of abusers. Owens in the fifth segment of the six podcast series on policy formation for resiliency on victims […]
  • Income Equality and Social Policy Advocacy Lag The lag in income equality can be seen from statistical data: the income inequality ratio in the US is nine to one, which is worse than in Portugal, the UK, France, Canada, Germany, and some […]
  • Social Security Benefits: A Policy Proposal At the same time, the advantage of this law is the expansion of benefits, which will contribute to the refinement of individuals and the equal provision of payments.
  • Lee Enterprises Inc.’s Social Media Policy Case The NLRB concluded that the company’s action was within the law since the employer sent offensive messages that failed to involve protected concerted activity. The company intended to use the employee to facilitate the creation […]
  • Social Welfare Policy Analysis and Letter to Legislator Social welfare policy development should integrate economic and social aspects to protect vulnerable groups through social assistance and services in the current social-economic environment. Thus, the formulation of social welfare had to balance the economic […]
  • Social Policy and Family Resilience This requirement is due to the fact that policies largely regulate families’ daily life and the ways in which the professionals are supposed to interact with the family members.
  • Health and Social Care Practice and Policy It should begin by evaluating the effectiveness of the current initiatives in attaining various outcomes: William Burns can access health services with the equal quality as the other people and sleeping rough on health to […]
  • Social and Economic Policy Program: Globalization, Growth, and Poverty Topic: Sustainable approaches to poverty reduction through smallholder agricultural development in rural South Africa and Kenya The majority of the poor in Africa, and indeed the whole world, live in rural areas.
  • Irish Ideology and Social Policy The understanding of the factors which limit the responsibility of any state in providing welfare services to its people call for the analysis of the merits and demerits of the mixed welfare economy.
  • Social Policy as an Academic Subjective Is Both Descriptive and Analytical To single out the study from the others, it should be stressed that the core subject of this course revealed through the examination and research of the policy delivery and its successfulness.
  • The Social Security Pensions Policy in the EU The impact of aging on the long-term profitability of the system in turn causes the savers to go for the private pension schemes and this reduces the size of the pension scheme.
  • Society and Social Policy Analysis A corollary is that scientists debating the ethical use of their discoveries are not necessarily the best people to judge the use of that science; the best people to do so are those who understand […]
  • Social Security as a Public Policy Problem in the US Reforming the system is equivalent to doing justice for the generations of the nation that’s known for such actions. This is the same procedure that was followed in Chile, a country that was the first […]
  • Social Policy for Human Well-Being The main aim of the United States social health care policy is to improve the welfare of Americans in terms of enhancing social security, housing, and education and health care services.
  • The Social Policy of Injection Room in Australia North Richmond has a history of major drug abuse problems, which led the locals to protest and lobby for the establishment of a SIF as a way of reducing harm and fatalities in the area.
  • American Social Security Policy Evaluation In this essay, the key concepts of program evaluation will be applied to the social security policy of the U. Thus, the issue of control and degree to which the freedom of fund usage should […]
  • Facebook as a Social Network and Its Privacy Policy The case study explains that the privacy policy and privacy settings on Facebook are such that they considerably violate the privacy of the social network’s users by selling their data to third parties for a […]
  • Child Development and Global Social Policy In order to distinguish between the rationales for actions on behalf of children’s development, it is first necessary to determine the meaning assigned to the dimensions of development, as well as the concept of development […]
  • Social Policy: Living on a Minimum Wage One of the primary findings is that the minimum wage is not a living wage. Another matter of concern is the fact that minimum living affects children and their prospects in life.
  • The New Deal and Social Welfare Policy The great depression This is one of the major problems that led to the need to adopt the New Deal. This led to a large influx of people moving to the urban centers, and this, […]
  • Globalization, Social Policy, and Social Provision In the developed countries on the other hand, majority of the citizens are able to provide for themselves, and therefore the nature of social provision is a matter of governments’ responsibility to all citizens rather […]
  • Global Poverty, Social Policy, and Education Defining, compare and contrasting modernization and dependency theories in relation to development and global poverty stating suggestions and causes of poverty globally Modernization theory as the name suggests, refers to modernizing or venturing to new […]
  • Understanding Public Policy. Social Impact of Policy Provided that the mistake is made at one of these stages, the policies of the government will be more likely to fail.
  • Growth and Motivation Theories: Application in Personal Behavior, Professional Goal Setting, Social Policy Formulation Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory of Growth Maslow’s hierarchy of needs growth theory states that, an individual has needs that need to be fulfilled at various levels for the individual to achieve personal and professional […]
