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Social Work Education: Social Welfare Policyfree

Social Work Education: Social Welfare Policyfree

  • Ira C. ColbyIra C. ColbyUniversity of Houston


The educational imperative to study social welfare policy has remained a constant throughout the history of social work education. Although specific policies and social issues may change over time, the need to advocate for and create humane, justice-based social policy remains paramount. The study of welfare policy contributes to the effectiveness of practitioners who are knowledgeable and skilled in analysis, advocacy, and the crafting of justice-based social welfare policies. In addition to traditional policy content areas, students should develop knowledge and skills in critical thinking, understand a range of justice theories, and recognize the direct interaction between globalization and national and local policy matters.


  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

Updated to include the 2015 EPAS from the Council on Social Work Education.


All forms of social work practice and social service organizations, public and private, are governed by a series of interdependent social welfare policies. These policies are set in place by a governmental entity, that is, a legislative body, a non-profit agency’s board of directors, or a private for-profit or not-for-profit administration. Such policies are essentially the rules of the organization or agency. As such, an individual social worker simply cannot arbitrarily select which policy to follow or what s/he will do or under what circumstances—all social work activities are regulated by social policies that govern their place of employment or the clients with whom they engage (Colby, 2018, p. 2). An agency’s operating hours (days, evenings, weekends), clients served (individuals, families, teenagers, adolescents, elders), services provided (individual and/or group counseling, community organizing, research), amounts and types of benefits a person is eligible to receive (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy families, Social Security Retirement, Medicare), and payment for service (insurance reimbursement, sliding fee scale) are all regulated by and specified in policies. Blau and Abramowitz (2014) clearly and unequivocally stated the relationship between policy and social work practice: “every form of social work practice embodies a social policy . . . and (it) pervade(s) every aspect of social work practice” (p. 4). Knowing what comprises a given policy is essential for effective practice, but equally important is understanding how to affect a policy’s mandates by applying unique skills that are built on supporting expertise in a manner that reflects the social work profession’s shared values and beliefs (Colby, 2018, p. 2).

Studying Social Policy: A History

Social welfare policy is a required foundation area of study social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The study of social welfare is not a recent innovation; its antecedents can be traced to the late 1890s and early 1900s. Social work pioneer Mary Richmond, in her 1897 address during the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, identified the need for a “training school in applied philanthropy” (cited in Haggerty, 1931, p. 40). Within 10 years of Richmond’s speech, four schools of social work were organized, including the New York School of Philanthropy, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, the St. Louis School of Social Economy, and the School of Social Workers of Boston (Haggerty, pp. 42–44). Although accreditation and other forms of curriculum regulation were nonexistent, all of these programs did include the study of welfare history and policy matters (Haggerty, p. 45).

The need to study welfare policy was aggressively supported by Edith Abbott in 1928, when she argued, “There are no more fundamental or basic subjects of study for our profession than public welfare administration, social legislation” (cited in Kendall, 2002, p. 17). By 1944, social welfare policy was identified by the American Association of Schools of Social Work as one of the “basic eight” areas of study (Kendall, p. 151) and was included in the CSWE’s original accreditation standards in 1952 (Frumkin & Lloyd, 1995, p. 2239). Subsequent accreditation revisions (e.g., see CSWE, 1971, 1988, 1991, 1994, 2002, 2008) and the current 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) include social welfare policy content as part of the required core competencies (CSWE, 2015, p. 8), as well as in the explicit curriculum (p. 12).

Inclusion of social welfare policy in education extends to social work programs around the world. Canadian social work education, for example, requires the study of Canadian welfare policy in accredited social work programs (Canadian Association for Social Work Education, 2014, p. 12); the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards noted that a social-work practice includes the need to “analyse, challenge, and develop social policies” (Australian Association of Social Workers, ASWEAS, 2012 V1. 4, revised January, 2015, p. 8); and in 2004, the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers adopted the Global Standards for the Education and Training of the Social Work Profession, which include social policy as a core area of study and states that schools should include in their curricula, “Knowledge of social welfare policies (or lack thereof), services and laws at local, national and/or regional/international levels, and the roles of social work in policy planning, implementation, evaluation and in social change processes” (International Association of Schools of Social Work, n.d., p. 4).

Worldwide, the promotion, development, and cultivation of effective policy in micro and macro arenas cross geographic borders and cultural divides. Social welfare policy, and policy practice, are envisioned as a powerful tools to realize the aspirations of an entire society, as well as the dreams and ideals embraced by a local community, group, family, or individual.

