Social Welfare Policy
Ronald B. Dear

As the 20th century draws to a close, U.S. social workers can take pride in the reforms of the past 65 years. Public income maintenance benefits assist nearly all retired people; large-scale medical schemes (most notably Medicare and Medicaid), financed in whole or in part by federal, state, and local governments, aid 71 million individuals; and food stamps help more than one in 10 (27.2 million) American citizens. Also, school lunch programs feed 24.8 million children each day, and cash public assistance helps to sustain 21 million disabled and elderly people, as well as children and their parents. Numerous social services, especially child care, child and adult protective services, and counseling, improve the quality of life for millions of Americans. Of major importance has been the emphasis on equity and justice and the attempt to bring women, racial and ethnic groups, and those with handicaps into the social and economic mainstream. In fact, so fast has been the growth of public and private social welfare, broadly defined, that by the early 1990s almost one-third ($1.7 trillion) of the gross domestic product was being spent on the social welfare enterprise (Bixby, 1992).

Despite these reforms, issues of tremendous magnitude remain. For example, an estimated 39.7 million citizens have no health care coverage  and 39.3 million lived in poverty in 1993, more than in any year since 1962 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). Hundreds of thousands are without homes and live on the streets or in temporary shelters (Committee on Ways and Means, 1994). Furthermore, the unemployment rate, seemingly fixed at around 7 percent, has long been too high (Council of Economic Advisors, 1993); lack of universal immunization means that millions of children are at unnecessary risk of communicable disease; and, for a developed country, the United States has excessively high infant mortality rates among all low-income people, especially poverty-oppressed black people (Children's Defense Fund, 1992). Cities are afflicted with crime and senseless violence, with some having battle zones unsafe for anyone; incarceration rates are at an all-time high; and private security firms are big business. Furthermore, new problems are emerging. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which leads to the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), was first reported in the United States in 1981. Deaths resulting from this infection are climbing at an appalling rate. The 33,590 deaths caused by HIV infection in 1992 represented a 13 percent increase over such deaths in 1991. By 1992 HIV had become the eighth leading cause of death. In black men 25 to 44 years of age, it is the leading cause of death (National Center for Health Statistics, 1993).

Why does a country with the wealth of the United States tolerate so much unnecessary illness, death, pain, poverty, homelessness, violence, and despair? Perhaps more puzzling, how can the United States spend almost one-third of its gross domestic product on social welfare and yet see problems and unmet needs increase? Exactly how does social welfare policy fit into this strange equation? The answers to these questions lie in American public policy.

“Policy,” “social policy,” and “social welfare policy” are terms commonly used by social workers, the press, and politicians. However, these terms are highly abstract, have overlapping meanings, and are often confused with one another. Because there are no definitions on which all agree, each authority has his or her own perspective. Defining and distinguishing these terms clarifies the following discussion.


Policy, an all-inclusive word, refers to just about anything a government does. Policies develop as “a way of dealing with problems” (Richan, 1988, p.xi); they are the end result of choices made by legislators, executives, and agency bureaucrats. Almost all such choices are the outcome of long, often tortuous debate and reflect both value preference and compromise. More concretely, policies are principles, plans, procedures, and courses of action—established in statute, interpreted in administrative code, spelled out in agency regulation, and supported by judicial decree—that direct what the government and its representatives can and cannot do. Policy, then, “is more than a single program. It is the set of principles guiding a range of actions in a particular sphere” (Richan, 1988, p.xi). Furthermore, policy “is the implicit or explicit core of principles that underlies specific programs, legislation, priorities” (Kahn, 1979, p. 67).

Most developed nations have enunciable foreign, defense, trade, environmental, tax, income support, and criminal justice policies. These policies determine specific courses of action by informing people what can and cannot be done legally in a given sphere of activity.

Social Policy

Social policies are those principles, procedures, and courses of action established in statute, administrative code, and agency regulation that affect people's social well-being. Thus, tax, transportation, public health, environmental, and social security statutes, as well as the implementation of codes and regulations that directly influence individual well-being, may be thought of as social policies. Social policy is clearly linked to economic policy and the political process; Moroney (1991) has argued that the political economy of a society determines its social policies.

Social welfare policy, in turn, is a subset or one portion of social policy. Social welfare policies may be thought of as those policies that affect the distribution of resources. According to Richan (1988),

Social welfare policy [as opposed to social policy, which is broader, and public policy, which is broader still] is concerned mainly with the transfer of goods and services to individuals and families, either through government agencies, voluntary nonprofit organizations or profit making companies. The range of services ... included under social welfare is awesome. (p.xii)

Public social welfare policy is the mechanism used by governments to distribute limited resources. Four premises, often unarticulated, underlie this concept of social welfare policy.