  • Resource Distribution: Corporate Social Responsibility Policy History The vision of the organisation is to improve the lives of the most susceptible individuals in Australia and across the world by mobilisation of the humanitarian support.
  • The Formation of Social Policy Based on Theoretical Assumptions The realization by the criminal justice system that members of the public can participate cooperatively in prevention of crime has led to the formulation of social policies to guide them in their participation.
  • Social Welfare Policy That Facilitates Reduction of Poverty and Inequality in the US In spite of the scale of the increase in the inequality, the political class in the US rarely discusses this subject in the public.
  • Demographic Change and Intergenerational Relations in Families: Findings and Social Policy Implications
  • Alternative Sexual Orientation: Evolution of Social Policy From the Conservative Era to Contemporary Times
  • Relationship Between Sociology and Social Policy
  • Health and Social Policy: An Overarching Policy Objective
  • Education and Social Policy: Academic Outcomes and Additional Social, Economic, and Political Conditions
  • How Child Protection Legislation Has Changed Social Policy
  • Economic Inequality, Social Policy, and a Good Society
  • Social Work and Social Policy: Immigration and Protection
  • Business Power and Social Policy: Employers and the Formation of the American Welfare State
  • Citizenship: Social Policy Constructs Personal Lives
  • Global Economic Trends, Development, and Social Policy
  • External Liberalization, Economic Performance, and Social Policy
  • Criminological Theory and Social Policy: Crime and Social Policy’s Impact
  • Families, Welfare and Social Policy
  • Women, Social Policy, and Alcohol Treatment
  • Poverty and Its Relationship With Social Policy
  • Factors Influencing Social Policy
  • Implementing Social Policy Through the Criminal Justice System: Youth, Prisons, and Community-Oriented Policing
  • Advancing the Human Right to Food: Social Policy and the Politics of Hunger, Welfare, and Food Security
  • Child Labor, Idiosyncratic Shocks, and Social Policy
  • Assess the Relationship Between Sociology and Social Policy
  • European Court and Social Policy of the European Union
  • The Relationship Between Sociology and Social Policy
  • Cultural Attitudes Regarding Social Policy
  • Balancing Economic Freedom Against Social Policy Principles: EC Competition Law and National Health Systems
  • Child Abuse-Reflection and Social Policy Analysis
  • Employer Preferences and Social Policy: Business and the Development of Job Security Regulations
  • Corruption, Bureaucratic Failure, and Social Policy Priorities
  • European Social Policy and Europe’s Party-Political Center of Gravity
  • Sectoral Social Dialogue and European Social Policy: Empirical Analysis and Prospects for Development
  • Economic Competitiveness and Social Policy in Open Economies
  • How Political Ideology Influences Social Policy
  • The Basis for Social Policy: Human Needs for Security, Education, Work, Health, and Wellbeing
  • Conservative Political Philosophy and Social Policy
  • European Integration and External Constraints on Social Policy: Is a Social Charter Necessary
  • Gender, Class, and Social Policy in the 21st Century
  • Children’s Living Arrangements From a Social Policy Implementation Perspective
  • Bearing Tales: Networks and Narratives in Social Policy Transfer
  • American Social Policy and Social Change
  • Digitalization, Computerization, Networking, Automation, Future of Jobs, and Social Policy in Japan’s Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • What Is the Importance of Social Policy?
  • How Has Child Protection Legislation Changed Social Policy?
  • What Are Examples of a Social Policy?
  • Does Social Policy Contribute to Economic Growth?
  • What Social Policies Are Most Important?
  • How Does Political Ideology Influence Social Policy?
  • What Are the Goals That Define for Social Policy?
  • Does Social Policy Through Rent Controls Inhibit New Construction?
  • What Are Some Policies That Impact Social Work?
  • How Did Social Developmentalism Reframe Social Policy in Brazil?
  • What Are the Implications for Social Policy of the Changes Occured in Structure and Dynamics of Family Life in Britain?
  • How Does Social Policy Impact Student Live?
  • What Are the Characteristics of Social Policy?
  • Which Welfare Change and Social Policy Theories Strengthen the Welfare State Provision?
  • How Does the Irish Famine Shape Irish Social Policy?
  • Why Do Emerging Economies Need Social Policy?
  • How Did the New Racial Politics and Social Policy in the Nixon Years, and Reagan and Bush Years Affect Women and People of Color?
  • Why Does Social Policy Need Subjective Indicators?
  • What Is the Relevance of Social Policy to Social Care Work?
  • Which Comes First in the Development of Policy Addressing Discrimination Against a Particular Group of Persons – Cultural Change or Policy?
  • What Is “Public Policy”? Why Is It So Important to the Work of Government?
  • How Does Social Policy Affect Society?
  • What Social Policies Influence Poverty?
  • Does Social Policy Meet Social Needs?
  • What Are Some Examples of Social Policies That Can Enact Social Change?
  • Why Is Social Policy Important to Social Work?
  • What Factors Influence Policy-Making?
  • Do Social Welfare Policies Reduce Poverty?
  • What Are Examples of Public Policy Issues?
  • Is Abortion a Social Policy?
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ReviseSociology

