The impact of welfare reform on the social services workforce

Key points

  • Welfare reform has increased demand on the social services workforce, especially those in third sector care and support
  • Workers have been emotionally affected by the impact of welfare reform on clients lives and have felt angry, distressed, as well as disappointed and frustrated in their ability to help
  • Workers have been diverted from other tasks to help reassure people affected by welfare reform and guide and signpost them through the system
  • Additional workloads and emotional stresses come on top of an already difficult work-life balance, decreasing job security and pay and conditions with possible implications for recruitment and retention
  • The sector is involved in awareness raising, evidence gathering, lobbying and campaigning to challenge aspects of welfare reform


This evidence summary explores the impact of welfare reform – in a climate of austerity and cuts – on key client groups and its consequent effect on the social services workforce in Scotland. It draws on evidence from the UK where relevant or transferable, but focuses on the Scottish context, impact and response.

The context


The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 ushered in wide-ranging changes to the post-war welfare system in the UK. Measures introduced by the Conservative-led coalition government form part of a programme of austerity, with significant cuts to public services. The changes to UK law can be summarised as (White, 2014):

  • Replacing the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with point-based Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
  • Replacing Incapacity Benefit (and related benefits) with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – largely completed after initial phase of testing across UK from 2011–14
  • A withdrawal of Council Tax benefits and parts of the Social Fund (community care grants and crisis loans)
  • The introduction of Universal Credit (UC), replacing a range of in- and out-of-work benefits incorporating housing costs, and changes to working tax credits
  • The creation of new household caps and ‘under-occupancy’ penalties (known as the ‘bedroom tax’)

From April 2013, changes to the DWP Social Fund scheme meant that Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants stopped. These were replaced by the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF), delivered by councils in Scotland. Changes to welfare have also been accompanied by a migration to digital applications and monthly payments. These changes have made the transition for claimants particularly difficult, especially those without the requisite skills to make the transition. A Citizens Advice Scotland report (2013) suggested that claimants in Scotland are less likely than in other parts of the UK to have access to the internet; poorer families are the most affected.

This can also be viewed in the broader context of public sector reform (Christie, 2011) and earlier debates, including the Changing lives (2006) report of the 21st century social work review. The latter questioned the sustainability of pouring more money into welfare models. Nevertheless, the extent of the changes brought in by the UK government in 2012 could not have been predicted.

Scottish context

The Scottish experience of welfare reform has been different to the experiences of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, unique responses have been made to both the bedroom tax, with Discretionary Housing Funds available, and introduction of the Scottish Welfare Fund to replace the loss of DWP crisis funds. In Scotland, the Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Act 2012 intended to shift some of the burden of the changes to social security and protect vulnerable individuals in Scotland. The Social services in Scotland: a shared vision and strategy 2015–20 (2015) recognises the significant changes to the welfare system, and contends that ‘Scottish Government is working with stakeholders, partners and the UK Government to understand the impact of the welfare reforms and doing as much as possible to understand the impact on and support public services and vulnerable people in Scotland.’ As evidence of this, a committee investigating the impact of welfare reform was established in January 2012, signifying that Scottish Government was less sympathetic to the changes being implemented by Westminster.1

Following the ‘no vote’ in the Scottish independence referendum (Sept 2014), a further Westminster-Holyrood deal was struck to devolve more powers. Some of the detail is still being worked through, although, details on The Scotland Bill 2015-16 – in particular on welfare reform – have been formally released and include discretionary crisis and community care grants. The Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015 places a duty on local authorities to provide a safety net for vulnerable people in an emergency situation, following abolition of the discretionary Social Fund by the DWP. While the Act comes into force in April 2016, it has been administered on an interim basis under a voluntary agreement between Scottish Government and COSLA since April 2013. The impact of these new powers on people receiving benefits, and the social services workforce supporting them, have yet to be realised.

Groups most affected by welfare reform

According to Beatty and Fothergill (2013), the poorest local authorities have been impacted the most by welfare reform. White’s review of the literature (2014) identified the following groups as most affected: unemployed and low-income groups; disabled people; vulnerable women; homeless people (Crisis, 2015); and prison leavers. The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC, 2013:1) highlights the disproportionate impact on women; children; migrants and refugees; and disabled people. Dryburgh and Lancashire (2011) reported that disabled people are facing the greatest challenge. The WR Committee (2013) reported that the greatest impact is on working age people, with people of pensionable age, largely unaffected.