Limited resources.
Limited resources. The first premise is that resources are always limited. It is abundantly clear that no modern society has ever or likely will ever possess the means to do all that various and shifting constituents demand. For example, U.S. federal budget deficits lead to program curtailment, not expansion, and it is difficult for new, costly initiatives to gain the needed support for passage. Another excellent example is the continuous struggle to build a national health care system in the United States. State and local governments face revenue shortfalls; unlike their federal counterpart, however, they must show a balanced budget, and in most instances, they are constitutionally prohibited from running a deficit. Consequently, when state and local revenues are down, as they are in periods of recession and high unemployment—at the very time state assistance is needed most—income support and medical, education, and social services spending must be reduced to balance the budget. Furthermore, not only are public economic resources limited, but there is also a growing realization that arable land, water, and all natural resources are or will soon be in short supply.

Unmet needs.
Unmet needs. The second premise is that individuals and societies have almost unlimited needs. The lack of resources (the first premise), combined with the unmet needs of a rapidly expanding population (the second premise), means that even after 65 years of being a reluctant welfare state, the United States will end this century with an appalling litany of social ills.
How to meet apparently unlimited needs with finite resources raises difficult social policy questions. For example, 15.3 percent of the U.S. population lack access to regular medical care. Nearly everyone would agree that this is a critical issue, at best a societal embarrassment and at worst leading to unnecessary pain or death. However, should all have a right to health care? If so, who should pay? Who should be treated for what? If resources are limited, how much should be spent to keep a dying person alive? Also, the U.S. population needs more food for the hungry and better diets for all. How much food is enough? If there is a sufficient supply, how is it to be distributed? Who pays for increased food aid to low-income people and for better nutritional information for people at all income levels? As another example, the U.S. population needs more and better education and job training. In 1990 an estimated 29.8 percent of students dropped out of high school; only 21.4 percent finished four years of college (Snyder, 1992). Inadequate education keeps people out of the economic mainstream and is a recipe for a lifetime of intermittent work and poverty. Even those who have completed their education may find themselves unemployed as a result of technological advances or displaced because of shifting of the manufacturing base. Retraining displaced workers, whose education may no longer be up to date, tends to be a low priority. How can the United States remain economically competitive when many of its citizens have become economic refugees?

Unfairness. The third premise is that society has much built-in unfairness. There is unfairness inherent in the class system, growing inequality in income distribution, and gross discrimination in terms of gender, race, ethnic background, age, disabilities, and differences in sexual preference.

Lack of consensus.
Lack of consensus. The fourth and final premise is that U.S. society cannot agree on how best to deal with complex problems. The United States lacks a uniform value base to guide its activities and therefore fails to act or takes only halfway measures. For instance, there may be consensus on the desirability of immunizing all children, but there is no agreement on how to implement such a policy. Publicly financed abortions, distribution of condoms in school, sex education, and affirmative action are additional examples of policies on which agreement is lacking. In summary, policies must somehow balance the tensions among limited resources, unlimited needs, extensive unfairness, and lack of value consensus.

Conflict in Allocation Process

Public social welfare policy, society's method of allocating its limited resources to meet unlimited needs, deals with society's most perplexing questions with regard to distribution, redistribution, and fairness. Such distributional decisions are usually made in local, state, and federal legislative bodies—political arenas typified by value conflict.

Public social welfare policy addresses (or fails to address) issues of inequality based on class, race, gender, age, handicap, and family size. As DiNitto (1991) emphasized, conflict is built into the policy and allocation processes. Assuming limited resources, should society pay for more services for elderly people or for extended publicly financed child care? Should there be higher salaries for professors or welfare grant increases? What is the trade-off between protecting jobs and protecting the environment? Whatever the choice, there are opportunity costs. In other words, one decision forecloses “other valued goals or claims” (Moroney, 1991, p. 2).

Public social welfare policy addresses issues of financing and administration of the programs designed to accomplish its goals. The way in which a program is financed explains much about its redistributional impact. What percentage of the cost of caring for older members of society should be covered by younger working members raising families? Should those without children, or whose children are grown, be taxed more highly to subsidize public services for those with children? What level of government should finance and administer a given program? What combination of the public and private sectors should finance and administer an agreed-on program? Such questions make policy debates complex and contentious.

Complexities in Policy Development

Newcomers to the policy arena, whether students in social work or new members of Congress, are enthusiastic to work for change. They are sometimes astonished when they learn of the complexities of the policy debate and become disheartened at the many barriers that slow down or block the change for which they had hoped to work. Complex interrelated forces can delay, make unrecognizable, or completely stop a forward-looking social agenda. These forces include shortfall of revenue; public opposition to increased taxes; strong distrust of government; impossibility of agreement on the “correct” social agenda; absence of the political vision, will, or courage to design and find funding for new initiatives; and undue influence of special interest groups, especially by well-financed political action committees. All six forces conspire to create a political gridlock that makes social change exceedingly difficult.