A level sociology revision – education, families, research methods, crime and deviance and more!

Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy

Last Updated on January 26, 2017 by

Social policy refers to the actions governments take in order to influence society, or to the actions opposition parties and ‘social movements’ (think Marxism and Feminism) propose to do if they were to gain power. This topic basically involves looking at perspectives on government policies

What is the purpose of Sociology/ What kind of things do they research?

For both Functionalists and Positivists the role of the researcher is to provide the state with objective, value free data which can be used to uncover the root causes of social problems in society. Social Policy recommendations are seen as ‘cures’ to a whole range of social problems.

Durkheim and Comte (in the 18the and early 19 th centuries) both believed that doing research was part of the Enlightenment project – to use science and reason to improve society. Durkheim, and later Parsons both believed that through using cross national and historical comparisons they had started to understand the ‘laws of social evolution’ and so could inform governments of what the appropriate policies were to manage social change. For example, one of the things Durkheim suggested, way before his time, was for governments to establish a meritocratic education system and abolish inherited wealth (yay!) as a way to foster a fairer society and ensure that the most talented people could rise to positions of power and influence in the newly industrialising Europe.

How has the government/ political parties used data from this type of research?

• Governments claim to collect data about the social world in a ‘value free’

• E.G. Office for National Statistics employs over 4000 people to collect and analyse data on everything from family trends (births/ marriages/ deaths are recorded) to crime statistics

• The UK national census is also a good example (from 2011)

• Governments use this data to make decisions about how many school places will be needed, how many prison places etc.

Marxists believe that Sociology should target research to highlight a) the exploitation by the Bourgeois and b) the oppression of the working classes

Marxist inspired research includes anything that involves looking at the relationship between social class and inequality in education, research into the unfair criminal justice system, research on the harms ‘Corporate elites’ do (Tombs and Whyte) and The Spirit Level

Marxists argue that governments mainly ignore research done from a Marxist Agenda because governments typically consist of the upper middle classes.

Marxists argue that Social Policies generally protect the interests of the wealthy – and there are several examples that support this view –

Within Education – the existence of private schools allows the wealthy to get their children a better education – upper middle class children effectively get ‘hot- housed’ so they are more likely to get better A levels and end up in top-end universities when compared to those attending state schools.

Looking at Crime Policy – the government does not adequately fund the Health and Safety Executive which prosecutes companies which breach health and safety law, neither does it adequately fund the Financial Services Authority, which prosecutes companies and individuals who engage in financial crimes – this is despite the fact that (according to Jones 2008) that these crimes together do more economic harm to the economy than all street crime put together.

