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date: 27 November 2020

Social Policy: Overviewfree

  • John M. HerrickJohn M. HerrickProfessor Emeritus of Social Work, Michigan State University


Social policy is how a society responds to social problems. Any government enactment that affects the well-being of people, including laws, regulations, executive orders, and court decisions, is a social policy. In the United States, with its federal tradition of shared government, social policies are made by governments at many levels—local, state, and national. A broad view of social policy recognizes that corporations and both nonprofit and for-profit social-service agencies also develop policies that affect customers and those they serve and therefore have social implications. Social policies affect society and human behavior, and their importance for social-work practice has long been understood by the social-work profession. Modern social welfare policies, which respond to basic human needs such as health care, housing food, and employment, have evolved since their introduction during the New Deal of the 1930s as responses to the Great Depression. In the aftermath of the recent “Great Recession” that began in 2006, the nation has once again experienced the kinds of social problems that led to the creation of innovative social welfare policies in the 1930s. How policy makers respond to human needs depends on who has the power to make policy and how they conceptualize human needs and the most effective ways to respond to them. In the early 21st century, the idea that the state should guarantee the welfare and well-being of its citizens through progressive welfare state policies and services has few adherents among policy makers. The complex social problems resulting from the recession—the highest unemployment since the Great Depression of the 1930s, escalating budget deficits at all levels of government, an unprecedented housing crisis exemplified by massive foreclosures, increasing social and economic inequality, a nation polarized by corrosive political conflict and incivility—create a context in which social policies are debated vociferously. Social workers, long committed to the ideal of social justice for all, are obligated to understand how policies affect their practice as well as the lives of those they serve and to advocate for policies that will improve social well-being as the United States recovers.

Updated in this version

Content updated to include latest research and statistics. New sections added - "Social Policy Context" and "Increasing Inequality." Bibliography and citations expanded.


Social policies are created and function in dynamic social, economic, and cultural contexts. Conflicting ideas and interests exist over what kinds of policies are needed to address social problems and human needs.

The concept of social welfare refers broadly to what is needed to provide people with resources and opportunities to lead satisfying and productive lives (Midgley & Livermore, 2009). A broad array of economic and social policies affects social welfare, ranging from tax policy to educational policy. More narrowly, some social welfare policies focus on policies and programs that provide income assistance and social services to people in need. Conservatives have generally supported “residual” 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. Institutional social welfare polices adopted by European “welfare states” never received much political support in the United States, where residual programs providing limited assistance to those seen as having genuine needs were favored (Patterson, 2000). Poverty, unemployment, dependent children, family instability, inadequate health care, and the needs of the elderly have been targets of social welfare policies. Because social policy responds to social problems, how those problems are defined and legitimized is important. Social workers, with their intimate knowledge of human needs, can provide critical information to policy makers if they can influence the policy-making process.

Socially constructed family and gender norms influence social policy and the lives of beneficiaries. Current debates about the meaning of “family” and “marriage” exemplify how social policies, such as the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, may enforce specific norms while delegitimizing behavior deemed inappropriate by those who hold power. The federal government and states have clashed over the meaning of marriage and whether state recognition of same-sex marriage violates federal policy. Such contentious debates are often resolved in the courts. Traditions of public debate and discourse encourage interest groups to lobby for policies that will advantage their members. Some social policy experts feel corporate and business sectors have become so powerful that they dominate policy making, making government less responsive to social needs (Stiglitz, 2012).

Sometimes policies enacted to benefit special interests produce disastrous social results. For example, opening public lands to oil, timber, and mineral corporations has harmed people and environments if appropriate safeguards are not in place (Gore, 2007). Foreign policy also has a social impact. During the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century, social policy enforced gendered family norms with a male breadwinner, supporting a workforce that would enable the United States to compete for international economic hegemony. In the early 21st century, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and our involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resources that could have been used to develop or expand social welfare programs such as accessible health care for all Americans have been allocated to national defense and military spending. Escalating national debt after the “Great Recession” and the demands of the competitive, globalized marketplace have adversely affected the industrial U.S. workforce as U.S. corporations downsized or disappeared. The American middle class has seen its well-being threatened by loss of income and reduced job opportunities, decreasing opportunities for upward social mobility. The obstacles facing the poor for social advancement are numerous.