These six forces have worked against a coordinated development of remedies to deal with the many problems that face the United States. Nevertheless, the country has developed a broad-scale social apparatus, called by some the “welfare state.” Not surprisingly, this apparatus developed with considerable wariness and “an incredible political fuss.... Our support of national welfare programs is halting; our administration of services for the less privileged is mean. We move toward the welfare state, but we do it with ill grace” (Wilensky, 1976, p. 12). If one believes that the central purpose of government is to meet the needs of its people, the welfare state would be a natural development of modern society. Indeed, the welfare state is a relatively recent phenomenon, with almost all of its growth occurring since World War II in some two dozen nations.


A Changing Economy

The United States generates some $6 trillion a year in wealth and has the world's highest level of productivity. The list of millionaires and billionaires grows steadily, and the media portray America as a land of infinite wealth. From the perspective of the world community, many of whom may wish to come to America, this picture is accurate. The United States has by far the world's largest network of colleges and research institutions. Also, the U.S. per capita income, although no longer the highest in the world, is still high compared with that in almost all other countries.

However, there is a dark side to this picture: A large segment of the population does not share in this prosperity. The fundamental reason is that the United States is in the middle of a technological transformation comparable to the one that took place in the half-century after the industrial revolution began in about 1776. As Drucker (1993) has observed, “Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself— its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world” (p. 1).

Productivity issues.

Productivity issues. Several points illustrate this changing economic and production base and help explain why there are winners and losers in the transformation. First, labor productivity (output per hour in nonfarm business) has slowed dramatically; as a consequence, real earnings have declined. From 1945 to 1965, labor productivity grew at an average rate of 2.7 percent per year, but since 1973 it has grown at an annual rate of only 0.7 percent (Congressional Budget Office, 1993). Second, items once manufactured in the United States, thereby providing employment to U.S. residents, are currently manufactured abroad and imported back to this country. In both low-technology consumer items (tools, clothing, dinnerware) and high-technology items (automobiles, televisions, computer components), the United States has lost millions of jobs to low-paid workers in other countries. Third, when productivity (nonfarm and farm) is improved as a result of automation, jobs are lost because of improved efficiency. At one time, for example, one farmer could produce enough food for five people; currently, however, one farmer feeds 128 people. Fourth, although large numbers of jobs have been created (an average of 170,000 new jobs were created each month in 1993), many are low paying (Congressional Budget Office, 1993).

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed low growth in labor productivity, company downsizing, plant closures, extensive loss of well-paying manufacturing and factory jobs, sharp reductions in agricultural labor, costly health care, high inflation, and increasing taxes for all but the wealthy. These factors have conspired to stagnate the income of low- and middle-class Americans; the cost of purchasing and maintaining a home currently is beyond the reach of many families, even those with two incomes.

Technology issues.

Technology issues. Continued technological progress can be expected; the pace of change is accelerating, and those who do not or cannot adapt will be left behind. Many jobs require computer literacy, but the United States has hardly reached the threshold of an information society that is beyond imagination. In September 1993 Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown unveiled a blueprint for an “information superhighway,” a national network that would link voice, video, and computer in every home equipped with a telephone and television. Vice President Gore said, “Make no mistake about it, [the information superhighway] is at all odds the most important and lucrative marketplace of the 21st century” (Browning, 1993, p. 675).
Drucker (1993) made a similar point when he argued that the world (not just the Western world or a few nation-states) is in the midst of a revolution similar to the industrial revolution; however, information, rather than machinery, is the driving force of this new revolution.

The basic economic resource—“the means of production,” to use the economists' term—is no longer capital, nor natural resources ... nor labor. It is and will be knowledge. ... The leading social groups of the knowledge
 society will be “knowledge workers.” ... Knowledge is now fast becoming the sole factor of production, sidelining both capital and labor. (Drucker, 1993, pp. 8, 20)

Education issues.

Education issues. Change is everywhere, and although many can adapt to this emerging knowledge society and improve themselves economically, others cannot adapt and will fare worse. The United States seems to be moving toward two separate societies: one made up of well-trained professional, technical, and managerial workers and one consisting of low-paid workers, many of whom are service workers such as restaurant employees, custodians, security guards, secretaries, and salespeople. A bachelor's degree no longer ensures a well-paying job, and those with only a high school diploma are increasingly left behind. About 20 percent of the population competes successfully, benefits from economic growth, and obtains a high income; the remaining 80 percent finds itself losing ground (Reich, 1993). Education, especially higher education, is essential to the preparation of those about to enter the labor market; it is equally important to those older workers who find themselves reentering the market.

What does this emerging economic order, with its changing occupational requirements, suggest to policymakers? First, higher education must be made accessible. With 3,539 institutions of higher education in 1989 (including community colleges and branch campuses), the United States would seem to be positioned to become a leader in an information society (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce, 1992). Although a larger percentage of Americans attend college than in most other countries, low-income people and racial and ethnic groups are underrepresented on college campuses. Even for those with the ability to succeed in postsecondary education, attendance may be difficult or impossible because of inadequate preparation, lack of space in a nearby institution, high tuition, inadequate financial aid, competing family responsibilities, or lack of desire for further education. Women have overcome many of these barriers and currently constitute a larger proportion of college graduates than men. In 1991 23.4 percent of women 25 to 29 years old had completed college, compared with 22.9 percent of men (Mortenson, 1992).