Finally – taxation policy has tended to favour wealthy individuals and Corporations since the Thatcher years in the early ‘80s (NB – New Labour are effectively the same as the Tories these days) – Before the Tories came into power, there was a 90% rate of tax on earned income over —– – today the top rate of tax on earned income is 50% (on all income over £150 000).

Marxists argue that because of the inherent bias in Social Policy, Sociologists should not aim to work with governments – Sociologists should identify with the ‘underdog’ and focus on ‘critical research’ (which, of course, will be self-funded) to help alert people to the injustices of the Capitalist system and assist in the inevitable revolutionary movement that will bring down the Capitalist system.

Feminists generally focus on researching gender inequalities

Liberal Feminism traditionally focussed on achieving political and economic equality for women

Contemporary Feminism focusses on issues of domestic violence, the Pornification of Culture and the Beauty Myth, sex trafficking and the persistence of inequalities in work and politics

SUCCESSIVE UK GOVERNMENTS HAVE BEEN FORCED TO LISTEN TO FEMINISM –

Policies promoting gender equality include

The vote (obviously) (1918 and 28)

The divorce act (1969)

The equal pay act (1972)

Rape in marriage made illegal (1991)

The Paternity Act (2011)

HOWEVER: The current government seems to want to reverse women’s rights –

70% of the government cuts fall on women

Prominent MPs such as Nadine Dories want to reduce the time limit for abortion, giving women less control over their bodies.

According to Interactionists, research should be smaller scale and focus on micro level interactions. It should aim to achieve Verstehen. Traditionally research has focussed on process such as labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy, often taking the side of underdog (the powerless in society) – a good example of which is Venkatesh’s sympathetic account of Crack dealers in Chicago.

Interactionists such as Becker criticise the government as being THE Source of labels – people in government label people not like them as ‘problems’.

The government doesn’t tend to use interactionist research – It tends to be too critical and too supportive of deviants, and in any case it’s too small scale to be of interest.

However there are some exceptions –

o Research on the extent of police labelling – Prompted compulsory multiculturalism training in the police

o Ditto for training school teachers and other ‘state workers’.

The New Right believe that the state should have minimal involvement in society. In particular they opposed to using state provision of welfare to deal with social problems. In their view, state intervention in areas such as family life and education robs people of their freedom and undermines their sense of responsibility. This in turn leads to greater problems such as crime and delinquency.

One classic New Right Theory is Charles Murrays’ view of the underclass – Murray argues that overly generous welfare benefits and council housing have encouraged ‘perverse incentives’ and lead to the growth of over a million people in the UK who are now dependent on state hand-outs – This includes hundreds of thousands of lone mothers, abandoned by feckless, irresponsible fathers, all made possible because these people know that if they don’t take responsibility, the state will just pay for them.

The New Right point out that there is a very strong correlation between being long term unemployed and social problems such as binge drinking and crime.

THE CURRENT UK GOVERNMENT IS THE NEW RIGHT (as was the last one, and the one before that)

Breakdown Britain (2007) – A report by a Conservative think tank proposes a number of social policies designed to tackle these problems – such as

Cutting unemployment benefit to make it less attractive

Tax incentives for married rather than cohabiting couples as married families are more stable than cohabiting ones.

Marriage preparation and parenting classes where required.

In addition to the above, New Right thinking was responsible for ‘Right Realism’ and ‘Broken Windows’ theory – The only exception to their theory that the state should do less is that it should provide strong law and order – to help communities that suffer from low levels of social control and to clamp down heavily on those who break the law with Zero Tolerance Policing techniques.

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Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Critical Introduction (3rd Edition) by Christine Cheyne, Mike O'Brien and Michael Belgrave

Amanda Wolf School of Government Victoria University

The eleven chapters in the book fall into two categories, though not crisply. The “case study” chapters (8, 9 and 10) cover income support, social services and health policy. The authors selected these topics because each has been subject to significant recent developments. In addition, the authors wish to present concrete material so they can illustrate their critical approach. Thus, each chapter is a blend of description and critical interpretation.