Micro social welfare policy directly influences the scope of work provided by the practitioner. Program eligibility, the form of services provided, a program’s delivery structure, and funding mechanisms are outcomes of micro social welfare policy. Ineffective social policy creates frustrating practice obstacles. Typical of the barriers created by policy are eligibility criteria that limit client access to services, regulations that do not allow for case advocacy, and increased caseloads supported with minimal resources and capped service time limits.

Macro social welfare policy provides a framework and means to strengthen larger communities. As an instrument of change, social welfare policy can reduce or eliminate a particular issue that impacts at-risk and marginalized population groups such as children, families, seniors, and people of color. Conversely, social welfare policy may exacerbate or penalize a particular population group.

Social Welfare Policy Defined

In its most basic form, social policy incorporates five core characteristics. First, policy is the formal expression of a community’s values, principles, and beliefs. Second, these values, principles, and beliefs become reality through a program and its resulting services. Third, policy provides legitimacy for, and sanctions or authorizes, an organization to provide a particular program or service. Fourth, policy offers a roadmap through specific policy-driven programs and services, for an organization to realize its mission. Fifth, policy creates the broad structural framework that guides and informs the agency practitioner in his or her professional role.

A review of The Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2014) found that social welfare policy is not explicitly defined though conceptually it may be best thought of as a subset of the larger social policy arena. The Social Work Dictionary (Barker) noted that social policy includes “the activities and principles of a society that guide the way it intervenes in and regulates relationships among individuals, groups, communities, and social institutions . . . social policy includes plans and programs in education, health care, crime and corrections, economic security and social welfare made by governments, voluntary organizations, and people in general” (Barker, p. 399). Social policy establishes a specific set of program procedures (Baumheier & Schorr, 1977, p. 1453), includes all public activities (Zimmerman, 1979, p. 487), and considers resource distribution and its effect on “peoples’ social well-being” (Dear, 1995, p. 2227). While the primary function of a social policy is to create a plan of action, it also, as Titmuss (1966) wrote, directs attention to “definite problems” (p. 68). Countering the preciseness of such directives, Rohrlich (1977) found social policies to be often vague and imprecise (p. 1463).

A social welfare policy reflects clear choices and positions of a government or a non-governmental agency. Such choices are tied to and build on values, beliefs, and principles of the sponsoring group or entity. These choices directly impact the form and function of program with services ranging from minimal or limiting to comprehensive and wide ranging. For example, the primary public assistance program to assist poor families, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), is time-limited (five years over an individual’s lifetime, though there are exceptions), state regulated (level of financial support varies by state), with minimal cash assistance (Burnside and Floyd reported that in July 2018, a single parent family of three in Arkansas was eligible for $204 a month compared to $1,039 in New Hampshire), and access to other public assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. Social Security retirement benefits, on the other hand, provide monthly income based on the worker’s lifelong financial contributions through payroll deductions as well as financial support to certain dependents. Essentially, TANF reflects the centuries-old belief that the poor are the cause of their life situation; public assistance only reinforces their dependence on others; and all assistance should be minimal in amount and duration. Retirees, on the other hand, who worked over a consistent period of time and, as a result, contributed to the greater good through their payroll taxes, are able to make a just claim for their retirement benefits.

While their text was written more than seventy years ago, Wilensky and Lebeaux’s (1965) classic work, Industrial Society and Social Welfare, details a framework that is relevant in the 21st century, as it uniquely and clearly captures the differences in social policies. Their model includes two perspectives, residual and institutional.

A residual framework conceptualizes social welfare in narrow terms, typically restricted to public assistance or policies related to the poor. Residual services carry a stigma; are time limited, means tested, and emergency based; and are generally provided when all other forms of assistance are unavailable. Welfare services come into play only when all other systems have broken down or prove to be inadequate. Public assistance programs reflect the residual descriptions and include, among others, TANF, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, though commonly and incorrectly referred to as “Food Stamps”), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), General Assistance (GA), and Medicaid.

Institutional welfare, according to the Wilensky and Lebeaux (1965) model, is a normal function of a society that supports the interests of the broader community in a non-stigmatizing manner. Programs and their resulting services are available to all persons and are universal and comprehensive in nature. They are designed to both prevent and address issues. Social insurance programs such as social security retirement and Medicare, veterans programs, public education, and food and drug regulations are institutional by nature.