In addition to expanding general access to education, the second demand for educators is to reach out to more diverse populations. Black people are only about half as likely as white people to complete college, and although the Hispanic population has made great progress since the early 1970s in obtaining college degrees, Hispanics are only about half as likely as white people to obtain a degree. The third demand for educators is to shift education to meet the needs of new careers and shape new careers to fit employment needs and national trends.

Limited Faith in Government

Many contemporary Americans, like their colonial forebears, profoundly distrust government and the bureaucrats who are elected or hired to serve. The United States was largely established by people who purposely left oppressive governments controlled by monarchs with few restrictions on their power. Currently many immigrants come for similar reasons and hold similar views. In the judgment of the early colonists, government was a necessary evil and its functions were to be confined to obvious areas such as defense, printing of money, and record keeping (Jansson, 1988). “That government is best which governs least” was the creed of founders who sought to limit the powers of all government, but especially those of the federal government.

To ensure that centralized authority was kept in bounds, the U.S. Constitution incorporated a rigid system of checks and balances, and most state constitutions closely followed the federal model. As a means of slowing the legislative process, each bill introduced into Congress (or a state legislature) must overcome numerous hurdles—several readings, committee hearings, approval of a fiscal note if money is involved, numerous amendments—and earn a majority vote. A bill must go through this process in both houses of Congress, and differences between similar bills in the two houses must be reconciled; that is, one house “checks” the action of the other. The bill can then either be signed or vetoed by the president (or governor); if it is vetoed, however, Congress (or a state legislature) can override the veto with a two-thirds vote. A separate judicial system may, when set in action, judge the constitutionality of the law. An extreme emphasis on states' rights and individual rights has further weakened federal authority. The founders of the United States believed that most government power should reside in the states, and the Bill of Rights placed utmost emphasis on the rights of the individual.

One consequence of this diffusion of power in the U.S. government has been a slowness to develop policies and programs for the needy. Moreover, even when legislation is introduced, the process of passage is so long, complex, and difficult that social change via the legislative route is slow. In the words of Congressman Newt Gingrich, “I think the founding fathers thought the way to preserve freedom and avoid dictatorship was to build a machine so inefficient that no dictatorship could force it to work, and the corollary was you could barely get it to work voluntarily” (Benson & Baden, 1990, p.A-13).


As a check on government power, U.S. legislative bodies were designed to be cumbersome and to move slowly. On rare occasions the federal government has responded with relative speed, such as in times of natural disasters or wars or during uncommon periods of national social concern. Currently two additional factors are strangling the government's ability to respond quickly to the country's shifting economic and social needs.

First, demands for public programs, services, subsidies, and supports continue to outstrip revenue derived from taxes. Large annual deficits and growing national debt (discussed later) make enactment of new initiatives extraordinarily difficult. At the same time, the United States is wealthier than ever before, and the government is spending a higher proportion of the gross national product on public programs than ever. Thus, for contemporary America, the question may not be how much is spent, but how the funds collected by government are allocated. The real poverty in American government may not lie in its lack of wealth but in its inability to amend or eliminate old programs and its concomitant difficulty in agreeing on policies and finding sufficient funds for new ones.

Second, government is becoming increasingly paralyzed because of special interest groups that hamper reallocation of existing program dollars. Over time, programs that were once innovative and progressive become part of established government structure, and program employees, as well as outside interests, fight to retain programs long beyond their time of need. It is something of a truism that, once enacted, government programs are rarely eliminated. “Every program generates an entrenched lobby that never goes away” (Rauch, 1992, p. 2001).

Special interest groups working through political action committees can command huge amounts of money for election and lobbying purposes and can get thousands of letters and telephone calls to members of Congress within hours. Because most programs have more people strongly interested in retaining them than in abolishing them, few are dropped. New schemes must somehow be built on and integrated into existing policies and programs. Innovation is risky, because once changes are implemented, new supporters make program elimination unlikely. As a result of “policy gridlock,” “stalemate,” and “paralysis,” government is becoming “frozen” at the very time it must respond quickly (Blau, 1992). One analyst called this “demosclerosis—postwar democratic government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt. Demosclerosis is the most important governmental phenomenon of our time.... The federal government is rusting solid and ... nothing can be done about it” (Rauch, 1992, p. 2003).


The ideas proclaimed by Ronald Reagan in his campaign for president and the legislation enacted during his presidency, especially in its early days, resulted in significant modification of programs and services for disadvantaged people. Future historians may view the 20 years from 1981 to 2001 as a turning point in social welfare, a time of increasing needs along with unmet challenges and lost opportunities.

