An introduction to Social Policy

Paul Spicker

Social Policy

The name 'social policy' is used to apply

  1. to the policies which governments use for welfare and social protection
  2. to the ways in which welfare is developed in a society, and
  3. to the academic study of the subject.

In the first sense, social policy is particularly concerned with social services and the welfare state. In the second, broader sense, it stands for a range of issues extending far beyond the actions of government - the means by which welfare is promoted, and the social and economic conditions which shape the development of welfare.

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Social Policy and Administration

Social Policy and Administration is an academic subject concerned with the study of social services and the welfare state. It developed in the early part of the 20th century as a complement to social work studies, aimed at people who would be professionally involved in the administration of welfare. In the course of the last forty years, the range and breadth of the subject has developed. The principal areas relate to

Social Policy is a subject area, not a discipline; it borrows from other social science disciplines in order to develop study in the area. The contributory disciplines include sociology, social work, psychology, economics, political science, management, history, philosophy and law.


Welfare is an ambiguous term, used in three main senses:

Welfare is often associated with needs, but it goes beyond what people need; to achieve well being, people must have choices, and the scope to choose personal goals and ambitions.

The idea of the "welfare state" is explained, along with models of welfare provision in several countries, in another page of this website. Choose this link to go there.

Arguments for welfare

The basic arguments for collective provision are

There is scarcely a government in the world that does not recognise the force of these arguments and make some form of collective social provision. The real disputes are not about whether welfare should exist, but about how much provision there should be, and how it should be done.

Arguments against welfare

The main objections to the provision of welfare come from the radical right'. They are against welfare in principle, on the basis that it violates people's freedom. Redistribution is theft; taxation is forced labour. (1) These arguments rest on some questionable assumptions:

The radical right also claim that the welfare state has undesirable effects in practice. Economically, it can be argued that economic development is more important for welfare than social provision. Dollar and Kraay, for the World Bank, have argued that property rights and a market economy are essential for growth and so for the protection of the poor. The other main argument is that the welfare state undermines economic performance. However, this position is not supported by the evidence. In social terms, the welfare state is accused of fostering dependency and trapping people in poverty. (2) Evidence on the dynamics of poverty shows that poverty and dependency are not long-term, but affect people at different stages in the life cycle; the population of welfare claimants is constantly changing. (3) Where poor people are separated and excluded by welfare, this is mainly the product of the kinds of restricted, residual system the radical right has been arguing for.

Who is welfare for?

Residual welfare
Welfare provision is often seen as being for the poor. This was the dominant model in English-speaking countries; the English Poor Law (1598-1948) was exported to many other countries. This has been taken as the model of a residual system of welfare, in which welfare is a safety net, confined to those who are unable to manage otherwise.
Welfare in much of Europe is based on the principle of solidarity, or mutual responsibility. The responsibilities which people have to each other depend on their relationships; people in society are part of solidaristic social networks. Many of the rights which people have are particular, rather than general - they depend on a person's circumstances, work record or family relationships, not on general rights protected by the state. Those who are not part of such networks are said to be 'excluded'.
Institutional welfare
An institutional system is one in which need is accepted as a normal part of social life. Welfare is provided for the population as a whole, in the same way as public services like roads or schools might be. In an institutional system, welfare is not just for the poor: it is for everyone.
Industrial achievement/performance
Welfare has often been seen as a 'handmaiden' to the economy. It helps employers, by preparing and servicing the capacity of the workforce, and it acts as an economic regulator, stimulating demand when production is low.

Universality and selectivity

Universal benefits and services are benefits available to everyone as a right, or at least to whole categories of people (like 'old people' or 'children'). Selective benefits and services are reserved for people in need. The arguments refer to the same issues as 'institutional' and 'residual' welfare, but there is an important difference. Institutional and residual welfare are principles: universality and selectivity are methods. A residual system might use a universal service where appropriate (e.g. a residual system of health care might be associated with universal public health); an institutional system needs some selective benefits to ensure that needs are met.

Universal services can reach everyone on the same terms. This is the argument for public services, like roads and sewers: it was extended in the 1940s to education and health services. The main objection to universal services is their cost. Selectivity is often presented as being more efficient: less money is spent to better effect. There are problems with selective services, however: because recipients have to be identified, the services can be administratively complex and expensive to run, and there are often boundary problems caused by trying to include some people while excluding others. Selective services sometimes fail to reach people in need.

Chart:  Rates of economic exclusion in five OECD countries.  Source: OECDModels of welfare

Esping-Andersen has described three main types of welfare régime:

The grouping of particular countries tends to be unreliable, but the classification may help to understand some of the main patterns of provision. This table shows rates of economic exclusion in five countries. The blue bars at the front show the proportions of poor people; the red bars the "poverty gap", how far those remaining fall below minimum standards; and the green bars at the rear the numbers of people before transfers and taxes. Social protection in the UK and Sweden is institutional, but the UK offers less to poor people, both in the numbers of people brought out of poverty and in poverty reduction. France is solidaristic, but its performance has still secured coverage as good as the institutional welfare states. The German system is work oriented: it excludes some people who have not contributed, and it does not extend to those on the highest incomes. The system in the US has substantial residual elements, and social policy is often hostile to the poor. It has fewer people in poverty before transfers than France or Germany, but it fails to bring people out of poverty and the poverty that remains is more severe.


  1. e.g. R Nozick, 1974, Anarchy state and utopia, Basic Books.
  2. e.g. C Murray, 1984, Losing Ground, Basic Books.
  3. see e.g. L Leisering, R Walker (eds) 1988, The dynamics of modern society, Policy Press.
  4. G Esping-Andersen, 1990, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Polity.

Further reading

P Spicker, Social policy: themes and approaches, Policy Press 2008.
P Kennedy, Key Themes in Social Policy, Routledge 2013.
R M Titmuss, Essays on the Welfare State, Allen and Unwin 1963

The main international journals in the subject are the Journal of European Social Policy and Social Policy and Administration.