While helpful in understanding the differences between and categorizing various social welfare programs, the terms institutional and residual are rarely used in the public discussion; rather, it is commonplace to hear social welfare programs referred to as entitlements. Yet, there are conflicting positions as to what comprises an entitlement program.

Amadeo (January 23, 2019) wrote, “Never confuse welfare programs with entitlement programs. Welfare programs are based on a family’s income. To qualify, their income must be below an income based on the federal poverty level. Entitlement programs base eligibility upon prior contributions from payroll taxes.” Amadeo (January 23, 2019) lists “Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation” as the major U.S.-based entitlement programs and identifies six non-entitlement programs: welfare: TANIF, SNAP, Children’s Health Insurance, Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), Housing Assistance, and Medicaid.

Conversely, Johnson (n.d.) wrote that an entitlement is a “government program that provides individuals with personal financial benefits (or sometimes special government-provided goods or services) to which an indefinite (but usually rather large) number of potential beneficiaries have a legal right . . . (including) Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans’ Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs. In other words, all governmental assistance programs are entitlement-based. The United State Senate (n.d.) concurs with Johnson’s position writing that an entitlement is “A Federal program or provision of law that requires payments to any person or unit of government that meets the eligibility criteria established by law.”

Social Welfare Policy: An Educational Imperative

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, social work education struggled to organize curricula in a systematic fashion. Competing educational and professional membership associations hindered academic consensus and created division within the profession (Kendall, 2002). It was not until 1952, with the organization of the CSWE, that graduate curricula became unified and systemized under one educational umbrella with the CSWE establishing baccalaureate education standards in 1974. The inclusion of social welfare policy in curriculum has remained steadfast since CSWE’s initial Curriculum Policy Statement (CPS), which was written in 1952, with subsequent CPS and EPAS revisions continuing to include policy as a core or foundation area of learning (Frumkin & Lloyd, 1995, p. 2239).

Social work education changed its organizing accreditation standards when the 2008 EPAS required baccalaureate and master’s programs alike to build their curricula on a competency-based model. According to the then newly written 2008 EPAS:

Competency-based education is an outcome performance approach to curriculum design. Competencies are measurable practice behaviors that are comprised of knowledge, values, and skills. The goal of the outcome approach is to demonstrate the integration and application of the competencies in practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

(Council on Social Work Education, 2008)

Competency-based education continued to frame the 2015 EPAS, which identified nine core competencies that all baccalaureate and master’s social-work programs must include in respective curricula (Council on Social Work Education, 2015, pp. 7–9). Social policy is specifically identified as core competency and defined as follows:

Competency 5: Engage in Policy Practice

Social workers understand that human rights and social justice, as well as social welfare and services, are mediated by policy and its implementation at the federal, state, and local levels. Social workers understand the history and current structures of social policies and services, the role of policy in service delivery, and the role of practice in policy development. Social workers understand their role in policy development and implementation within their practice settings at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels and they actively engage in policy practice to effect change within those settings. Social workers recognize and understand the historical, social, cultural, economic, organizational, environmental, and global influences that affect social policy. They are also knowledgeable about policy formulation, analysis, implementation, and evaluation. Social workers:

Identify social policy at the local, state, and federal level that impacts well-being, service delivery, and access to social services.

Assess how social welfare and economic policies impact the delivery of and access to social services.

Apply critical thinking to analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice. (Council on Social Work Education, 2015, p. 8)

The actual educational content of baccalaureate and master’s social work programs are further detailed in EPAS under “Explicit Curriculum,” with social policy content specifically identified, implied, and inferred throughout the standards (Council on Social Work Education, 2015, pp. 10–13).

A consistent theme found in all of CSWE’s accreditation standards and EPAS statements is expectation that course study and field experiences will facilitate the student’s development of social welfare policy knowledge and skills to foster the application of “analytic skills to social and economic policies with reference to social justice” (Ewalt, 1983, p. 40). Although specific content, such as social welfare history, knowledge of current welfare legislation, and understanding the dynamics of the policy process, are viewed as traditional areas of study, the mastery of knowledge and skills in three spheres are essential: critical thinking, theories of justice, and globalization.

Critical Thinking and Social Welfare Policy

Successful policy work requires critical thinking, which Ennis defined as “reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do” (cited in Fisher, 2001, p. 7). The development of critical thinkers, as former Harvard University President Derek Bok (2006) wrote, is one of the central purposes of the college experience (p. 67).