In Reagan's view, government was not the solution to America's problems; government itself created the problems. There was too much taxation, too much spending, too much welfare, too many bureaucrats, and too many government regulations. Conservative scholars (for example, Anderson, 1978; Friedman, 1962; Gilder, 1981; Murray, 1984) and the right wing of the Republican party agreed. They challenged the liberal belief that government is the main institution responsible for the well-being of less-fortunate individuals. The New Deal and Great Society programs were declared failures. A phenomenal boost in social welfare expenditures and myriad government schemes had not extinguished poverty. Murray (1984) and Gilder (1981) contended that welfare programs actually increased poverty.

Economic Policies

Moreover, conservatives believed that the nation's economic problems—inflation, unemployment, and low productivity—were due to government interference in the marketplace. Since the 1930s both Democratic and Republican administrations had followed the Keynesian prescript that expanding the money supply (the demand side of the economy) in difficult economic times would generate employment and that contracting the supply of money would combat inflation. Furthermore, rising unemployment would decrease aggregate consumer purchasing power and thereby reduce demand, drive down prices, and decrease inflation. In the 1970s Keynesian theory seemed less applicable, as the United States experienced both high unemployment and high inflation (“stagflation”). Furthermore, increased government spending did not spur the economy to the extent expected.

Rejecting conventional Keynesian economics, Reagan and his advisors thought they knew the cause of the country's financial crisis. Inflation, unemployment, and low productivity were attributable to government intervention. The answer? Stop government intrusion. Stop meddling with private enterprise. If high taxes on business reduced incentives, then decreased taxes would expand production. In the end, as the tax base grew as a result of economic growth, government revenues would rise.
Based on the theories of Arthur Laffer, this supply-side economics emphasized the import- ance of a supply of capital to encourage economic growth. Large reductions in taxes, espe- cially those levied on businesses and wealthy individuals, would provide the funds for individual and corporate investment. As businesses grew, they would hire additional employees who, in turn, would be able to purchase the items being pro- duced. Also, government regulation was costly to implement and represented an additional drag on economic growth.

Reagan capitalized on popular opposition to an “overgenerous” welfare system. “American social policy over previous decades had harmed rather than helped the poor. The alternative, [Reagan] argued, was a radical disengagement of the state from social welfare. Unlike his conservative predecessors who sought to curtail welfare, Reagan argued for abolition” (Midgley, 1992, p. 24). Ample welfare benefits to poor people would reduce their incentive to work and increase their dependency.
To achieve his goals, Reagan introduced major modifications of the tax system; enormous budget cuts; brutal and uncompromising retrenchments in human service programs for low-income people; a massive buildup in national defense and the start of large-scale weapon systems; fundamental alterations in the nature of the welfare state, especially with regard to locus of delivery; and widespread relief from federal regulations. Included in the 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act were cuts in personal income taxes for all groups, indexing of tax rates to avoid bracket creep, elimination of certain programs (for example, Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs), and severe cuts in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, housing, social services, and other programs for low-income people. Fearing a populist backlash, Reagan avoided cuts in social security (Old-Age and Survivors and Disability Insurance) and other social insurance entitlement programs.

New Federalism

The Reagan administration accented a new federalism that had begun some years earlier under President Nixon. Its essence was to get the federal government out of the human services business by returning responsibility for social programs to state and local jurisdictions, easing federal regulations, and significantly reducing federal support. Reaganites believed that both experimentation and efficiency would be encouraged by this devolution of responsibility and decentralized administration. Furthermore, the new federalism endorsed the purchase of services from the private sector and placed renewed emphasis on volunteerism.

A cornerstone of the new federalism was block grants, which were used to consolidate similar categorical programs (for example, programs in maternal and child health) into a single grant, reduce funding by 25 percent (the assumed administrative overhead), and allocate the funds to states and localities, with as few regulations as possible. Thus, although states would have fewer funds, they would have greater flexibility in the use of those funds. In Reagan's first budget of 1981, 57 categorical programs were merged into seven block grants. Each year Reagan was in office, additional attempts were made to block out categorical programs. The results were devastating for low-income discretionary programs. From fiscal year 1981 to fiscal year 1987, after inflation, the Community Development Block Grant was reduced by 39 percent, the Community Services Block Grant was reduced by 36 percent, and the Social Services Block Grant was reduced by 28 percent (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1987).

