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Updated to include the 2008 EPAS from the Council on Social Work Education.

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date: 10 December 2019

Social Work Education: Social Welfare Policy

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: accreditation, critical thinking, educational policy and accreditation standards, globalization, justice theories, social welfare policy, social-work education

Studying Social Policy: A History

Social welfare policy is a required foundation area of study in the accredited social-work programs of 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. 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 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 (for example, see CSWE, 1971, 1988, 1991, 1994, 2002) and the current 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) include social welfare policy content as part of the required core competencies (CSWE, 2008, p. 6).

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, 2012, p. 4); the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards note that a social-work practice includes the need to “analyze, challenge and develop social policies” (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2010, p. 5); 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 (Global Standards, n.d., p. 7).

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

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 policy may exacerbate or penalize a particular population group.

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.

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 and sanctions an organization to provide a particular program or service. Fourth, policy offers a roadmap for an organization to realize its mission. Fifth, policy creates the broad structural framework that guides the practitioner in his or her professional role.

Although social welfare policy is not specifically defined in The Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2003), conceptually it is best thought of as a subset of the larger social policy arena. Policy has been formally defined as “the explicit or implicit standing plan that an organization or government uses as a guide for action” (Barker, p. 330). 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). The primary function of policy is to create a plan of action, it also, as Titmuss (1966) writes, directs attention to “definite problems” (p. 68). Countering the preciseness of policy, Rohrlich (1977) finds it to be often vague and imprecise (p. 1463).

Policies reflect choices of a government or a nongovernmental agency (for example, a nonprofit social service agency). Such choices are tied to and build values, beliefs, and principles; programs vary in form and function with services ranging from minimal and limiting to comprehensive and wide ranging. For example, the primary public assistance program targeting poor families, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), is time limited, with minimal cash assistance and access to other public assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid; TANF is time limited with a maximum of 5 years of benefits over an individual’s life. 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. Seniors, on the other hand, who worked and contributed to the greater good through their payroll taxes, are able to make a just claim for their retirement benefits.

Wilensky and Lebeaux (1965), in their classic work Industrial Society and Social Welfare, detail a framework that 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, the Supplemental Nutrition Program, Supplemental Security Income, General Assistance, 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 nonstigmatizing manner. 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, veterans programs, public education, food and drug regulations, and Medicare are institutional by nature.

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).

The 2008 EPAS redirected social-work education to a competency-based education. According to the EPAS (Council on Social Work Education, 2008), “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.” The 2008 EPAS identified 10 core competencies that all baccalaureate and master’s social-work programs must include in respective curricula. Social policy is specifically identified in one core competency and is defined as follows.

Social welfare policy is also reflected in seven other core competencies as follows (note: the italicized parts of the statements directly address social welfare policy).

Prior EPAS and accreditation statements were prescriptive with their requirements for specific curricula areas and foundation educational objectives. The 2008 EPAS provides educational programs with the flexibility to determine how and where to measure the mastery of content as demonstrated through specific practice behaviors. These practice behaviors reflect the unique characteristics of the college, university, and region.

Acquiring knowledge and skills in social welfare policy fosters 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 traditional areas of study, the mastery of knowledge and skills in three spheres is essential: critical thinking, theories of justice, and globalization.

Critical Thinking and Social Welfare Policy

Successful policy work requires critical thinking, which Ennis defines 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 Bok (2006) writes, 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 facts, 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 facts from myth and allows clear, objective solutions to emerge. Even so, critical thinking must also allow for creative thinking, which is a dynamic, vibrant, and intuitive process. Creative thinking enables a free flow of ideas while recognizing that some biases are impossible to disregard or subordinate in policy work.

The World Wide Web revolutionized critical thinking by opening the doors to a variety of data, information, and analyses of issues. 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 legitimate. Using inaccurate data or information from a website source in a presentation only diminishes the presenter’s reputation and the report itself. A second issue deals with information overload. The ease of information accessibility can be overwhelming. For example, performing a simple web search using the phrase “social welfare policies in the United States” resulted in 75,200,000 identified sites, “social welfare policies in Texas” located 10,600,000 websites, and “social welfare policies in North Dakota” identified 3,060,000 websites. Are all of these websites reliable sources of information? How does one know whether a particular website is a neutral, nonpartisan site or in fact professes a particular political or philosophical ideology? Critical thinking requires disciplined analysis of the Web, the ability to discern good information from bad, and ensuring 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) believes 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) argues for a free-market libertarian model that advocates for individuals to 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?” (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, 2003b): 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, 2003a). 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, 2004). 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, 2003c).

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. In creating a successful policy change strategy, such understanding requires the social-work profession, as Morris (1986) writes, “to take into account not only its own beliefs and values, but those held by a large number of other nonadvocate citizens” (p. 678).

Changing Global Environment

The convergence of key unrelated, global social, political, economic, and technological events that began in the 1980s and continue into the new millennium require a global perspective in policy matters. The New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman (2005) contends 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 world’s flattening has been global growth and change. Depending on the information source, in 2012 there were 193 United Nations members, whereas the U.S. State Department recognized 195 nations (Rosenberg, 2012) and the Central Intelligence Agency included 198 nations in its annual report (Central Intelligence Agency, 2009)—note that these numbers do not include disputed states that claim independent nation status. The world’s population reached 7 billion people in October 2011, adding 1 billion people since 1999, and it is estimated that in 2027 the world population will reach 8 billion persons (

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 2012.

One must assume that global geo, socio, and political changes will continue in the future. For example, the ever-changing political environment is best illustrated by the so-called “Arab Spring,” which began in December 2010 and continues in 2013. Certainly, the world continues to feel the aftershocks of the 2008 global-wide recession. In the United States, the annual unemployment rates in 2009 and 2010 were the highest since 1940; in 2012, the U.S. stock market continued its roller coaster ride as the Euro Community sought ways to salvage the failing Greek economy and the continued worsening economies of both Spain and the Netherlands.

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.

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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Further Reading

WorldoMeters: Real Time World Statistics.