In one way or another, the remaining chapters present foundational descriptions of social policy in Aotearoa New Zealand, or conceptual material designed to comprise an interpretive “toolkit”. These chapters offer a parade of “theoretical traditions” or “perspectives” (liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-Marxism, traditional and contemporary social democracy, feminism, anti-racism, and green political theory), “key themes” (justice, equality, freedom, need, risk, and citizenship), and “key constitutional, political, and cultural factors”. Full chapters are devoted to wellbeing as the goal of social policy (chapter 3), “policy analysis” (chapter 6), and social policy from a Māori perspective (chapter 7). The final chapter offers both a restatement of the authors’ priorities for effective social policy, as well as a summary of current themes and developments in social policy, such as the emphasis on growth and innovation and sustainable development.

Chapter 7, headed “Individualism, collectivism, and the recognition of te tino rangatiratanga” can also be read as a fourth case study chapter, if one accepts that “Māori policy” is a subset of social policy just as income support, social services and health policy are. The authors are unclear themselves, sometimes including it as a case study chapter (p.42) and sometimes as a thematic chapter (p.14).

As a text primarily for students, the book also includes chapter-by-chapter guides to further readings, boxed short introductions and summaries, and a reasonably comprehensive glossary. The referencing is extensive across a range of source types, and the index is modest but serviceable. The introductions provide useful orientations to each chapter. However, the summaries strike me as oddly selective, and occasionally serve to introduce a point not clearly made in the preceding material. The book’s introduction and the introduction to chapter 2 note four key periods in the history of social policy in New Zealand. But the summary lists “key points” regarding just two of these. This same summary also introduces a distinction between “Māori social policy” and “Pākehā social policy”, but only the former is treated specifically in the text.

I would prefer greater distinction between descriptive and interpretive material. In some sections, the two lines of material are interwoven in ways that are not immediately obvious. For example, in chapter 2 we are strongly led to expect coverage of a history with four key periods – the 1840s, the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1980s (or sometimes, the 1980s and early 1990s). The introductory box promises an examination of “constitutional, political and intellectual history” (or perhaps “constitutional, political and cultural”, as expressed in the textual introduction to the chapter on the page facing the box) in order to identify major patterns in policy development. Several additional features are noted in the box, namely European colonisation, an acceptance of the role of the state in social policy, a preference for providing for wellbeing through employment, and an active, though not necessarily generous, state.

Several possible ways of organising a potted history are evident in these lists. The chapter, however, has sections following the introduction on: the progressive model and its critics; periods of social development (2 paragraphs); Māori and the state: a welfare state for all?; Māori social policy; a tradition of an active state; the constitutional framework; the state and the politics of class; politics of pragmatism or ideas? (two paragraphs); late Victorian state “socialism”; towards a welfare state; the First Labour Government; full employment and the post-war consensus; 1984: a step to the right. The welcome temporal sequencing in the latter sections is somewhat undermined by the less chronological treatment of events and circumstances in the earlier part of the chapter.

The authors devote considerable attention to definitions (and the lack of definitions in the social policy literature as a whole). They define social policy as “actions that affect the well-being of members of a society through shaping the distribution of and access to goods and resources in that society” (p.3). Thus, to paraphrase, social policy is that which affects the means to the end of wellbeing. The authors note that social policy influence is not limited to state action, nor must the action be “deliberate” or “conscious”. Social policy is affected by, and affects, the decision environments of non-state actors, as well as the social dimensions of economic, environmental and foreign policy, and so on. Whatever the value of conceiving the range of influences on means to wellbeing, I resist labelling these influences “social policy”. “Social policy” would include, for instance, individual hiring decisions motivated by racial prejudice (a non-state action that affects the wellbeing of a certain group of individuals and their families through denying them a job and thus constraining their access to goods and resources).