Given the range and relative importance of policy choices, social welfare policies must compete with economic, political, and defense needs for attention and resources. At least since the presidency of the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, government policies and programs directed at public social welfare provision have been attacked as ineffectual and inappropriate interferences in the marketplace. Social policies that transferred and redistributed income from the wealthy to the poor, such as programs assisting poor women with families, were harshly criticized. Efforts have been made to privatize social services and the Social Security system, our most universal social welfare program. In the early 21st century, our political parties debate how our nation can promote economic growth and social well-being, emphasizing the need for job growth, while the longstanding issues of poverty and social and economic inequality receive less attention.

Philosophical Underpinnings of U.S. Social 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 and they inform policy making. Political and social conservatives generally support market-oriented, limited government and private activities to promote social well-being or social welfare, whereas liberals, recognizing that social conditions often limit people’s ability to access opportunities to become self-sufficient, have supported the use of government authority to achieve social welfare goals (Ginsberg, 2002). The conservative “Tea Party” of the early 21st century and its supporters proclaim 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 and government redistribution of wealth. The dominant philosophy of government in the United States in the early 21st century holds that the market, broadly defined, should be allowed to function with as little interference as possible by governments to provide opportunities for all. The Republican Party has long held that government should do less regulation of business, for example, to give entrepreneurs freedom to take risks that might create new jobs. To attack massive federal debts, they encourage cutbacks of government programs and services, including social welfare programs, while reducing taxes on “job creators.” 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.

Social Policy Development

During the Progressive Era, Jane Addams and other reformers argued that government had obligations to protect poor women and children, who were seen as victims of industrialization. Despite opposition from business and from 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), as well as categorical assistance programs targeted at specific groups—the elderly and the blind. These programs were administered locally, with few consistent standards used to determine eligibility or payment levels, allowing local prejudices and biases about who were “worthy” recipients (Abramovitz, 1996).

Skocpol (1998) has argued that social policy analysis must recognize how political and institutional forces influence policy choices and the administration of services and benefits as evidenced by mothers’ pensions and contemporary social welfare programs. Progressive-Era workers’ compensation laws provided income support to injured workers and were supported by conservative businessmen who realized that 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).

Modern social welfare policy began with the New Deal enacted in the 1930s during the administration of the liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression and unprecedented unemployment and social unrest. Policy makers 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 people who were unemployed. Nearly one third of private social-service agencies ceased operations between 1919 and 1932 (Trattner, 1998). The federal government assumed unprecedented authority to intervene in the economy, resulting in controversy and opposition from conservatives who felt New Deal policy innovations were unwarranted intrusions by government into the lives of Americans. The most sweeping New Deal social welfare legislation, the Social Security Act of 1935, created new social insurance and public-assistance programs. Social insurance included unemployment insurance and the Social Security pension program and Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance financed by payroll taxes on employees and employers. Public assistance (or welfare) was limited to the most needy and was administered by local governments, which often denied benefits to persons of color.

Progressive and radical critics, including some social workers, felt that the liberal reforms of the New Deal did not go far enough in addressing social inequality and the needs of working Americans and they argued for national planning and an institutional welfare state to distribute national wealth and end poverty (Reynolds, 1951; Selmi, 2005).

American social welfare grew incrementally, subject to political pressures and changing priorities, and never adopted the progressive vision. Although the Social Security pension program expanded over the years to include agricultural workers and others not originally covered, many of whom were people of color living in the South, it was influenced by contemporary gender and racial norms. Although it has provided a measure of economic security for retired workers who earned high incomes for many years, it disadvantaged women workers, who were unable to work outside the home for extended periods because of home and family responsibilities, resulting in smaller contributions to Social Security and reduced pensions (Abramovitz, 1996).

