The name of 'social policy' is used to refer to the policies which
governments use for welfare and social protection, to the ways in which
welfare is developed in a society, and to the academic study of the
In the first sense, social policy is particularly concerned with
social services and the welfare state. In the second, broader sense, it
stands for a range of issues extending far beyond the actions of
government - the means by which welfare is promoted, and the social and
economic conditions which shape the development of welfare.
Social Policy and Administration is an academic subject concerned
with the study of social services and the welfare state. It developed
in the early part of the 20th century as a complement to social work
studies, aimed at people who would be professionally involved in the
administration of welfare. In the course of the last forty years, the
range and breadth of the subject has developed. The principal areas
- policy and administrative practice in social services, including
health administration, social security, education, employment services,
community care and housing policy;
- social problems, including crime, disability, unemployment,
mental health, learning disability, and old age;
- issues relating to social disadvantage, including race, gender, poverty, labour and the economy; and
- the range of collective social responses to these conditions.
Social Policy is a subject area, not a discipline; it borrows from
other social science disciplines in order to develop study in the area.
The contributory disciplines include sociology, social work,
psychology, economics, political science, management, history,
philosophy and law.
External links: Jonathan Bradshaw,
Alcock, Nick Ellison and Hartley Dean talk about the nature of social
policy; Peter-Taylor Gooby writes about it.
Welfare is an ambiguous term, used in three main senses:
- Welfare commonly refers to 'well-being'.
In welfare economics,
welfare is understood in terms of 'utility'; people's well-being or
interests consist of the things they choose to have.
- Welfare also refers to the range of services which are provided
to protect people in a number of conditions, including childhood,
sickness and old age. The idea of the 'welfare state' is an example.
This is equivalent to the term 'social protection' in the European
- In the United States, welfare refers specifically to financial
assistance to poor people (e.g. Temporary Aid to Needy Families). This
usage is not generally reflected elsewhere, but it has been adopted by
politicians in the UK in recent years.
Welfare is often associated with needs, but
it goes beyond what people need; to achieve well being, people must
have choices, and the scope to choose personal goals and ambitions.
The 'welfare state'
The idea of the welfare state means different things in different
- An ideal model. The "welfare state" often refers to an
ideal model of provision, where the state accepts responsibility for
the provision of comprehensive and universal welfare for its citizens.
- State welfare. Some commentators use it to mean nothing
more than "welfare provided by the state". This is the main use in the
- Social protection. In many "welfare states", notably those
in Western Europe and Scandinavia, social protection is not delivered
only by the state, but by a combination of government, independent,
voluntary, and autonomous public services. The "welfare state" in these
countries is then a system of social protection rather than a scheme
operated by government.
The most prevalent model in much of Europe is probably the third,
identified with the idea of solidarity
and mutual aid. (1) It follows that the entries on the 'welfare
state' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia
are misleading; they assume that the welfare state is "a concept of
government" and that government pays for
welfare. Neither is necessarily true.
This section repeats some definitions from another page of this
which looks at models of welfare provision in several countries. If you
would like to read more about the welfare state in an international
context, you should go to the
page on welfare states.
The basic arguments for collective provision are
- humanitarian. Concerns about poverty and need have
been central to many developments.
- religious. Several
the world's major religions make charity a religious duty. Beyond
charity, Catholicism recognises a duty of social solidarity (or mutual social
responsibility); Judaism, Islam and Lutheran Christianity require
collective responsibility for one's community.
- mutual self-interest. Many welfare systems have
developed, not from state activity, but from a combination of mutualist
activities, gradually reinforced by government.
Social protection has developed in tandem with democratic rights.
- practical. Welfare provision has economic and social
benefits. Countries with more extensive systems of social protection
tend to be richer and have less poverty. (The main difficulty of
evaluating this is knowing which comes first, wealth or welfare.)
There is scarcely a government in the world that does not recognise
the force of these arguments and make some form of collective social
provision. The real disputes are not about whether welfare should
exist, but about how much provision there should be, and how it should
External link. Paul Spicker: Arguments for Welfare (sample chapter available)
Arguments against welfare
The main objections to the provision of welfare come from the ‘radical right'. They are against
principle, on the basis that it violates people's freedom.