I have no quibble with the field of study carved out by the authors’ broader definition, but it would be more accurately called “social policy and social behaviour” or something similar. My point is not mere semantics. In usage that I am aware of, “social” modifies “policy” – social policy is policy that bears on what state actors do or do not do that shapes the wellbeing of people and groups in society. We can call it “wellbeing policy”, if the trouble is with the word “social”, in the same way that “economic policy” concerns the economy and foreign policy concerns trade and security. However, the authors essentially abandon their broader definition, and default to a meaning largely consistent with what I have described as its conventional meaning.

On the positive side, the book sustains a distinctive New Zealand focus. The authors illustrate how factors in the colonial legacy, Māori culture and values, and an active and innovative state show through in specific decisions and actions. The book is rich with historical details, in an even richer interpretive frame. As a result, to take just one example, we learn that the “Old Age Pension”, introduced in 1898, is an iconic manifestation of New Zealand liberalism in the second distinct period, and is emblematic of a strong shift in views of the ideal role of the state in society. We also learn that the pension was innovative for New Zealand, ahead of Britain by a decade, far from universal in eligibility, ultimately poorly taken up, yet even so a harbinger of “subtle changes” in the conception of social need.

Overall, the book sets out intellectual tools, asserts their interpretive value, but only on occasion sustains a complete interpretive argument. The reader is, somewhat dauntingly, invited to make her own connections and conclusion. Thus, to consider again the Old Age Pension, we are reminded in chapter 4’s section on liberalism that New Zealand liberalism in the 1890s was not the European laissez-faire variety. In New Zealand, “liberalism developed an acceptance of government participation in the economy and in providing rudimentary services to support individualism” (p.70). Further, we read that liberalism emphasises “pragmatic responses to difficulties” (p.71). In this example (and many others) the interpretation of the Old Age Pension in chapter 2 relies on theoretical presentations in chapter 4.

The main theories are somewhat better supported, however convoluted the tour, than are the lesser ones. A reader who wishes to follow the authors’ injunction to critically assess social policy through the perspectives of feminist, anti-racist and green critiques of social policy has very little to go on. We understand that these perspectives are “critical” of the assumptions not only of liberalism, and neo-liberalism, for instance, but also that they question the foundations in social life upon which these theories are based. (Māori theoretical perspectives are included in this round-up of critical perspectives by reference, but are not developed alongside the others, except perhaps as indigenous variants – with Māori perspectives on wellbeing and the Treaty of Waitangi presented as an element of anti-racist theory).

I turn now to consider how chapter 8 (one of the 3, or perhaps 4, chapters to focus on one area of social policy) measures up to the authors’ purposes and approach to a critical introduction to social policy in New Zealand. The stated purposes of the chapter are “to anchor the theoretical and conceptual work in specific major areas of policy” – in this case income support – with significant changes in recent years and to “apply the theoretical and conceptual frameworks outlined in previous chapters in analysing policy development in concrete areas of policy” (p.14).

The chapter presents a sophisticated summary of income support policy from 1990 to the present, based in relevant scholarly research and policy documents. The authors remind us of their definition of social policy when they write, “It is not appropriate to focus solely on the actions of the state as if those actions reflected all that is encompassed by the term ‘social security’ or ‘income support’” (p.163). Here, I think, they reveal two dangers in their insistence of a broad definition of social policy. First, I doubt whether anyone active in the social policy arena would attempt an exclusive focus. Moreover, having warned the reader, the authors proceed to focus on state actions, taking into consideration, as I suggest is appropriate, their effects on others’ actions.

As evidence of their interpretive approach, the authors provide a clear distinction between “structural” and “individual” explanations of the causes of poverty and solutions. Yet, they explicitly link this distinction to theories covered earlier in the text only in the summary of key points. Further argument for the importance of the choice of theoretical frame is provided in the authors’ case for why “technical details” and quantitative data need to be supplemented by qualitative information about people. This distinction is sustained in their analysis of the policy choices made over the period covered, and the effects on people in poverty.