It should be noted that the reforms to welfare impact more on women with a link to child poverty and larger families bearing the brunt (Beatty and Fothergill, 2013). ‘The explanation for this disproportionate impact on women lies in women’s pre-existing inequality’ (Engender, 2015: 4). The same may also be true of some of the other groups identified. The impact on unpaid carers – part client group, part unwaged member of the social services workforce – is not well known. However, Carers Scotland (2012) published a review, and CPAG (2014) a factsheet examining some of the possible outcomes of welfare reform on the incomes of carers.

Evidence of increased demand on services

Previous sections have identified which groups are most affected, with rolling and shifting timescales for implementation and patchy information adding to already complex cases with vulnerable clients. This has created an increase in demand for services, with most evidence for this from third sector surveys (CCPS 2014, 2013; SCVO, 2013); and White’s qualitative research (2014) based on 17 interviews from five organisations specialising in housing, care and support services from the third sector.

The SCVO (2013) report highlighted that 72% of surveyed organisations had experienced a significant increase in demand for services, with 88% expecting further increases as welfare reform is rolled out. CCPS’s Provider Optimism Survey (2014) found that two-thirds expected a change in demand and 76% were concerned about the impact of welfare reform on services. White’s (2014) study also evidences increased demands – extra caseloads and additional tasks – on third sector care and support workers. Tennant’s report (2015) adds further weight concluding that: ‘welfare reform is causing considerable hardship across Glasgow and stretching the resources and resilience of both people and organisations to breaking point’. Increased stigmatisation of people on benefits has also led to people being more reluctant to seek help and delaying or not making claims (Baumberg and colleagues, 2016; 2012).

There are other indicators of increased demand, which help explain survey headlines. One of the most commonly reported is increased use of food banks: ‘during 2008/09 across the UK, the Trussell Trust handed out 25,899 emergency ‘three-day’ food parcels. By 2014/15 this had risen to almost 1.1 million’ (Tennant, 2015: 6). In Scotland, the rise in the use of food banks – particularly in Glasgow – has drawn attention: ‘current estimates suggest that around 35 organisations in Glasgow are providing food aid of one form or another’ (Tennant, 2015: 6).

Increases in sanctions also increases client’s need for support, often from third sector organisations. In 2014, a total of 55,864 JSA sanctions were recorded (Tennant, 2015), with people penalised for missing or being late for Job Centre appointments. JRF research reports that this has become the new ‘normal’ (JRF, 2015). A Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) survey concluded that 23% of Job Centre workers had an explicit target for sanction referrals, and 81% had a level of ‘expectation’ imposed on them (PCS, 2014). Tinson (2015) reports a significant increase in the use of sanctions between 2010-15, and since 2012, an increase in severity.

Participants in the Welfare Trackers project also described a general lack of DWP and Job Centre Plus (JCP) structures to understand and support service users before, during and after a sanction, with few exceptions (Tennant, 2015). The same report highlights that people subject to sanctions often do not know about their entitlements to hardship grants (from JCP or the Scottish Welfare Fund), their right to request a ‘mandatory reconsideration’, or that they needed to continue to sign on while this is underway.

Tennant’s (2015) Glasgow study highlights demand for support caused by an increasing number of appeals – many successful, albeit, with people experiencing long delays and time spent on lower interim rates of pay. It has also forced people with physical or mental impairments to re-join the workforce, in some cases resulting in suicides. Furthermore, research conducted (Shelter Scotland, 2013; Fitzpatrick, 2012) indicated that between 90,000 and 105,000 social tenants would be affected by the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax.’ As discussed, however, measures have been undertaken by the Scottish government to limit the impact of, and abolish, the tax.2

Information challenges

The timeline for the implementation of welfare changes has, in itself, brought challenges – owing in large part to the slow roll-out of the Universal Credit (UC) system. White (2014) outlined the planned timetable for change – from January 2013 to October 2017 – however, key milestones for this have not been met. The Jobcentre and the DWP’s website and telephone line were generally considered to be a poor source of information for clients (Lister and colleagues, 2014; White, 2014). As a response to these challenges, some organisations continue to update people about key dates and implementation of PiP and ESA, including Disability Rights UK.3

‘Knowledge of welfare reform’ is regularly cited as a skills need and issue for social services staff (SSSC, 2014), particularly for third sector care and support workers (CCPS, 2013). In White’s (2014) study of this group, respondents spoke about feeling uncertain about the accuracy of advice that they could offer, and being asked to provide advice that was outwith their job remit, expertise or powers.

