Social policy

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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.

It can refer to guidelines, principles, legislation and activities that affect the living conditions conducive to human welfare. 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".[1] 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."[2] Social policy research and teaching at the Department of Social Policy at Oxford is largely focused on international comparative work, as a full picture of the development and operation of a particular system can only be gained by benchmarking against other jurisdictions. 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.[3] Social policy often deals with wicked problems.[4]

The discussion of "social policy" can sometimes apply to a policy on social issues such as taking away LGBT rights, repealing abortion laws and never enacting gun control.

History of social policy[edit]

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 zakah collections and also other governmental resources to establish pensions, income support, child benefits, and various stipends for people of the non-Muslim community.[5]

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. Surveys of poverty exposing the brutal conditions in the urban slum conurbations of Victorian Britain supplied the pressure leading to changes such as the reform of the Poor Law and the welfare reforms carried out by the British Liberal Party. Other significant examples in the development of social policy are the Bismarckian welfare state in 19th century Germany, social security policies introduced under the rubric of the New Deal in the United States between 1933 and 1935, and health reforms in Britain following the Beveridge Report of 1942.

Social policy in the 21st century is complex and in each state it is subject to local, national and 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.


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.

American Social Policy[edit]

Religious, racial, ideological, scientific and philosophical movements and ideas have historically influenced American Social Policy and Politics, 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 successful social policy.

Types of social policy[edit]

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.[6]

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 a greater outcomes in terms of their education. 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.

The term "social policy" can also refer to policies which govern human behaviour. In the United States, the term "social policy" may be used to refer to abortion and the regulation of its practice, euthanasia, LGBT rights, the rules surrounding issues of marriage, divorce, adoption, the legal status of recreational drugs, and the legal status of prostitution.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ , updated 2 Oct 2013
  2. ^ About the Malcolm Wiener Center, retrieved 15 July 2008, archive from 30 April 2012.
  3. ^ Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Critical Introduction (2005) by Christine Cheyne, Mike O'Brien, & Michael Belgrave - Page 3
  4. ^ Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sci 4:155-169.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Luban, Law's Blindfold, 23

Further reading[edit]