Impact on Social Services

The Social Services Act was signed into law on January 4, 1975, as Title XX of the Social Security Act. It is of particular interest to social workers because it is the country's principal source of federal funding for child care, child protective services, home-based care for older people, and noninstitutional care for disabled individuals. In at least half of the states, it assists in the funding of a wide range of services that employ baccalaureate- and master's-level social workers. Prominent examples of social services are child foster care; adoption; counseling; employment, education, and training; residential care and treatment; information and referral; family planning; chore services; and adult foster care (Harris, 1987). States had broad flexibility in designing their social services programs, capped at $2.5 billion in fiscal year 1976, but there were clear federal mandates. For instance, there was a 25 percent matching requirement, services had to be targeted to low-income people, and the public had to be given the opportunity to participate in developing a statewide plan. When social services became a block grant in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, states were no longer required to match federal dollars, services did not have to be targeted to low-income individuals, citizen participation was dropped, most reporting was stopped, and funding was reduced to $2.4 billion. By 1994 the grant had grown to a modest $2.8 billion. However, over the 17 years from 1977 to 1994, federal funding for Title XX had dropped in real terms by 58 percent (Committee on Ways and Means, 1994).
Reagan was also successful in his efforts to cut back on nonblock low-income program benefits and beneficiaries. Transfer payments were sharply reduced, in-kind benefits were cut, and eligibility requirements were stiffened. In just two years, “unemployment insurance was reduced by 17.4 percent, child nutrition programs by 28 percent, food stamp expenditures by 13.8 percent, and the Community Services Block Grant program by 37.1 percent” (Midgley, 1992, p. 25). Always a popular target, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was cut by 14.3 percent in Reagan's first two years. Funding for subsidized housing assistance fell from $26.6 billion in 1980 to $7.4 billion in 1989 (Rubin, Wright, & Devine, 1992). Not surprisingly, poverty increased and that increase, coupled with a decrease in available low-income housing, led to record numbers of homeless people.

Impact on the Federal Budget

During the Reagan–Bush era, not only were large segments of the welfare state under withering attack, but defense budgets skyrocketed as a result of a philosophy that the United States can (and should) police the world. Thus, the budget increased during a time of recession and massive tax cuts. Not surprisingly, deficits and the national debt soared. In fact, for most of Reagan's years as president, the annual federal deficit was between $200 billion and $300 billion, and it was even higher under Bush. It is projected to decline under Clinton,  to $162 billion in fiscal 1995 and then, assuming discretionary caps, gradually start to rise again, reaching $231 billion in fiscal 1999. The national debt (subject to statutory limit) increased from $998 billion in 1981 to $4.3 trillion by September 30, 1993, and is projected to grow to $6 trillion by 1998 (Congressional Budget Office, 1993, 1994). With a debt and deficit of this magnitude, major new initiatives are unlikely, in spite of emerging needs such as the AIDS crisis, homelessness, single-parent families, overpopulation, rising poverty, and hunger. In fact, it has been argued that the debt and deficit run up by the Reagan administration was intentional. A large national debt would hamper future congresses from introducing new social programs (Block, 1987).

Under Reagan, “tax policy became social welfare policy, but in a manner antithetical to the liberal understanding, of both tax and welfare policy” (Karger, 1992, p. 49). Parts of the welfare state were dismantled, some programs for the needy were eliminated and a lack of funding starved others, states and localities were expected to assume more responsibility, regulations were dropped, accountability was lessened, the private sector grew in importance, and, possibly worst from the perspective of public welfare advocates, people lost faith in government and the political process. Americans will be less likely to look to the government, especially the federal government, as the instrument to deal with problems. Despite the attack on the comparatively small welfare programs for low-income people, expenditures for the large social insurance programs (such as social security and Medicare) continued to grow or hold steady under Reagan and Bush. Surprisingly, the welfare state remained largely intact.


Broad social policy directions have been explored in this entry. Other Encyclopedia entries discuss specific social welfare and social work policy responses to the trends and issues outlined here. The purpose of this section is to distill some of these trends and to emphasize a few not discussed elsewhere. The final section highlights some unfinished portions of America's social welfare agenda and offers clues to future directions.

Disparate Treatment of Poor and Middle-Class People

Although a few programs for the poor have become larger in the 1990s (for example, Medicaid and food stamps), it is evident that, since the early 1980s, most schemes for low-income people have not expanded in relation to economic growth, inflation, or the growing numbers of the at-risk population. As has been shown, the purchasing power of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and general assistance has declined sharply. Employment and training services have been curtailed, and low-income housing has been reduced substantially. Numerous categorical line-item federal health, welfare, community, and social services schemes have been reconfigured into block grants, and funding has been reduced. General revenue sharing through the Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972, which allocated unrestricted billions of dollars directly to states and to thousands of local jurisdictions, was dropped entirely in 1987.

In sharp contrast to this harsh treatment of disadvantaged people, programs, services, and, especially, tax benefits for middle- and upper-income people have grown rapidly. Thus, as one group of the population experienced social program retreat, other groups saw advances. Such growth in spending for the more affluent more than offsets the funds cut from the much smaller low-income programs. This explains the apparent paradox that has so captivated Anderson, Murray, and Gilder: The country is spending more for “welfare” and yet is experiencing more poverty and homelessness.