One response to this need has been to set up SCOTWRAS (Scottish Welfare Reform Advisory Service). The service is a joint venture between Shelter Scotland and CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group), which aims to help disseminate information to frontline workers on changes to the benefits system. While such services are available, there is also evidence that workers in third sector care and support services have taken it upon themselves to find out information as needs arise (White, 2014). This can be linked to service worker’s codes of practice where they are expected to take responsibility for improving and maintaining their knowledge.4 Nevertheless, this remains a real challenge, particularly for an already stretched workforce without additional support and resource to up-skill. Changing timescales makes training and staff development difficult for organisations to plan for. White (2014) and Tennant (2015) both conclude that there is a need to forge better relationships and communication with DWP and Job Centres.

Lister and colleagues (2014) also highlight the need for more joined-up approaches across health, social care and advice services. They view GPs as having an important role in coordinating information with regards to disability benefit applications. Similarly, Tennant (2015) highlights the need for increased partnership working with citizen advice bureaus and housing associations. The latter are affected by rising rent arrears and their tenants are affected by changes to the benefits system.

Changes to staff roles

Workers have also been developing relationships with the volunteer workforce that has emerged to man the growing number of foodbanks providing emergency aid. White’s study (2014) identified a lack of information surrounding food aid. There are discrepancies in how clients are treated – some being refused food parcels unless challenged or accompanied by a support worker. Workers recognise, however, that decisions around allocating food aid should not depend on relationships developed with individual foodbank workers.

In terms of workers’ focus, there is also evidence that third sector care and support workers are being diverted from key tasks due to demands on them to respond to benefit changes or deal with crisis. This was, reportedly, to the detriment of supporting holistic programmes for those, for example, who have complex needs or who had come through the care or criminal justice system to develop skills for independent living (Tennant, 2015; White, 2015). White’s study (2014) also found that funds intended to support transition were being used more frequently in crisis situations, and that deciding how these were to be allocated was an additional concern to staff.

Interestingly, there are some examples of organisations providing computers and space for clients to complete online applications for benefits or job applications in order to prevent them being sanctioned (White, 2014).

Emotional impact on staff

A key finding from both Tennant (2015) and White’s (2015) studies reveals that the impact of welfare reform on clients’ everyday lives was impacting emotionally on workers. Many workers felt angry, distressed, disappointed and frustrated as they witnessed people losing benefits and receiving reduced funding. This is especially true when considering the heavy stigmatisation of claiming benefits (Baumberg, 2016). Workers were empathetic, but also worried that they were letting vulnerable people down, especially those on their own, and those in recovery, with sensory impairments, accessibility issues and diagnosed/undiagnosed health needs. Lack of literacy or digital skills (or access to a computer), not having English as a first language, or having a learning disability added to the stress. There is also evidence that while workers had mandates to support clients, individual DWP staff did not always accept their involvement (Tennant, 2015).

The fragile mental health of individual clients, in particular, has been flagged by many organisations as an indication of how the reforms have had a very personal impact on both service users and the workforce (Tennant, 2015; White, 2014). Reports of suicide (Stockdale, 2014; Straightforward, 2013) and need for greater suicide intervention (Tennant, 2015) have been linked to welfare reform, albeit, two of them are English studies. That this impacts emotionally on workers is not surprising considering that a survey of the Scottish social services workforce (2,167 respondents) found that 75% were driven by a desire to make a difference; 70% said good outcomes for those they supported made them feel valued; and 64% said positive feedback from those they supported made them feel valued (Iriss, 2015).

Staff terms and conditions

White’s study (2014) highlights the issue of workplace turnover and retention. This is a larger issue facing this part of the sector as a consequence of wider funding cuts and pressures to tender for, and win, competitive contracts that have driven down hourly rates and affected conditions in recent years (Cunningham, 2011). In Cunningham, Lindsay and Roy’s (2015) report, the vast majority of employees worked more hours than they were contracted for, with ‘staff shortages’ being the most commonly cited explanation. Others spoke of taking work home with them and how this could impact negatively on home life and personal relationships. The same report provides evidence that while many had benefited from good learning and development opportunities, these had been reduced with budgetary constraints and, that for a minority, supervision needs were not met.

In White’s study (2014) staff interviewed also spoke about being recipients of benefits themselves and how welfare reform was impacting on their take home pay. Many research participants spoke about their own financial worries, resentment at having their wages and hours cut, impermanent contracts and fears around job security. Cunningham’s research (2015) also highlights that the majority of respondents were dissatisfied with their pay and conditions, especially those in the private and third sectors. The rise of zero hour contracts was also seen to diminish the value attributed to care work. In addition, the Coalition for Care and Support Providers in Scotland (CCPS) – who regularly survey their member organisations – recently reported that: ‘40% of respondents [were] less optimistic about the general business situation [and] 36% experienced an increase in services running a deficit…’ (CCPS, 2015).