Critical thinking requires the ability to analyze and organize facts, develop opinions based on the validated evidence, argue the position, and evaluate alternatives, all of which lead to the solution of specific problems. A rational and structured thinking process is important in organizing and distilling truth from myth and allows clear, objective solutions to emerge. Critical thinking is a process that often challenges one’s personal beliefs; for example, to say “this is correct because I’ve always believed it to be true” runs counter to critical thinking. This is a creative, dynamic, vibrant, and intuitive practice through which accurate information—evidence-based information and data—build on each other and result in a clear direction. Creative thinking enables a free flow of ideas while recognizing that some biases are impossible to disregard or subordinate in policy work.

Critical thinking was radically challenged with the advent of the World Wide Web in the late 20th century with the expansion of and access to information. In concert with the ever-changing supporting technologies, critical thinking processes have been revolutionized by opening the doors to a variety of data, information, and analyses of issues from individuals, groups, and organizations around the world. The advantages, although many, can be overshadowed by the enticement of readily available information and, if left unattended, will result in faulty policy work. First, the reliability and validity of Web sources must always be questioned—just because information is posted on a Web page does not mean it is either accurate or legitimate. Using erroneous data or information from a website source in any policy analysis or presentation only diminishes the social worker’s reputation and the resulting policy product itself. A second challenge is posed by the Web is information overload. The ease of accessibility can be overwhelming. For example, performing a simple Web search using the phrase “social welfare policies in the United States” resulted in 110,000,000 identified sites; “social welfare policies in Vermont” located 5,580,000 websites; and “social welfare policies in Santa Fe, NM” identified 2,840,000 websites (search completed on January 26, 2019). Are all of these websites reliable sources of information? How does one know whether a particular website is a neutral, nonpartisan site or if it professes a particular political or philosophical ideology? When doing such a search, what are the chances the individual will review the millions of reported sites or will she/he limit their examination to the first couple of pages? Critical thinking requires disciplined use and analysis of the Web, the ability to discern good information from bad, and assurance that creativity is applied while seeking accurate and useful information.

Justice and Social Welfare Policy

Social welfare policy is rooted in the principles and theories of justice. Effective policy practice requires identification, understanding, and assessment of the various justice theories that interact with and influence the development of a policy position. Justice theories are varied and reflect different perspectives on the human condition. For example, Rawls (1971) believed that birth, status, and family are matters of chance, which should not influence or bias the benefits one accrues, and true justice allows a society to rectify its inequities with the end result yielding fairness to all its members. Conversely, Nozick (1974) argued for a free-market libertarian model that advocates individuals should be able to keep what they earn. For Nozick “the less government approach” is the best model and he asks, “If the state did not exist, would it be necessary to invent it? Would one be needed, and would it have to be invented?” (Nozick, p. 3). Other justice theorists include Dworkin (2001), who presents resource-based principles; Miller (1976), who represents the just desert–based principle; and Pateman (1988) and Tong (1993), who set forth feminist principles that examine the difference gender makes in the execution of justice and policy.

Policy incorporates a justice theory through one of four models (Maiese, 2003): distributive, procedural, retributive, and restorative. Distributive justice refers to a fair-share model that expresses its concern for the welfare of a community’s members; ideas of equity, equality, and need are central in distributive discussions (Maiese, 2013a). Procedural justice considers processes in which decisions are made and recognizes that people feel vindicated if the proceedings result in fair treatment no matter the outcome (Deutsch, 2000, p. 45). Retributive justice, commonly referred to as the “just desert” approach, suggests that people should be treated in a similar manner as they treat others, with the response proportional to the originating act (Maiese, 2013b). The focus of restorative justice is multifaceted, with a focus on the victim, the offender, and the community, although the emphasis rests with the victim (Maiese, 2013c).

Justice theories offer various perspectives of how people or social issues are viewed. Reflecting an individual, group, or organization’s values and beliefs, justice theories create a rationale to support particular policy initiatives. Recognizing and understanding the various, often competing justice theories, is central in policy practice. A successful policy change strategy requires recognition and understanding of the often competing values, beliefs, and justice philosophies subscribed to by all those engaged in the policy issue, including the individual practitioner, constituency groups and associations he represents, policy makers, and those who actively oppose or support the particular policy initiative.