The introduction to chapter 8 presents the chapter’s conclusion that a “widening disparity between those who are in the primary labour force and those who are in the secondary labour force, or are outside the paid labour force, is persistent and structural”. Further, the authors claim that “if poverty is to be overcome, significant innovation in income-support policy is required to ensure that the income disparity and well-being deficit do not lead to the development of amore permanently divided society” (p.164). For all the descriptive and analytic strengths of the chapter, I do not find adequate support for these claims. The best that can be said is that the authors argue that under the National Government’s policies, which showed a shift from a structural to an individual causal frame, poverty worsened. For the most part, however, the reader is expected to apply their own “cover story” drawing on the material presented in the thematic chapters.

In conclusion, I found Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand to be both good and useful, and having only minor flaws. But it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. A reader who prefers orderly overviews, clear chronologies and thematic developments will be frustrated by the density of the material. Similarly, a reader who relishes density of material will be pained by the number of assertions, especially conceptually based, that lack careful argumentation as they are made. Many readers, especially students, may benefit by reading the thematic chapters after the case study chapters. A chronology would be helpful, too, especially for readers not familiar with New Zealand. Clearly the authors have not written the book as if making social policy is, or should be, a rational problem-solving exercise. But neither, I think, have they yet successfully modelled the critical approach they wish us to adopt.

In sum, this is a book to be approached with care and thought. It supplies a variety of maps (“theoretical and conceptual frameworks”, and a short history), but there is significant mystery in the itinerary, destinations and commentary. The tour of social policy in Aotearoa New Zealand presented by Cheyne, O’Brien and Belgrave will repay the serious student, particularly one with the interactive support of peers or teacher in a classroom environment. It is not for the faint-hearted solo traveller.

Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 25

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COMMENTS

  1. Social Policy Essay: What is Social Policy?

    Social Policy refers to the development of welfare, social administration and policies of the government used for social protection. Social policy is related to the governmental approach of development of social services towards formation of a welfare state (Alcock, 2003). British welfare state is associated with 'poor laws' established to ...

  2. Social policy

    Social policy is a plan or action of government or institutional agencies which aim to improve or reform society . Social policy was first conceived in the 1940s by Richard Titmuss within the field of social administration in Britain. [15] Titmuss's essay on the "Social Division of Welfare" (1955) laid the development for social policy to ...

  3. What is social policy and why is it important?

    Social policy is important as the means by which governments, families, businesses and organisations can have a positive impact on welfare and social protection. Studying social policy is also significant in order to provide an objective evaluation of how effectively resources and opportunities are being distributed to people from different ...

  4. What is social policy?

    Social policy is concerned with the ways societies across the world meet human needs for security, education, work, health and wellbeing. Social policy addresses how states and societies respond to global challenges of social, demographic and economic change, and of poverty, migration and globalisation. Social policy analyses the different ...

  5. What Is Social Policy Essay

    Social policy focuses on human needs, social issues, social welfare, equity, and social justice. These concepts are drawn from a range of different subjects such as sociology, law, politics, psychology, economics, and philosophy. Seen to be a field of study, as well as a form of practice. Governments can best distribute resources to provide and ...

  6. What is social policy?

    Social policy is a field of study rather than a discipline. It focuses on human need and what governments and other bodies can do to meet it. It developed as an academic practice in western countries after the Second World War, alongside the rise of the welfare state. The core areas of study were initially health services, personal social ...

  7. What is Social Policy?

    Social Policy is an interdisciplinary and applied academic subject concerning human needs, social justice and individual and collective wellbeing. It studies how governments, families, companies and organisations in different social sectors distribute and redistribute resources and opportunities to people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

  8. Social Policy Regimes

    Current Perspectives. Current trends of social policy across the world are under the influence of globalisation. Globalisation is a powerful political, economic and social ideology that is sweeping all countries to become one global nation, sharing common problems, demanding similar needs and requiring same policies (Pierson 2006, p.202).

  9. PDF What is Social Policy?

    Social policy aims to improve people's well-being, and is especially concerned with the welfare of those who experience some form of disadvantage. This book is about . social policy in Australia: its purpose and meaning, how it operates now, how it has operated in the past, and the social policy challenges for the future. We show how

  10. What is Social Policy?

    Summary. Social policy is the use of policy measures to promote the welfare of citizens and social well-being. Social policy analysts adopt a range of theoretical perspectives, leading to varying conclusions about the viability and desirability of different measures and interventions. The study of social policy includes the comparative analysis ...