Social welfare policy and programs were expanded in the liberal President Johnson’s Great Society “War on Poverty” of the 1960s. Medicare and Medicaid provided health insurance for retired workers and medical assistance for the poor. Although the Social Security pension system has been successful in reducing poverty among elderly workers and has widespread public support, its public assistance or welfare programs have been controversial. Both the New Deal Aid to Dependent Children program, which assisted children, and its successor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which began in 1962, offered residual “means-tested” cash assistance to the poor, financed by the federal government and the states and administered locally. Between 1960 and 1967, welfare rolls doubled, encouraging critics to argue that welfare was being abused by “cheats” and “unworthy” recipients, many of whom were people of color. A work incentive program, WIN, which required work from AFDC recipients, began a long retreat from support for dependent women and families. Conservative pundits and writers, generously funded by “think tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, itself funded by the billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, went on the offensive against liberal welfare policies. Public opinion was galvanized against social welfare programs using media to spread stigmatizing gender and racial stereotypes of welfare recipients as indolent and irresponsible. Single African American mothers receiving AFDC assistance were denigrated and called “welfare queens” by President Reagan (Chappell, 2010). In 1995, President Clinton, a Democrat, campaigned to “end welfare as we know it” and collaborated with the conservative Republican legislators who took control of Congress in 1994 to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, abolishing the AFDC and ending the federal entitlement to public assistance 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 welfare assistance programs consistent with changing social priorities. New rules required work from recipients and limited cash assistance to 5 years. The 1998 Workforce Investment Act required welfare recipients to seek work before receiving social services, which was criticized by social workers as ignoring the needs of women and children who needed long-term assistance and supportive services. By 2005, the number of persons receiving public assistance was half what it had been in the 1990s. Although it is certain that many single mothers and others left the welfare rolls, whether they have achieved economic and social self-sufficiency is debatable. Securing employment with employers who provide low wages and few, if any, benefits, such as health insurance, does not provide a decent standard of living or good job security. There is clear evidence of large increases in the numbers of individuals receiving Medicaid and Food Stamps since 1996, supporting the argument that former welfare recipients have joined the ranks of the working poor, struggling to obtain decent housing, medical care, and food for their families (Shipley, 2004). Policy makers face ongoing dilemmas as they attempt to promote work, decrease dependency, and alleviate need among the most vulnerable members of American society (Grogger & Karoly, 2005) as poverty and social inequality increase to levels not seen since the Depression of the 1930s.

Research shows that for the poor to become self-sufficient, they need support that will provide for their basic needs so they can engage in learning and hence acquire skills to obtain good jobs (Andersson, Holzer, & Lane, 2005; Austin, 2004). In the early 21st century, although many training and temporary assistance programs are offered by social workers and others working in government, nonprofit, and for-profit agencies that can assist those transitioning from welfare to work by matching them to supportive programs, including medical assistance, housing, and child care, increasing homelessness and scarce job opportunities reduce the chances of finding full-time employment. A “pluralist” model of social welfare provision that integrates government programs with nonprofit and for-profit agencies and community resources has evolved in an attempt to meet complex human needs. Funded from many sources, including federal and local governments, foundations, philanthropy, and private donations, social services attempt to meet specific needs, such as job retraining and employment assistance, child care, homelessness, and hunger. Despite many innovative services and programs aimed at poverty alleviation, its seeming intractability while the wealthiest Americans prosper remains a national dilemma.

Suggestions to privatize Social Security, our most large-scale and institutional social welfare program, were proposed during the Bush administration. Proponents argued that individual retirement accounts, under individual control, would reduce federal entitlement liabilities (Herrick & Midgley, 2002). President George W. Bush favored state and charitable programs rather than federally run programs as the most effective way of dealing with certain social problems. He proposed federal funding for faith-based community services, based on the premise that local service providers can 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).