Changing Global Environment

The convergence of global social, political, economic, and technological events that began in the mid to late 20th century and continue into the new millennium requires a global perspective in policy matters. The New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman (2005) contended a new “flattened” world order emerged at the outset of the 21st century and reshaped the lives and relationships among people in all economic and social spheres. In less than a decade, global experiences have dramatically changed to a more open world with fewer borders to separate or stifle collaborations and interactions.

Concurrent with the so-called world’s flattening has been global growth and change among the world’s nation states. There is no agreement on the total number of countries in the world. Depending on the information source, in 2019 there were 193 countries who were members of the United Nations (United Nations, 2019), whereas the U.S. State Department recognized 195 nations (U.S. Department of State, 2019) and the Central Intelligence Agency identified 258 countries in its publication, The World Factbook (Central Intelligence Agency, 2019). Even so, the world’s population continues to grow, reaching an estimated 7.7 billion people in 2019, an increase of 1.6 billion people since 2000. Worldometers has estimated the world population will reach 8.1 billion persons by 2025 and 9.7 billion persons by 2050.

New nations will continue to be added as existing countries divide and create new states. Between 1900 and 1950, approximately 1.2 countries were created each year; from 1950 to 1990, 2.2 nations were born each year; and in the 1990s, the number of new nations created jumped to 3.1 annually (Enriquez, 2005). The physical and political makeup of the world that existed in 2000 was very different from the world’s composition in 2019.

With history serving as a guide, it is safe to assume that global geo, socio, and political changes will continue in the future. Throughout the world human issues challenge social workers: HIV/AIDS, migration, violence, abuse, drug addiction. Millions of people worldwide, living in poverty with no access to clean water or primary health care, are malnourished and do not have enough food to eat. The list of inequalities is long and, sadly, faces every nation worldwide. Coupled with these are the volatility of the global economic markets. What happens in mainland China can significantly impact the United States, Africa, and the European Union. Similarly, tensions among European Union members can affect the economic markets in the United States. And, equally, political and/or social strains create uncertainty in economic markets world-wide.

Understanding and recognizing the consequences of the shifting dynamics in the global community are critical and necessary in the development of effective national and local social policies.

Policy Practice

The social work profession is guided by social justice principles that are rooted in fairness, justice, equity, and equality. Unfortunately, many social welfare policies, in the public and private sectors alike, do not subscribe to such principles and result in discriminatory practices. Social workers are bound by codes of ethics of national, international, or constituency group membership association, such as the National Association of Social Workers, the International Federation of Social Workers, or licensing entities including state boards of social work licensure or certification, most of which direct the individual to engage in policy practice. For example, the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics specifies that, “Social workers should facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policies. . . .” (National Association of Social Workers, 2019); the Canadian Association of Social Workers noted, “Social workers promote social fairness and the equitable distribution of resources, and act to reduce barriers and expand choice for all persons …” (Canadian Association of Social Workers, 2005, p. 9); the Clinical Social Work Association’s Code of Ethics (2016) states, “Clinical social workers recognize a responsibility to participate in activities leading toward improved social conditions.” Such directives lead to a specific form of policy practice through which social policies are developed, modified or amended, or simply eliminated.

Policy practice occurs within a local nongovernmental agency, with local, state, and national governments, and with national and international organizations such as the American Red Cross and the United Nations. Understanding the policy making processes of the particular organization or governmental entity and their uniqueness and nuances are critical to successful policy practice. Equally important is the acquisition of essential skills in writing, preparing information sheets and policy briefs, testifying to an agency board of directors or a legislative committee, and organizing constituency groups.

A social worker’s social welfare policy expertise is much more than knowing the specifics of a program, its history or services. The ability to advocate for and implement proactive relevant policy that is grounded in the profession’s principles of fairness, justice, equity, and equality is a cornerstone of the social work profession.

Summary Comments

The educational imperative to study social welfare policy has remained a constant throughout the history of social work education. There is no indication or reason to believe that its emphasis will diminish in the future, nor should it. Social welfare policy offers a mechanism to realize opportunities that promote equality, improve the individual’s social position, and address institutional and societal prejudices. Although specific policies and social issues may change over time, the need to advocate for and write humane, justice-based social policy remains paramount. Sound policy analysis, supported by critical thinking, building on justice theories, and reflecting the changing global and local communities, creates the capacity and opportunity for the social-work profession to influence the scope and design of social welfare policy.


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