social welfare

social welfare
   ‘Social welfare’ is sometimes a synonym for welfare state, but here it is taken to refer to ideas about what the objectives of a welfare state are and by what mechanisms and processes they might best be achieved.
   The principle of less eligibility, classically expressed in the Poor Law Report of 1834, has shaped all subsequent discussion and its shadow dogs contemporary social security provisions such as income support. The principle declared that relief to the indigent should be given in such a form that the recipient’s condition was rendered ‘less eligible’ (i.e. less desirable) than that of the lowest-paid independent labourer. This principle could be implemented if relief was made subject to entry to a workhouse, with concomitant loss of freedom. The principle was not officially discarded until 1948, although it was enormously modified, even in the early practice of the ‘new poor law’ established in 1834. While the truly needy would receive assistance, the thrust of the principle was to give every incentive to being in work; thus, it was believed, benefiting the wealth and welfare of all. Later, the voluntary body the Charity Organisation Society (COS) developed ‘social work’ to enhance an individual’s efforts at independence in difficult times, forestalling resort to the poor law. The COS saw ‘social welfare’ as its distinctive province. This reflected the close ties with ‘idealist’ thinkers such as Helen and Bernard Bosanquet, who saw charity as a channel of social development, since personal charitable work enhanced the character of both giver and recipient. In their own attempts to meet urgent needs, voluntary organizations such as the Salvation Army were less concerned about questions of personal character. Social thinkers such as Herbert Spencer rejected any positive role for the state. Both the poor law and the COS saw poverty and unemployment as caused by personal failing rather than circumstances beyond an individual’s ability to control. Around 1900, evidence mounted that such circumstances were significant, particularly low pay at work. The poor law/COS view of how to achieve social welfare famously collided with the ‘social causes’ view of need in the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws: two Reports were issued in 1909, reflecting the disagreement. The Fabian socialists Beatrice and Sydney Webb, through Beatrice’s membership of the Royal Commission, argued in the minority report for the abolition of the poor law as embodying an inappropriate understanding of social problems. Instead, the state should guarantee a ‘national minimum’ of civilized life in health and education through specialist services staffed by experts, with unemployment tackled nationally. Neither model won the day: Lloyd George, learning from Germany, introduced limited compulsory and contributory insurance schemes for health and unemployment (with state funding as well) as a via media, although a reduced poor law was retained. Between the wars, the Webbs and others were influenced by Marxism, believing that capitalism was unstable and decaying, with social welfare only possible in a post-capitalist society. J.M.Keynes’s economic analysis suggested a centrally planned economy was possible and desirable, with social welfare provision being a vital component. In introducing the ‘welfare state’ in 1948, the government acknowledged that a market economy required the state to provide social welfare for all people on a comprehensive basis. R.M.Titmuss emerged as an influential analyst of social welfare in Essays onthe Welfare State’ (1958), Commitment to Welfare (1968) and The Gift Relationship (1971). Marrying idealism and socialism, he viewed social welfare as fostering equality, social integration and altruistic sentiments, but he criticized remaining selective or means-tested benefits as stigmatizing and inefficient in reaching those eligible; services without a test of means (universal services) were the ideal. Voluntary organizations and private providers had inappropriate ‘social’ objectives.
   Titmuss also argued that poverty and inequality were inadequately addressed by the welfare state, and that social welfare services needed integration with fiscal welfare (tax allowances) and occupational welfare (pensions from work). In criticizing social welfare services, the work of John Rawls on social justice and the idea of citizenship and associated rights were explored (for example R.A.Pinker, Social Theory and Social Policy, 1971). Marxist criticisms too were voiced in the 1970s. However, interest in the voluntary sector’s potential contribution also developed (the Wolfenden report of 1978); and less bureaucracy, and more decentralization and participation was urged (see R.Hadley and S.Hatch, Social Welfare and the Failure of the State, 1981). Populist, as opposed to socialist, meanings of social welfare were prominent in Pinker’s The Idea of Welfare (1979). Informal ‘social welfare’, welfare provided by neighbours, friends and family, and its neglect by statutory and voluntary social welfare services, became major topics. Ideological glosses on such ideas contrary to ‘orthodox’ social welfare thinking came from the New Right, including the Social Affairs Unit, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Roger Scruton. Social welfare has also been analysed from postmodernist and feminist viewpoints (see Gillian Pascall, Social Policy: A New Feminist Analysis, 1997). New demands on social welfare services include tackling domestic violence, drug culture, single parents and issues raised by environmentalism. Conservative governments since 1979 have been sceptical as to the role played by ‘social causes’ or the class system in explaining poverty and illness. Personal responsibility has been emphasized once again, and ‘workfare’ in America has been influential. Popular support for social welfare services meant they were transformed, not dismantled. Consumerism has to an extent been encouraged in schools and in reform of the NHS and social care which, in reducing the direct responsibilities of government and dividing the purchasing and providing roles, has reduced the power of professionals. Diversity in the NHS may have helped, for example, aromatherapy and alternative medicine generally. The achievements of Thatcherism in social welfare are to have rehabilitated private markets and the voluntary sector as providers (particularly in social care) and elevated consumer choice over social engineering as an objective, at least in principle.
   Further reading
    George, V. and Wilding, P. (1993) Ideology and Social Welfare, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
    McCarthy, M. (ed.) (1989) The New Politics of Welfare, London: Macmillan.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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