History of Social Welfare in the United States

P. Nelson Reid

in Social Work

ISBN: 9780195389678
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
History of Social Welfare in the United States


“Social welfare” is an encompassing and imprecise term, but most often it is defined in terms of “organized activities,” “interventions,” or some other element that suggests policy and programs to respond to recognized social problems or to improve the well-being of those at risk. Social welfare, then, is concerned with what Richard Titmuss referred to as the “right order of relationships in society,” some ideal of the way in which a society works and fits together to form a suitable place for human habitation and development. That suitable place, in the American context, would provide opportunities for work and human meaning and a reasonable amount of security from want and assault, promote fairness and evaluation based on individual merit, and be economically productive and stable. Underneath, of course, is an assumption that human society can be organized and governed to produce and provide these things, and that because it is feasible to do so, there is a moral obligation to bring it to fruition. The distinctiveness of the American model is often described in negative comparative terms: the United States does not have a European-style welfare state. It is historically far less generous to the poor in terms of social benefits, far less protective of low-wage workers, does not have a comprehensive public structure for health services, has less progressive taxation overall, and has higher levels of inequality and poverty than do most of its high GNP counterparts. But with all of that, according to a 2008 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis, the United States spent 31.1 percent of its net national disposable income on social welfare, a figure above the OECD countries’ average expenditure of 28.5 percent and ranking the United States in total social expenditure about on the same level as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, countries normally placed in the welfare-state category. This use of private spending and tax expenditures in the United States is quite distinctive. Add to this that the great bulk of public social-benefit expenditures in the United States are effectively “work based” (either requiring work for eligibility or in return for benefit) and what Neil Gilbert brilliantly dubs the “enabling” as opposed to the “welfare” state. In this way, the distinctive character of the United States welfare state becomes quite clear. Understanding this combination of reliance on private action, market allocation, and private expenditure and the American cultural, and policy-related, preference for work and employment over relief is central to understanding the strange architecture of American social welfare. That architecture is, of course, substantially influenced by the federal structure of American government and the regional and demographic diversity across the third-largest nation in the world.

Article.  10991 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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