Awareness raising, advocacy and campaigning models

There is evidence that organisations in the sector, along with relevant partners, have been active in challenging the reforms. Welfare Trackers (led by Poverty Alliance, Scottish Drugs Forum and Glasgow Council for Voluntary Sector), have organised awareness raising workshops, city-wide networking sessions and research tracking. They have joined up various organisations working across the spectrum of inequalities and vulnerabilities. Key recommendations for policy and practice have been made on the back of this.5

The Poverty Truth Commission also brought together some of Scotland’s decision makers with people’s stories about their lived experience of welfare reform. It advocates that it should be standard practice for organisations to conduct exit interviews. A number of organisations continue to campaign such as the Poverty Alliance, Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (SCoWR) and SCVO (Scottish Coalition for Voluntary Organisations).

Social workers have also posed questions about what this means for their code of ethics and professional identity. For example, the Highland branch of SASW has highlighted the need to advocate on behalf of people and challenge welfare reforms (Professional Social Work, 2014).


In summary, this Insight shows that there continues to be a number of challenges for the social services workforce – especially in Scotland – around the impact of welfare reform. Clearly there is much to be done in terms of reducing the anxieties of frontline workers, particularly where they are supporting clients through sanctions. The focus of the sector should not only be on the outcomes for clients, but on the needs of workers that deal with a number of daily stresses as part of increasingly pressurised conditions in third sector care and support services.


Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: globalization, social policy, welfare


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)

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).

Educational Policy 2.1.8—Engage in policy practice to advance social and economic well-being and to deliver effective social work services.

Social work practitioners understand that policy affects service delivery, and they actively engage in policy practice. Social workers know 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

  • advocate for client access to the services of social work;
  • practice personal reflection and self-correction to assure continual professional development;
  • attend to professional roles and boundaries;
  • demonstrate professional demeanor in behavior, appearance, and communication;
  • engage in career-long learning; and
  • use supervision and consultation.

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.

Educational Policy 2.1.1—Identify as a professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly.

Social workers serve as representatives of the profession, its mission, and its core values. They know the profession’s history. Social workers commit themselves to the profession’s enhancement and to their own professional conduct and growth.

Educational Policy 2.1.3—Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments.

Social workers are knowledgeable about the principles of logic, scientific inquiry, and reasoned discernment. They use critical thinking augmented by creativity and curiosity. Critical thinking also requires the synthesis and communication of relevant information.

Educational Policy 2.1.4—Engage diversity and difference in practice.

Social workers understand how diversity characterizes and shapes the human experience and is critical to the formation of identity. The dimensions of diversity are understood as the intersectionality of multiple factors including age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation. Social workers appreciate that, as a consequence of difference, a person’s life experiences may include oppression, poverty, marginalization, and alienation as well as privilege, power, and acclaim.

Educational Policy 2.1.5—Advance human rights and social and economic justice.

Each person, regardless of position in society, has basic human rights, such as freedom, safety, privacy, an adequate standard of living, health care, and education. Social workers recognize the global interconnections of oppression and are knowledgeable about theories of justice and strategies to promote human and civil rights. Social work incorporates social justice practices in organizations, institutions, and society to ensure that these basic human rights are distributed equitably and without prejudice.

Educational Policy 2.1.6—Engage in research-informed practice and practice-informed research.

Social workers use practice experience to inform research, employ evidence-based interventions, evaluate their own practice, and use research findings to improve practice, policy, and social service delivery. Social workers comprehend quantitative and qualitative research and understand scientific and ethical approaches to building knowledge.

Educational Policy 2.1.9—Respond to contexts that shape practice.

Social workers are informed, resourceful, and proactive in responding to evolving organizational, community, and societal contexts at all levels of practice. Social workers recognize that the context of practice is dynamic, and use knowledge and skill to respond proactively.

Educational Policy 2.1.10(a)–(d)—Engage, assess, intervene, and evaluate with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

Professional practice involves the dynamic and interactive processes of engagement, assessment, intervention, and evaluation at multiple levels. Social workers have the knowledge and skills to practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Practice knowledge includes identifying, analyzing, and implementing evidence-based interventions designed to achieve client goals; using research and technological advances; evaluating program outcomes and practice effectiveness; developing, analyzing, advocating, and providing leadership for policies and services; and promoting social and economic justice.

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 non-advocate 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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