What Is Social Welfare?
Social welfare is a broad and imprecise term that refers to different things depending on context. Strictly speaking, when used with the definite article, the term refers to the overall well-being of the entire society, which could be based on such factors as standard of living, access to essential social services, quality of the environment and exposure to crime.
In most general usage however, used without an article, it refers to a governmental system designed to assist and improve the well-being of those sectors of society most in need. These include those living below the poverty line, the elderly/retired, sick/permanently injured, unemployed, and those with new dependents (e.g., young mothers).
Each country has its own system of social welfare with different definitions, criteria for eligibility, types of programs and level/form of assistance provided. In the United States, in addition to some federal programs, each state has its own set of programs, and in some cases, different municipalities do too.
Social Welfare Function
The “function” of social welfare is of course to help those in need, whether through public services or financial or in-kind aid, but it can also be seen in the greater context of how society can or should function as a whole.
The Social Contract
In essence, the idea of social welfare can be seen as a natural extension of the basic idea of the social contract, which, in simple terms, is the tacit “agreement” made between a state and its citizens.
In the 17th Century, the philosopher John Locke explained it this way: an individual would only consent to join or form a state with others, thereby giving up a measure of individual freedom, to protect his or her own interests and guarantee the safety and security of his or her family and property.
Therefore, the state exists to be the “neutral judge” in case of conflict, to ensure the fair process by which one is judged, defended and protected, and, if necessary, punished.
Order of Relationships in Society
Moving on from that basic premise, the idea of social welfare is that not only does the state have a responsibility to protect its citizens as per the social contract, but that it should go further to protect those who, for one reason or another, cannot compete or participate equally in society, and therefore face impediments or serious risks to their well-being.
It is what Richard Titmuss, founder of the modern-day academic discipline known as Social Policy, defined in the 1950s as the “right order of relationships in society” for that society’s well-being to thrive as a whole. In other words, only by ensuring that those who need help the most receive it can a society truly protect its citizens.
Social Welfare Examples
In the United States, the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, establishing a federal system of old-age benefits for retired and disadvantaged persons. Previous to this, support for the elderly was largely left to local, regional and private resources.
Social Security in the U.S. is an example of a distributive welfare policy, also called entitlement programs, meaning that everyone benefits from it equally, and the amount of aid is dependent on the taxes paid into it, not on a needs-assessment basis.
Medicare, which provides healthcare services for those over 65, is another example of a distributive policy, and was signed into law during the Johnson administration.
Unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation are other examples of distributive welfare policies in the United States.
The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, on the other hand, is an example of a redistributive system, also known as a welfare program. To be eligible, recipients must earn an income that is below the federal poverty line.
Food Stamps, Housing Assistance, Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid (as opposed to Medicare) are other examples of welfare programs in the United States.
The National Health Service, or NHS, was established in the United Kingdom in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War. It provided universal and free healthcare to all citizens “at the point of delivery,” i.e., there is no system of billing and payments.
In Canada, the Canada Health Act was passed in 1984, establishing a “single-payer” system, where services are provided by private doctors and healthcare providers, and the government pays the bill.