Redistribution is theft; taxation is forced labour. (2) These arguments
rest on some questionable assumptions:
- People have absolute rights to use property as they wish.
People in a society are interdependent, and the production of property
depends on social arrangements. Rights to property are conventional.
Liability to taxation is part of the conventions.
- People do not consent to welfare provision; redistributive
arrangements are based in compulsion. This is not necessarily
true. Several countries have developed welfare systems, in whole or in
part, on a voluntary, mutualist basis - Denmark, Finland and Sweden have moved to compulsion only
- The rights of the individual are paramount. Property
rights are certainly important, but few people would argue that
property rights are more important than every other moral value. If one
person owns all the food in a region while everybody else is starving,
do the others have no moral claim on it?
The radical right also claim that the welfare state has undesirable
effects in practice. Economically, it can be argued that
economic development is more important for welfare than social
provision. Dollar and Kraay, for the World Bank, have
argued that property rights and a market economy are essential for
growth and so for the protection of the poor. (3) It would not
welfare is unimportant. The other main argument
is that the welfare state undermines economic performance. This
position, reviewed later in the section on the economics of welfare states, is
not consistent with the
terms, the welfare state is accused of fostering dependency and
trapping people in poverty. (4)
Evidence on the dynamics of poverty shows that poverty and dependency
are not long-term, but affect people at different stages in the life
cycle; the population of welfare claimants is constantly changing. For
most people in developed countries, poverty is transitory. (5)
Where poor people are separated and excluded by welfare, this is mainly
the product of the kinds of restricted, residual
system the radical right has been arguing for.
External link. Video:
Milton Friedman criticises the USA's 'welfare state'
Who is welfare for?
- This question can be answered in many ways. Welfare might be seen
as being for people who are poor or in need; it might be a form of
social protection; it might be the right of every citizen. There are
many possible models: here are four of them.
- Residual welfare Welfare
provision is often seen as being for the poor. This was the dominant
model in English-speaking countries; the English Poor
Law (1601-1948) was exported
to many other countries. This has been taken as the model of a residual
system of welfare, in which welfare is a safety net, confined to those
who are unable to manage otherwise.
in much of Europe is based on the principle of solidarity, or mutual
responsibility. The responsibilities which people have to each other
depend on their relationships; people in society are part of
solidaristic social networks. Many of the rights which people have are
particular, rather than general - they depend on a person's
circumstances, work record or family relationships, not on general
rights protected by the state. Those who are not part of such networks
are said to be 'excluded'.
- Institutional welfare An
institutional system is one in which need is accepted as a normal part
of social life. Welfare is provided for the population as a whole, in
the same way as public services like roads or schools might be. In an
institutional system, welfare is not just for the poor: it is for
has often been seen as productivist, or a 'handmaiden' to the
economy. It helps employers, by preparing and
servicing the capacity of the workforce, and it acts as an economic
regulator, stimulating demand when production is low. More recent
analyses have emphasised the role of welfare as a 'social investment'.
The European Commission explains:
‘social investment is about investing
in people. It means policies designed to strengthen people’s skills and
capacities, and to support them to participate fully in employment and
social life. Key policy areas include education, quality childcare,
healthcare, training, job search assistance and rehabilitation.’ 
Further material: Values
in social policy
The right to welfare
Although the receipt of welfare is often framed in terms of rights,
rights mean different things in different places.
There are welfare regimes which offer a degree of solidarity to
citizens, but they do not necessarily guarantee individual rights to
support. In Turkey, government-funded social assistance is
administered by autonomous charities on a discretionary
- Human rights are rights
for everyone, regardless of status or nationality. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees rights to social
security , and the United Nations has come to accept that extreme
poverty is in itself a breach of human rights. 
- The rights of citizenship are
available to people in specific countries on the basis that they are
accepted as members of a political community. Marshall describes citizenship as ‘a status bestowed on those who are full
members of a community. All those who possess the status are
equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is
endowed.'  The rights of citizenship are general rights,
typically including rights to social protection, health care and access
to justice, but they may be denied to non-citizens and migrants.
- Particular rights are
rights that are specific to the people who hold them - such as the
rights held by people who are parties to a contract. Many
of the most important rights to welfare are personal and particular
rather than based on citizenship: examples are pensions and rights
relating to housing.