  11. Social Welfare Policy: Overview

    Introduction and Definitions. The concept of social welfare refers broadly to the resources and opportunities people need to lead satisfying and productive lives (Midgley & Livermore, 2009).Virtually everything the government does affects social welfare, from tax and national defense to education and healthcare policy, but so does government inaction; that is, the failure to respond to human ...

  12. Social Policy Essay: What is Social Policy?

    Social Policy Social Policy refers to the development of welfare, social administration and policies of the government used for social protection. Social policy is related to th UKE ssays .com

  13. How is social policy different from public policy?

    Social policy is focussed on addressing and resolving social issues specifically, such as racial and health disparities and educational and economic inequality, while public policy broadly covers any government-related actions concerning the general public at large. Social policy is essentially a subset of public policy, which means that while ...

  14. 102 Social Policy Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

    Social and Economic Policy Program: Globalization, Growth, and Poverty. Topic: Sustainable approaches to poverty reduction through smallholder agricultural development in rural South Africa and Kenya The majority of the poor in Africa, and indeed the whole world, live in rural areas. Irish Ideology and Social Policy.

  15. Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy

    Social policy refers to the actions governments take in order to influence society, or to the actions opposition parties and 'social movements' (think Marxism and Feminism) propose to do if they were to gain power. This topic basically involves looking at perspectives on government policies. The Positivist view of Sociology and Social Policy.

  16. Journal of Social Policy

    The Journal of Social Policy carries high quality articles on all aspects of social policy in an international context. It places particular emphasis upon articles which seek to contribute to debates on the future direction of social policy, to present new empirical data, to advance theories, or to analyse issues in the making and implementation of social policies.

  17. Social Work and Social Policy Practice: Imperatives for Political

    This article aims to discuss social work and social policy practice and the need for social workers to engage politically. Jansson (2018, pp. 1-2) defines policy practice as 'efforts to change policies in legislative, agency, and community settings, whether by establishing new policies, improving existing ones or defeating policy initiatives of other people'.

  18. Global Social Policy: Sage Journals

    Global Social Policy is a fully peer-reviewed journal that advances understandings of social policy, social development, social and health governance, gender and poverty, social welfare, education, employment, and food, as well as the advantages and … | View full journal description. This journal is a member of the Committee on Publication ...

  19. Irish social policy (second edition): A critical introduction ...

    978-1-4473-2965-7. This second edition of a highly successful textbook offers a comprehensive introduction to social policy in Ireland addressing a range of social policy to...

  20. Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Critical Introduction (3rd

    in the social policy literature as a whole). They define social policy as "actions that affect the well-being of members of a society through shaping the distribution of and access to goods and resources in that society" (p.3). Thus, to paraphrase, social policy is that which affects the means to the end of wellbeing.

  21. Social Policy Essay: What is Social Policy?

    Social Policy Social Policy refers to the development of welfare, social administration and policies of the government used for social protection. Social policy is related to th UK Essays .com

  22. Sovereign Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing ...

    This paper evaluates the progression of the sovereign ESG landscape since the initial comprehensive assessment of the sector in 2021 in "Demystifying Sovereign ESG" by conducting a comparative analysis of the current sovereign ESG methodologies of commercial ESG providers. The 2021 study articulated the distinct nature of the sovereign ESG segment from corporate ESG and documented ...

  23. Relationship between Social Work Practice and Social Policy

    This is to ensure justice is served within society, whereas social policy is created to guide agencies and support society (Spicker, 2019). In addition to this, social policies change in reflection to the political ideology at the time. For example, the Labour party, which is a socialist group, have throughout history fought for social justice ...

  24. Iran's president has died in office. Here's what happens next

    Once seen as a likely successor to Iran's Supreme Leader, President Ebrahim Raisi has died in office, leaving the Islamic Republic's hardline establishment facing an uncertain future.