Not discussed here are significant tax welfare benefits, referred to as “fiscal welfare” by Richard Titmuss (1965). These are special income tax deductions, exclusions, preferential tax rates, credits, and deferrals of tax liability. Combined, they are substantial and benefit individuals with sufficient income to take advantage of tax exclusion policies (that is, those in middle- and upper-income brackets).

In fiscal year 1994, tax welfare expenditures will cost the federal treasury $256.4 billion, and each year these write-offs will rise; it is estimated that they will amount to $337 billion by 1998. (To provide perspective, the federal budget deficit in fiscal year 1994 is projected to be $202 billion.) Tax expenditures related to retirement will cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $104 billion in fiscal 1995; those related to health $63 billion; mortgage interest, $54 billion; and owner-occupied property tax, $14 billion. The poverty write-offs of $22 billion represent 7.3 percent of all personal tax welfare benefits (Committee on Ways and Means, 1994). Small wonder that Abramovitz (1983) echoed Titmuss in stating that “everyone is on welfare.”

Localism versus Universalism

In times of shrinking resources and decreasing federal responsibility, a new set of social welfare policy watchwords has achieved prominence: devolution, decentralization, deinstitutionalization, declassification, reconfiguration, consolidation, privatization, and volunteerism. Most of these terms (an exception might be deinstitutionalization), with their policy and programmatic implications, have had the effect of returning the U.S. public and its decision makers to earlier times, in a simpler society, where neighbor took care of neighbor in a small community or in a rural area. Lost to many, even members of the social work profession, is a broader view of the welfare state whose benefits and services are guaranteed to all as a right and are not based on status.

Universalism has lost favor, some say, because it is too costly and relies on a national political and bureaucratic apparatus in which people have scant confidence. Big government is seen as a “big brother” to be avoided whenever possible. States and localities, not well trusted themselves, are being asked to assume more responsibility for increasing problems with fewer resources. Localities, it is argued, are better equipped to deal with local problems, and in terms of actual service delivery, this is correct. Service delivery is almost always local; a person goes to the dentist or to get counseling where he or she lives, not across the country. The local argument has appeal because it makes sense. However, there is another aspect to this question.
Advocates of localism fail to understand, or prefer not to acknowledge, that almost all major social programs and policy victories have been accomplished at the federal level. A few prominent examples are the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Older Americans Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Contrary to popular belief, a single national administrative unit, even with numerous local offices, can be much less expensive than multiple state and local units of administration. Social Security confers benefits on 43 million people (one in six citizens) each month. The total administrative expense of Old-Age and Survivors and Disability Insurance as a proportion of benefit payments was 1 percent in 1992, and since the late 1950s, it has rarely exceeded 2 percent (Social Security Administration, 1992, 1994). National policies can also develop agreed-on national standards and, ideally, uniform eligibility.

One of the most promising developments has been the continuing effort to bring into the mainstream people once perceived as existing on the fringes of society. The profession of social work and NASW have made significant efforts in promoting diversity and multiculturalism. Major efforts have been made to recruit members of racial minorities, gay men and lesbians, people with disabilities, and those caught in the economic underclass, especially single mothers. In fall 1992, almost one-fifth of all incoming MSW students were members of a social or ethnic minority (Council on Social Work Education, 1993). However, the social work profession is ignoring a growing gender imbalance: In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of master's-level social work students were men; currently fewer than 20 percent of such students are men.


Reasons for Optimism

In light of welfare policy trends and issues, it might seem difficult for social workers to be optimistic about the welfare state. However, there is cause for hope. First, public expenditures in social welfare grew from being almost nonexistent in the 1930s (aside from education) to being the single largest area of expenditure in the early 1990s. This is impressive progress in just 60 years. Second, this large-scale apparatus serves so many people and is so much a part of everyday life that it is not easy to reduce and impossible to eliminate. Third, although allocation of resources to the welfare enterprise is not likely to decrease, the public-private mix of funding could change. Fourth, in spite of cutbacks in poverty programs, a few important low-income programs continue to grow. Most schemes for poor people cost comparatively little; savings from reducing them further would be meager, and expanding them would involve relatively small amounts. For example, the Social Services Block Grant in fiscal year 1995 will cost the federal government $2.8 billion of a $1.5 trillion budget, or less than 0.2 percent. Thus, a slight reduction or increment would have scant effect on the budget.

Technological progress is a fifth reason for optimism, especially in knowledge, information, and medical realms. Sixth, U.S. society seems increasingly to tolerate (if not embrace or celebrate) growing racial and ethnic diversity and seems far more willing to accept varying life-styles, family types, and sexual orientations. Seventh, the Clinton administration seems more inclined to address issues of social justice than any administration in recent history. Finally, during the first two years of the Clinton administration, health care was the primary issue on the national social agenda. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that something must be done, but they differ greatly on how to do it.