Universal benefits and services are benefits available to everyone
as a right, or at least to whole categories of people (like 'old
people' or 'children'). Selective benefits and services are reserved
for people in need. The arguments refer to the same issues as 'institutional' and 'residual'
welfare, but there is an important difference. Institutional and
residual welfare are principles: universality and selectivity are
methods. A residual system might use a universal service where
appropriate (e.g. a residual system of health care might be associated
with universal public health); an institutional system needs some
selective benefits to ensure that needs are met.
Universal services can reach everyone on the same terms. This is the
argument for public services, like roads and sewers: it was extended in
the 1940s to education and health services. The main objection to
universal services is their cost - but in the poorest countries,
universal services like Essential Health Care Packages have been used
down costs strictly. Selectivity is often presented as being more
efficient: less money is spent to better effect. There are problems
with selective services, however: because recipients have to be
identified, the services can be administratively complex and expensive
to run, and there are often boundary problems caused by trying to
include some people while excluding others. Selective services
sometimes fail to reach people in need.
Spicker talks to the BBC's 'Good Morning Scotland' about universal
benefits (MP3 file, 6.3Mb; reproduced by permission)
World Health Organization: Essential health care
Models of welfare
Esping-Andersen has described three
types of welfare régime:
- corporatist régimes are work-oriented and based on
- social democratic régimes favour universalist values.
- liberal régimes tend to be residualist. 
The grouping of particular countries tends to be unreliable, but the
classification may help to understand some of the main patterns of
provision. This table shows rates of economic exclusion in five
countries. The blue bars at the front show the proportions of poor
people; the red bars the "poverty gap", how far those remaining fall
below minimum standards; and the green bars at the rear the numbers of
people before transfers and taxes. Social protection in the UK and
Sweden is institutional,
but the UK
offers less to poor people, both in the numbers of people brought out
of poverty and in poverty reduction. France
is solidaristic, but its
performance has still secured coverage as good as the institutional
welfare states. The German system is work
oriented: it excludes some people who have not contributed, and it
does not extend to those on the highest incomes. The system in the USA
has substantial residual elements, and social
policy is often hostile to the poor. It has fewer people in poverty
before transfers than France or Germany, but it fails to bring people
out of poverty and the poverty that remains is more severe.
Further material: Welfare states
The economics of the welfare state
Social policy is to a large extent dominated by economic policy,
because much of it in practice is determined by government, and
economic policy determines the amount that government is
prepared to spend. There are two main views of public spending:
monetarist and Keynesian.
Keynes: "the man
- Monetarism is based on a view of the economy as
self-stabilising. In times of stringency, it is necessary to reduce
spending, on the basis that increased saving will lead to growth later.
If the government does not balance its budget, there will be inflation
(money will be worth less) and there will be fewer resources available
to the private sector for the economy to expand productively.
- Keynesianism sees government
intervention in the economy as necessary for the stability of the
economy. Public spending is an important regulator which can be used to
stimulate the economy at a time of a slump or to damp down growth if it
happens too quickly. Unemployment
is unnecessarily wasteful. In the long run, Keynes argued, the economy
may correct itself; but in the long run, 'we are all dead'. The
validity of Keynes' approach was proven by the US New Deal.
Keynesianism achieved full employment but was abandoned because it did
not address other economic problems, notably inflation and slow
In recent years both views have been supplanted by a new financial
orthodoxy, which combines government regulation with market-based
provision, "targeted" expenditure and balanced budgets.
Further material: British
economic policy | Pathe
Video: 50 years progress (1960), celebrating full employment
Paying for welfare
Many public services are provided not by the state, but by
combinations of state, independent, mutual and voluntary activity - a 'mixed economy' of welfare.
State welfare is often assumed to depend on finance through taxation.
However, taxation is supposed to do many things at once: the aims
- raising revenue for public functions
- repricing - changing the way market signals work (e.g. taxes on
- redistribution: in economic terms, 'transfer payments' are not
really spending, but moving money between people instead, and have
little direct effect on an economy
- changing behaviour (incentives, discentives and subsidies)
- conveying a moral position (support for families, or religious
- fiscal policy (steering an economy) , and
- solidarity (recognising rights and imposing responsibilities).