Social Policy Context

Since 2006 and the beginning of the Great Recession, the federal government has attempted to combat the recession’s economic and social impact. Both President George W. Bush, a conservative Republican, and his successor, President Barack H. Obama, a moderate Democrat, used federal funds to shore up the shaky economy in an attempt to stave off a major economic depression. In 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act allocated $787 billion to shore up the states. The largest amount, $87.1 billion, went to states to assist Medicare funding. Money also was allocated to other social programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, TANF, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing assistance, energy bill assistance, public schools in low-income areas, and child care, which primarily benefitted low-income persons (Smeeding, Thompson, Levanon, & Burak, 2011). Thus far, these efforts and others, although controversial, seem to have kept the nation from falling into a major depression, although the economy remains unsteady. Millions of workers lost jobs as companies downsized or disappeared as demand weakened. In 2008, 3.1 million jobs were lost, followed by another 4.7 million in 2009 (Goodman & Mance, 2011). Rising unemployment challenged local and state governments and social-service agencies to respond to increasing needs for unemployment compensation, job retraining, and services to assist those who were economically and socially at risk. Social workers, long accustomed to the challenges of providing services in times of crisis, worked creatively and doggedly to respond to emerging challenges. By 2013, unemployment was slowly falling but sectors of the labor market, including older workers and new college graduates, continued to face dismal job prospects. The middle-class faces an unknown economic future as the job market changes and retirees’ pensions are threatened by erratic swings in the stock market. Social policies to address the unemployment crisis are issues in local, state, and federal politics. Many corporations and public employers demand pension and benefit cutbacks, arguing that such draconian measures are necessary to maintain economic viability. Retirees and public employees such as social workers and teachers face job loss and reduced retirement income, increasing their economic and social insecurity. Entitlement programs such as Social Security are targets for those bent on reducing the scope of government and are often characterized as failed “nanny state” experiments by conservative critics.

Escalating needs in areas of traditional concern to social workers present social policy challenges. Twenty-one percent of America’s children lived in poverty in 2011, a higher rate than that of nearly all prosperous nations (Stanford University Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, 2012). A 2012 Indiana University “White Paper” “At Risk” (Seefeldt, Abner, Bolinger, Xu, & Graham, 2012) found many states losing revenues, resulting in cutbacks of “safety net” programs that have traditionally supported economically and socially vulnerable citizens. Age, ethnicity, and family composition contribute to poverty. Racial disparity among poor Americans is evident, with 1 in 4 Hispanics and African Americans living in poverty compared to 1 in 10 Whites. In 2013, 46 million Americans lived in poverty, the largest number in 53 years of published poverty rates. Not since the Great Depression have so many families and children become homeless. In 2010, 1 in 45 children were homeless (Bassuk, Murphy, Coupe, Kenney, & Beach, 2010). Social security, food stamps, and other programs provide a safety net for millions of Americans, keeping them out of poverty.

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, “Obamcare,” while controversial, promises affordable and accessible health care to millions of Americans, a goal long supported by social work.

Increasing Inequality

During the late 20th century as conservative, neoliberal market–oriented assumptions came to dominate approaches to social welfare provision, exemplified by President Clinton’s welfare reforms, the issue of social inequality was ignored by many social scientists who focused on postmodernist themes of identity, gender, and culture in social policy analyses. In the early 21st century, inequality has been rediscovered by social scientists determined to understand the social structural issues that impede America’s progress.

Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that the income of the top 1% amounts to nearly 25% of the total national income. The top 1% also controls 40% of the total wealth (Stiglitz, 2012). Rates of economic and social mobility are lower than the rates of many of our national competitors. Forty-two percent of men raised in families in the bottom quintile of incomes remain there as adults. About 62 percent of male and female Americans raised in the top quintile stay in the top two fifths throughout their lives (Alterman, 2012). Growing inequality preceded the Great Recession and has persisted in its aftermath. Much of this may be explained by the responsiveness of our political and government systems to powerful interests that deploy massive financial resources to influence policy making, such as efforts to make the tax system favorable to corporate interests. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the “Citizens United” decision has opened the door for unlimited amounts of money to be used in political campaigns, thereby allowing wealthy interests to disproportionately influence candidate selection as well as social policy agendas. The Great Recession brought considerable economic insecurity to the middle class. A 2012 study by the Federal Reserve showed the middle class lost nearly 40% of its wealth between 2007 and 2010, whereas the wealthiest Americans gained assets (Bricker, Kennick, Moore, & Sabelhaus, 2012). Effective social policy must acknowledge increasing inequality as a barrier to the creation of a more just and equitable society. Class divisions are becoming increasingly problematic given our long-held belief in America as an egalitarian society.

