What Is Social Welfare Policy?

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A social worker outlines benefits for a client.

When all of a nation’s citizens have the necessities of life, the society as a whole benefits.

This is an idea most Americans seem to support. The Center for American Progress (CAP) reported that 58% of respondents to a 2021 survey believe the government should provide assistance with needs ranging from clean water to basic housing.

Social welfare policy directs services that address these basic needs for citizens, especially for those most in need. As a profession that offers services to bolster the well-being of all groups, particularly those facing disadvantages, social workers focus on social welfare policy to help protect clients from factors that can worsen their quality of life.

Social work educational programs, including Master of Social Work (MSW) programs, typically address the history of social welfare policy and its role in the profession.

Definition of Social Welfare Policy

Social welfare policy — which guides the government programs that assist people in need — builds on the idea that a government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from harm. According to the principle, a society can thrive only when it provides safeguards for those who face risks to their well-being.

Social welfare policy guides programs that offer public services as well as financial and other assistance to meet specific needs. These programs frequently target sectors of society most in need. Examples of populations that social welfare programs exist to serve include people who are:

  • Elderly or retired
  • Sick or permanently injured
  • Living below the poverty line
  • New parents
  • Unemployed

Individual nations have their own social welfare systems, guided by their own definitions and eligibility criteria. In the United States, in addition to national programs, state and local government efforts also address social welfare policy.

Programs tied to social welfare policy can be either distributive or redistributive in nature.

Distributive Social Welfare Programs

Also called entitlement programs, distributive social welfare initiatives aim to benefit everyone equally, with aid dependent on taxes. In the United States, a few examples of these programs are:

  • Medicare — Health insurance for individuals over 65 and those with certain illnesses or disabilities
  • Social Security — Financial benefits for retirees or other eligible individuals, such as those with disabilities
  • Unemployment insurance — Financial benefits for eligible unemployed workers
  • Workers’ compensation — Financial benefits for workers who become injured or disabled on the job

Redistributive Social Welfare Programs

Redistributive social welfare programs, also called welfare programs, target those who qualify as low income. U.S. redistributive social welfare programs include:

  • Housing assistance — Support for renters and homeowners in populations such as the elderly and those with disabilities, typically for those meeting income requirements
  • Medicaid — Low-cost or free health coverage for those in need, including income-eligible families with children and pregnant women
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — Food and nutrition assistance for low-income individuals
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — Financial assistance and support services related to work, child care, and job preparation for income-eligible unemployed and underemployed people

History of Social Welfare Policy

The notion of a social contract, in which individuals give up certain freedoms in exchange for government protection, originated in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Colonial America, local villages and towns built on the idea to organize support for those who needed help beyond what friends and neighbors could provide.

Early Social Welfare Policy

In the 1880s, Germany enacted the first laws related to social welfare, with other nations following suit. In the United States, state laws governing the support of children living in homes without their fathers predate World War I. Federal and state mandates supporting injured workers and federal requirements for military veterans’ benefits were also among the laws that helped shape what social welfare policy is in the United States.

A critical moment in U.S. social welfare programming occurred with the 1932 passage of the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932. The law provided $300 million in temporary loans to states to assist those affected by the Great Depression. The Federal Relief Act of 1933 provided an additional $1 billion in aid, and the Social Security Act of 1935 targeted specific populations for assistance.

Changes to Social Welfare Policy

In the years since, new social welfare programs have targeted a more inclusive set of populations, tackling concerns such as food insecurity, health insurance coverage and home energy funding. The nation also has overhauled existing programs and criteria, as it did in 1996 when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act addressed the delivery of welfare programs and established new requirements for those receiving assistance.

Importance of Social Welfare Policy in Social Work

Social workers focus on ensuring social justice and community well-being, helping people from all walks of life cope with difficulties and meet their basic needs.

At a micro level of practice, these responsibilities often require social workers to help clients seek out and navigate social welfare programs such as SNAP or TANF. Social work professionals with a strong background in the policies that guide these programs and in advocating for changes that benefit vulnerable populations have the experience and perspective to make a positive difference for the people they serve.

At a macro level of practice, social workers engage in policy advocacy in local, state and federal government settings to ensure that social welfare policies are enacted and implemented. Such policies work toward improving the well-being of underserved and disenfranchised communities and eliminating disparities in access to health, education, employment, and other facets of life.

A 2019 International Journal of Community and Social Development article maintains that active involvement in social welfare policy issues is imperative in social work, and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) echoes this sentiment. The NASW points out how important social workers’ role is in ensuring that social welfare programs are available for those most in need, particularly during times of economic and health inequalities and demographic change. The NASW works to shape social welfare policies related to programs such as Medicare, child welfare initiatives and aid for older Americans.

Explore the Impact of Social Welfare Policy

Those interested in learning more about what social welfare policy is and its implications for social work should explore the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program. You’ll find an advanced education program focused on preparing professionals to help individuals deal with the broad range of problems facing today’s urban and rural communities — and on preparing for social work licensure.

Discover how the University of Nevada, Reno’s online MSW program can help you achieve your professional goals.

Recommended Reading:

8 Essential Social Work Skills and Traits

How to Deal With Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Social Work?


The Balance, “What Is Medicaid?”

The Balance, “What Is Social Security?”

Benefits.gov, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Benefits.gov, Unemployment Insurance

Business Terms, What Is Social Welfare?

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Congressional Research Service, “Overview of Federal Housing Assistance Programs and Policy”

Corporate Finance Institute, What Is a Social Welfare System?

The International Journal of Community and Social Development, “Social Work and Social Policy Practice: Imperatives for Political Engagement”

Investopedia, Workers’ Compensation

Medicare.gov, What’s Medicare?

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Plex.page, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act

Reference, What Is the Definition of Social Welfare Policy?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

U.S. Social Security Administration, “Historical Development”