The finance of public activity, meanwhile, depends not just on
taxation, but on
- contributions (many welfare systems are non-governmental; some
- other voluntary payments (e.g. lotteries, donations)
- nationalisation and sequestration (governments can, and do, claim
or confiscate resources)
- government commercial activity (e.g. profits on government
- other government revenue (e.g. returns on investment, or the
acquisition, development and sale of resources).
It follows that while welfare services can be paid for by taxation,
the terms are not simply equivalent.
Further material: Public
The welfare state and economic performance
There are competing views of the
social welfare on the economy. One view, the 'handmaiden' model, sees welfare as
an essential complement to industrial development: social policy helps
the economy to grow by serving the workforce, providing services to
industry and offering a secure basis for development. This has been the
dominant model in Germany . Keynesian economics sees spending on welfare as a
useful economic regulator, helping to balance the economy in periods of
recession. On the other hand, both neo-liberals
and marxists have represented the
welfare state as a major burden on economic performance. Public
expenditure is seen as a fetter on economic growth .
There is no consistent evidence to support either view. The
relationship of the economy and public spending is complex. Atkinson
has brought together evidence
from a wide range of opposing studies.
Although developed countries generally spend more on welfare than less
developed countries, developed countries with higher welfare spending
do not generally do better or worse than developed countries which have
The graph showing the relationship between welfare spending and
national income (GDP) is drawn from OECD
data. It is possible to give
the impression that the relationship is negative
or positive, by selectively excluding some results, but the truth is
that it shows no clear pattern. Beyond the OECD - an organisation that
covers the main industrialised Western countries - the general trend is
that richer countries tend to spend higher proportions of their GDP on
The 'crisis' of welfare
The term "crisis" is used fairly indiscriminately by critics of the
right and left. From the
perspective of the right, welfare is undesirable and economically
damaging. To Marxists, welfare is
often represented as unsustainable. Neither position is supported
consistently by the evidence, but as both positions are held on faith
they have been impossible to dislodge.
Pierson points to three main uses of the idea of a "crisis". They
- Crisis as a turning point. A crisis is a period when long
standing problems become particularly severe.
- Crisis as an external shock. Examples include war,
problems in the international economy or the "oil crisis" of the 1970s.
- Crisis as a long standing contradiction. Marxists believe
that welfare and capitalism are incompatible, and have been claiming
that crises spell doom for a hundred and fifty years. 
The Washington Consensus argued for liberalisation of economies and
reductions in state involvement in the economy; this led to the
imposition of 'structural adjustment'. The arguments for 'austerity' in
Europe have followed a similar pattern. This approach has not been
prompted by patterns of welfare expenditure.
- See e.g. P Baldwin, 1990, The politics of social
solidarity, Cambridge University Press 1990.
- e.g. R Nozick, 1974, Anarchy state and utopia, Basic Books.
- D Dollar, A Kraay, 2001, Growth
is good for the poor, World Bank; D Dollar, T Kleineberg, A Kraay,
2013, Growth is still good for the poor, World Bank.
- e.g. C Murray, 1984, Losing Ground, Basic Books.
- see e.g. L Leisering, R Walker (eds) 1988, The dynamics of modern
society, Policy Press; or S Cellini, 2008, The dynamics of poverty in the United States.
- European Commission, Social investment.
- United Nations, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 22.
- United Nations, 2012, Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human
- T H Marshall, 1963, Sociology at the crossroads, Heinemann p 87.
Öktem, C Erdogan, 2019,
Between welfare state and (state-organised) charity International
Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-11-2018-0217
- G Esping-Andersen, 1990, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism,
- A B Atkinson, 1995, The
welfare state and economic performance,
in Incomes and the welfare state, Cambridge University Press
- C Pierson, 2006, Beyond the welfare state, Cambridge: Polity.
P Spicker, Social policy: theory and practice, Policy Press 2014.
P Kennedy, Key Themes in Social Policy, Routledge 2013.
R M Titmuss, Essays on the Welfare State, Allen and Unwin 1963
D Garland, The welfare state: a very short introduction, Oxford
University Press 2016
P Spicker, Arguments for welfare, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017
The main international journals in the subject are the Journal
of European Social Policy and Social Policy and