Social policy

Hans von Aachen, Allegory or The Triumph of Justice (1598)

Social policy is a term which is applied to various areas of policy, usually within a governmental or political setting (such as the welfare state and study of social services).[1]

It can refer to guidelines, principles, legislation and activities that affect the living conditions conducive to human welfare, such as a person's quality of life. The Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics defines social policy as "an interdisciplinary and applied subject concerned with the analysis of societies' responses to social need", which seeks to foster in its students a capacity to understand theory and evidence drawn from a wide range of social science disciplines, including economics, sociology, psychology, geography, history, law, philosophy and political science.[2] The Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard University describes social policy as "public policy and practice in the areas of health care, human services, criminal justice, inequality, education, and labor".[3] Social policy might also be described as actions that affect the well-being of members of a society through shaping the distribution of and access to goods and resources in that society.[4] Social policy often deals with wicked problems.[5]

The discussion of "social policy" in the United States and Canada can also apply to governmental policy on social issues such as tackling racism,[6] LGBT issues (such as same-sex marriage)[7] and the legal status of abortion,[8] guns,[9] euthanasia,[10] recreational drugs[11] and prostitution.[12]


U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was the first major U.S. political figure to incorporate formal social policy into official government decisions, a champion of social justice. Bryan is pictured in 1908.
Social Security Administration headquarters is in Woodlawn, Maryland.

The earliest example of direct intervention by government in human welfare dates back to Umar ibn al-Khattāb's rule as the second caliph of Islam in the 6th century. He used zakat collections and also other governmental resources to establish pensions, income support, child benefits, and various stipends for people of the non-Muslim community.

In the West, proponents of scientific social planning such as the sociologist Auguste Comte, and social researchers, such as Charles Booth, contributed to the emergence of social policy in the first industrialised countries following the industrial revolution. Surveys of poverty exposing the brutal conditions in the urban slum conurbations of Victorian Britain supplied the pressure leading to changes such as the decline and abolition of the poor law system and Liberal welfare reforms. Other significant examples in the development of social policy are the Bismarckian welfare state in 19th century Germany, social security policies in the United States introduced under the rubric of the New Deal between 1933 and 1935, and the National Health Service Act 1946 in Britain.

Social policy in the 21st century is complex and in each state it is subject to local and national governments, as well as supranational political influence. For example, membership of the European Union is conditional on member states' adherence to the Social Chapter of European Union law and other international laws.


See also: Welfare State and Welfare

Social policy is an academic discipline focusing on the systematic evaluation of societies' responses to social need. It was developed in the early-to-mid part of the 20th century as a complement to social work studies. One can reasonably argue there is not a single clear and comprehensive definition of social policy.[13] This is probably because social policy is more an area of study than a discipline, and also because the meaning of social policy has constantly evolved over time.[14] For this reason, the founding fathers of the discipline (mainly sociologists, such as Thomas Humphrey Marshall, Titmuss, Peter Townsend (sociologist) and historians, such as Asa Briggs) mainly defined the domain by looking at its aims: to reduce poverty, insure against social risks, provide equal opportunity for all, enhance economic growth, and foster the expansion of social citizenship and social rights.

Scholars studied and categorized social security systems on the basis of their 'modes of intervention' (universalism, social insurance, social assistance). Of course, each welfare state system includes a mixture of these elements, but certain systems are geared toward universal principles, i.e. Sweden and Denmark. Others emphasize social insurance mechanisms, i.e. Germany and France. Still other focus on social assistance for the poor, i.e. the United Kingdom .[15]

American social policy

Religious, racial, ideological, scientific and philosophical movements and ideas have historically influenced American social policy, for example, John Calvin and his idea of pre-destination and the Protestant Values of hard work and individualism. Moreover, Social Darwinism helped mold America's ideas of capitalism and the survival of the fittest mentality. The Catholic Church's social teaching has also been considerably influential to the development of social policy.


Lady Justice depicts justice as equipped with three symbols: a sword symbolizing the court's coercive power; a human scale weighing competing claims in each hand; and a blindfold indicating impartiality.[16]

Social policy aims to improve human welfare and to meet human needs for education, health, housing and economic security. Important areas of social policy are wellbeing and welfare, social security, justice, unemployment insurance, living conditions, animal rights, pensions, health care, social housing, family policy, social care, child protection, social exclusion, education policy, crime and criminal justice, urban development, and labor issues.

United States politicians who have favored increasing government observance of social policy often do not frame their proposals around typical notions of welfare or benefits; instead, in cases like Medicare and Medicaid, President Lyndon Johnson presented a package called the Great Society that framed a larger vision around poverty and quality of life. Insurance has been a growing policy topic, and a recent example of health care law as social policy is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act formed by the 111th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on March 23, 2010.

Moreover, former president Franklin D. Roosevelt's ground breaking New Deal is a paragon example of Social Policy that focused predominantly on a program of providing work and stimulating the economy through public spending on projects, rather than on cash payment. The programs were in response to the Great Depression affecting the United States in the 1930s.

An American education policy proposal from a Republican president is the No Child Left Behind Act. This Act took effect on January 8, 2002, and was put in place to raise standards in education so different individuals can have better educational outcomes. The No Child Left Behind Act requires every state to assess students on basic skills to receive federal funding. However, this Act did not create a national standard since each state develops their own set of standards and assessments. Critics of most all social policies point toward a depiction of a welfare state on the make of a Hobbesian Leviathan.

See also


  1. Spicker, Paul. "An introduction to Social Policy". Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  2. "Welcome to the Department". London School of Economics (LSE). Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  3. "About the Malcolm Wiener Center". Presidents and Fellows of Harvard. 15 February 2006. Archived from the original on 25 December 2008. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  4. Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Critical Introduction (2005) by Christine Cheyne, Mike O'Brien, & Michael Belgrave - Page 3
  5. Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sci 4:155-169.
  6. Eilperin, Juliet; Mufson, Steven (28 April 2015). "Obama calls for social policy changes in wake of Baltimore riots". The Washington Post. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  7. "Gay marriage inquiry reaches consensus". Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  8. "Gender and sex equality". Social Policy Digest. Cambridge Journals. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  9. "Gun Control". Almanac of Policy Issues. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  10. Thomasma, David C.; Graber, Glenn C. (1991). "Euthanasia: Toward an Ethical Social Policy". Ann Intern Med. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-114-12-1067_3. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  11. "Drug Use, Consequences and Social Policies" (PDF). Tammy L. Anderson, Ph.D. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  12. "Prostitution Policy in Canada: Models, Ideologies, and Moving Forward" (PDF). Canadian Association of Social Workers. 5 September 2014. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  13. Clasen (2013) Defining Comparative Social Policy, Edward Elgar
  14. Marshall (1963) Sociology at the Crossroads an other essays, Heinmann
  15. Esping-Andersen (1990) The three worlds of welfare capitalism, Princeton University Press; for a revision of his typology see Ferragina and Seeleib-Kaiser (2011) Welfare Regime Theory: past, Present, Futures, Policy and Politics 39 .
  16. Luban, Law's Blindfold, 23

Further reading

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