Increasing Demands and Problems

As the 20th century nears its end, the United States and much of the world seem poised on the brink of multiple calamities. The population is growing at a rate beyond which basic needs can be met. (Currently the world's population increases as much in 12 years as it did in its first 3 million years [Zero Population Growth, 1993]). Even in America, a rapidly growing population and its burgeoning requirements collide with resource limits. Adequate supplies of affordable necessities such as food, housing, utilities, and health care are beyond the reach of millions. It may be that the resources themselves (affordable housing, arable land, water, oil) are in short supply, or it may be that funds, either individual (from employment) or public (from taxes), are in short supply. It is the job of large-scale public social welfare to see that people get the food, housing, medical care, and other services they need to survive and prosper.

Public social welfare policy determines the allocation of limited resources to meet unlimited needs. In a democratic society, such decisions are made in the political arena and presumably reflect the will of the majority. Government, then, especially the federal government, is the only viable entity equipped to redistribute taxes as transfer payments, as programs, or as services to its constituents. Yet, as mentioned earlier, faith in government, never strong in America, seems on the decline. Certainly the Reagan–Bush administrations based their policies on limited faith in government. Mounting requests for money, programs, and services and a decreasing desire and diminishing ability to respond to demands are indicated by a number of opposing forces, including the following:

For years to come, these and similar opposing forces will form the context of all social work practice, from direct service to planning and administration.

Changes in Policy and Planning
As the preceding discussion makes abundantly clear, the nature of public social provision in the United States continues to change. Ideologues still control the social agenda, and there is almost no forum for a balanced and evenhanded ideological debate. It is difficult to discuss issues without having a label affixed (“conservative,” “liberal,” “reactionary,” “radical”), and discussions tend to polarize rather than draw people together. The progressive underpinnings of the 1960s seem to have vanished. Liberals have come up with no clear agenda, but conservatives have. In fact, not many liberals support the standard forward-looking positions of the 1960s. Few say, “Of course we must maintain these entitlements.” More popular positions of the 1990s include “Of course all people should work” and “You must help yourself.”

The centralized federal policy of the 1960s has devolved to state and local governments. Decentralization gave local governments more responsibility but not more money; it also gave them more control over quality. Conservatives have successfully dominated America's social agenda since Nixon took office in 1968. Even Carter, the only Democratic president in the quarter century spanning 1968 to 1993, was conservative in fiscal and social policies (Jansson, 1993).
If the economic trends that began in the mid-1970s continue, slow growth in public social expenditures, especially in low-income programs, will continue as well, and the rapid growth of preceding years is not likely to recur. Few people will advocate greater reliance on the federal government, and as a consequence, there will be movement away from national standards (Morris, 1987). With the possible exception of health care, it is likely that most social program changes will be incremental, with minor modifications, small additions, and slightly expanded entitlements. Serious problems, however, may lead to occasional bursts of rapid and radical change.

A number of constraints confront the progressive social planner: the apparent decline of liberalism, the devolution of responsibility to states and localities, the growing national debt and continuing high deficits, program cutbacks as a result of inadequate state and local revenues, and citizen distrust of government. Adjustments must also be made for the changing economic base and rapid movement toward international trading blocks. What can one anticipate in the future?
America will develop a reinvigorated social agenda, one that builds on the strength of successful social programs, but will drop schemes and alter policies that have not proved to be effective. Americans should not be fearful of adopting new social policies to meet the changing needs of a changing society.

This era, laden with both peril and opportunity, is no different from other eras except that the pace of change is accelerating, as are dangers and opportunities. How well the United States progresses in the coming years is linked to decisions already made, to choices currently being made, and to choices that will be made in the near future. Where does social work fit into this picture? Social workers, in addition to being direct service practitioners in every field of practice, are policymakers, planners, administrators, legislators, researchers, analysts, and teachers. With its unique values and eclectic knowledge base, the profession of social work can play a key role in this future, but only if it is able to adapt to the new world that is emerging.
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Ronald B. Dear, DSW, is faculty senate president and associate professor of social work, School of Social Work, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.

For further information see
Advocacy; Aid to Families with Dependent Children; Child Welfare Policy; Civil Rights; Community; Deinstitutionalization; Ethics and Values; Families Overview; Federal Social Legislation from 1961 to 1994; General Assistance; Homelessness; Housing; Human Rights; Hunger, Nutrition, and Food Programs; Income Distribution; Income Security Overview; Jobs and Earnings; Peace and Social Justice; Policy Analysis; Poverty; Public Social Services; Public Social Welfare Expenditures; Social Development; Social Planning; Social Security; Social Welfare History; Social Work Profession Overview; Social Workers in Politics; Supplemental Security Income;  Voluntarism; Welfare Employment Programs: Evaluation.

Key Words
public welfare
social welfare policy
welfare reform

Social Work Education Reader’s Guide
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 Continuing Education
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 International Social Welfare: Organizations and Activities
 National Association of Social Workers
 Social Work Education
 Special-Interest Professional Associations