The Future of U.S. Social Policy

Debates among conservatives and liberals about the viability of Social Security, our most basic and universal social welfare program, reflect how economic uncertainty impacts social policy. The conservative belief that the free market, unfettered by constrictive social welfare policies, can best respond to human needs by offering short-term assistance when necessary and, more important, opportunities to acquire the skills necessary to succeed in the globalized marketplace is widely held. Social problems exacerbated by the Great Recession demonstrate that bold new approaches are needed to deal with complex problems such as unemployment and homelessness. Liberals generally favor government-financed economic stimuli to bolster the economy, whereas conservatives favor cuts in spending to reduce deficits.

Liberal policy makers support education and training programs to promote job readiness for the unemployed, but these programs do not produce immediate results, leaving laid-off workers with few resources, particularly when unemployment benefits expire. As the labor market changes, residual social policy responses do not address increasing structural inequality in the United States (Stiglitz, 2012). Low-income jobs, often taken by single women with children, once supported by welfare, contribute to the wage gender gap (Gatta & Deprez, 2008; Kuttner, 2002). The income gap between the rich and the rest of Americans is growing. Chief executive officers of major corporations earn hundreds of times more than their workers (Anderson, Cavanagh, Collins, Pizzigati, & Lapham, 2007). Furthermore, the share of total national income earned by an increasingly smaller percentage of persons is growing. Tax policies have provided some relief to the working poor through the earned income tax credit but the middle class and the wealthy have benefited far more under the tax code as income has been redistributed upward, increasing class inequality.

Globalization has exacerbated social inequalities worldwide (Chomsky, 2000). The United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research (2005), found that in 2000 1% of the world’s population owned 40% of global assets and that half of the world’s adults owned only 1% of its wealth. Some argue for progressive policies that alter social structures to reduce social, racial, and gender inequalities by giving people more power and control over government decision making (Bates, 2000; Chomsky, 2000) Others support pushback from the rush toward globalization, pointing out that although it has produced immense wealth for some nations and individuals, millions of others in the United States and worldwide have been left behind and their needs cannot be ignored (Bates, 2000). It seems clear in the early 21st century that social welfare policies face an uncertain future as the nation struggles to shore up a recession economy. Social workers’ roles will change as programs and services dependent on public and private support cope with funding reductions and changing missions. Demands on private charities and local and state governments will increase as long as the safety net is threatened by calls for austere measures to reduce the national debt and state budget shortfalls.

Roles of Social Workers

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) encourages social workers to get involved in policy making. Many opportunities to do so are available through state NASW chapters.

Social workers have been elected to local, state, and federal offices, including the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The NASW, both nationally and through its state chapters, engages in lobbying to influence social policy development. Social-work educators, students, and practitioners advocate for social policies to assist women, children, AIDS victims, prisoners reentering society, victims of abuse, the homeless, military veterans, immigrants, and others in need. Social workers have the knowledge, skills, and values to be strong advocates for the poor (Marsh, 2005; Schneider, 2000), continuing the tradition of social action begun long ago by social-work pioneers Jane Addams, Bertha Reynolds, and Whitney Young. Social workers are challenged to continue advocacy to attack social injustice and social inequality (Rowntree & Pomeroy, 2010). The NASW-sponsored Social Work Policy Institute offers timely information on policy innovations and social-work research that can be easily accessed at As the nation recovers from the Great Recession, social work can play a vital role in the evolution of the new economy, which is increasingly international, high tech, and green. Social workers in Congress, working with the NASW, established the Congressional Social Work Caucus in 2010, which works for the creation of a strong safety net of services and programs to assist the diverse needs of Americans. Social workers, working through the broad membership of the NASW, utilize the practice experiences of social workers across the nation to issue policy recommendations through Social Work Speaks (2012) and Hoffler & Clark (2012).


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Further Reading

U.S. Government sites: