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Understanding Social Welfare Policy

March 9, 2023

The roots of modern social welfare policy can be traced back to activist and social worker Jane Addams, who pioneered a number of social services programs in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the establishment of the famous Hull House in Chicago. By 2020, the concept had grown to become the driving force behind government programs that assisted tens of millions of Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

These social welfare initiatives help ensure that people can meet their basic needs, supporting them with health care, nutrition, housing and financial assistance. They include programs such as Medicaid, Social Security and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

As professionals who provide direct services to support individual and community well-being — and referrals and advocacy for social welfare organizations and programs — social workers are an important link between people and social welfare policy. Social work degree programs, including those offering Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) credentials, focus on social welfare policy and programs.

An understanding of social welfare policy and how it has evolved, along with examples of the concept in action, are crucial for any social worker.

Social Welfare Definition 

The basic definition of social welfare is simple: the well-being of a society. Factors that can affect this well-being include having access to essential social services, enjoying a strong quality of life, and living in a safe and healthy environment. 

Social welfare also refers to efforts to help protect the health and security of those most in need. Examples of populations often targeted by social welfare initiatives include those who are:

  • Living in poverty
  • Older or retired
  • Sick or facing long-term injury
  • Young parents
  • Unemployed individuals

Origins of the Social Welfare Concept

The idea of social welfare has its roots in the 17th century, when philosopher John Locke described what he called a “social contract.” Under this arrangement, he maintained, people would only agree to become part of a community with others — giving up some of their individual freedoms — if it would help them protect themselves and their families.

Locke’s social contract suggests that society has a responsibility to ensure that the needs of its people are met. Social welfare’s definition expands on this concept, maintaining that society should not only protect its individuals overall but also take additional measures that specifically target those who face obstacles to their well-being. 

What Is Social Welfare Policy? 

Social welfare policy refers to government programs that help ensure the health of a society and those who live in it. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, government programs that helped to ensure social welfare, such as pension and insurance programs, took hold in Europe to assist industrial workers and those in need. 

In the 1880s, Germany became the first nation to implement laws related to social welfare. Since then, other nations have adopted their own versions of social welfare policy. In the United States, social welfare policy is what would later inspire programs like Medicare, Medicaid and housing assistance.

History of U.S. Social Welfare Policy

Jane Addams is generally considered the mother of contemporary social welfare policy. She is best known for founding, in the late 19th century, Chicago’s Hull House, which provided social services and education to immigrants and laborers in an effort to reduce poverty. Along with other contemporaries in the field, Addams helped launch numerous social programs, including the Immigrants’ Protective League and the Juvenile Protective Association, which was the first juvenile court in the U.S.

Social welfare policy evolved further with the New Deal programs of the 1930s. These federal programs, influenced by the work of early trailblazing social workers like Frances Perkins, focused on creating jobs and providing financial support for those in need during the Great Depression.

In 1932, the federal government began offering loans and grants to states to support relief efforts. New Deal funding provided direct financial support and sponsored employment opportunities through public works programs. In 1935, the Social Security Act established programs to help Americans who were retired and those who were unemployed.

Since then, U.S. social welfare policy has continued its evolution, broadening the scope of services for populations in need. Joining previously established programs for older adults, the unemployed and workers injured on the job are those related to concerns such as:

  • Health care
  • Food security
  • Housing
  • Child welfare 

Eligibility for various social welfare programs also has shifted over time. For example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 adjusted the distribution of program funding and set new requirements for receiving assistance.

Social Workers’ Role in Social Welfare Policy

Another important aspect of social welfare policy is the role social workers play in carrying out and advocating for social programs. Social workers help individuals and communities reach their potential by assisting those facing challenges, such as those related to financial and health concerns. Social workers may deliver these services directly, or they may refer clients to programs that can help. 

Professionals in this field also advocate to raise awareness of social welfare issues. The National Association of Social Work lists the following issues among its areas of emphasis:

  • Child welfare — Protecting the health and safety of children and helping families in need
  • Immigration – Advocating for policies to end family separation and provide medical screening to immigrants at ports of entry
  • Medicare — Including insurance coverage for measures addressing people’s psychological and social concerns
  • Older adults’ health — Increasing funding for programs that support older adults’ health and independence

Social Welfare Policy Examples 

Social welfare policy includes programs that are distributive and redistributive:

  • Distributive social welfare policy, also called entitlement programs, aims to benefit everyone equally; these programs provide aid according to the amount a recipient paid into it. 
  • Redistributive social welfare policy, also referred to as welfare programs, offers assistance to those who meet income qualifications.

Following are some key social welfare policy examples, including both distributive and redistributive programs.

Distributive Social Welfare Policy

Distributive social welfare programs include the following.

  • Social Security pays benefits to retired people and other qualifying individuals, such as those whose disabilities keep them from working. In 2020, more than 62 million people received Social Security support in the United States, the Census Bureau reports.
  • Unemployment helps replace lost wages for eligible workers who become unemployed. The Census Bureau indicates that about 23 million people in the United States received unemployment benefits in 2020.
  • Medicare offers health insurance coverage to people over age 65 and eligible individuals with disabilities. This program assisted about 64 million people in the United States in 2020, according to the Census Bureau.

Redistributive Social Welfare Policy

Redistributive social welfare programs include the following.

  • Medicaid provides free or low-cost medical coverage to individuals and families in financial need. 
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) extends coverage to low-income children who don’t qualify for Medicaid. Approximately 70 million Americans, nearly a third of whom were between the ages of 5 and 17, received Medicaid or CHIP assistance in 2020, the Census Bureau reports.
  • TANF funds state grants to support financially eligible families with children. More than 2 million Americans reported receiving this assistance in 2020, according to the Census Bureau.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) supports in-need families’ purchase of healthy foods. The Census Bureau indicates that more than 37 million people relied on SNAP in 2020.

Support Society’s Most Vulnerable 

Social welfare policy promotes the well-being of individuals, communities and society as a whole. Social workers advocate for and help people access the social welfare supports they are entitled to. If you’re ready to advance in a career supporting people’s quality of life, with an emphasis on assisting vulnerable populations, explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format.

VCU’s M.S.W. online format focuses on social justice, cultural competence and human rights. You can choose full-time, part-time or accelerated paths for completing your degree. The program also offers geographic flexibility and mainly asynchronous learning for most courses.

Discover how VCU can help you achieve your social work career goals.