Term of Art: Welfare

[For the entirety of my teaching career, and even before that, when I worked in a hospital and for various social service agencies, I have only worked in impoverished communities. Needless to say, I have taken issue with the diparagment of poor people. I think social welfare is something human service providers–like teachers–really ought to understand. I hope this quote helps to clarify what welfare is, and why we need more, not less of that. The COVID19 pandemic, I hope, will make that painfully obvious once and for all.]

“Welfare, Sociology of Welfare: Welfare is the state of doing or being well. The term is primarily invoked when some action is considered necessary in order to enhance individual or group welfare—that is when welfare is some way in doubt. It is, consequently, a term employed first and foremost in the arena of policy, and is intimately linked to the concept of needs, since it is by meeting needs that welfare is enhanced: welfare policies are policies designed to meet individual or group needs. The needs at issue are not merely those necessary for survival, but those necessary for a reasonable or adequate life within the society. They include not only a minimum level of income for food and clothing, but also adequate housing, education, health care, and opportunities for employment (though this is not always included). Precisely how and to what extent these needs are met clearly varies from society to society. During the twentieth century, the role of the state in meeting welfare needs in advanced industrial societies has typically increased. However, over the past decade or more there has been some retrenchment in state welfare in a range of Western societies, with an increasing privatization of welfare services, and support for private provision dependent on the ability to pay, rather than upon need.

Since welfare issues are closely allied to policy, there has been a tendency to locate them within the field of social policy rather than sociology. However, this position has been regularly challenged by writers like Peter Townshend, who regards social policy—which includes welfare policy—as falling squarely within the province of sociology. This view finds support from the long-standing discussions, centered on Marxist theorizing, about the extent to which welfare states and welfare policies are functional for capitalism. Do they mitigate the harsh excesses of capitalism, so making the system more acceptable? Or are they the result of the successful struggle of workers to secure their own interests? (A still provocative treatment of these questions will be found in F.F. Piven and R.A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 1971.) Such debates have led, amongst other things, to a plethora of valuable research studies seeking to identify the recipients of state welfare. These show the extent to which, in most societies, the middle classes benefit disproportionately from certain types of state welfare such as education (though this does not mean that state welfare is less equitable than private welfare). They also show the extent to which women are financially dependent on welfare support.

Equally, the view that the study of welfare is a proper part of sociology finds support from the work of writers such as Thomas H. Marshall, who links issues of welfare to those of citizenship and so to the sociological mainstream. In Marshall’s view, welfare rights are the third and final group of rights acquired by members of a society. First there are civil rights, such as the freedom of association, organization, and expression; then there come political rights, such as the right to vote and to seek political office; finally, there are social and economic rights, such as the right to welfare and social security. Marshall’s progressive, linear model of the acquisition of rights has been questioned; however, his formulation of a series of rights clearly has political value, providing a potential rallying call for political change. In so doing, it asserts in particular that welfare benefits should be awarded as a matter of legal entitlement on principles of universality, rather than on a discretionary basis. Perhaps not surprisingly the recent retrenchment in state welfare provision—along with important political changes including changing patterns of migration—has led to a new focus on the issue of citizenship, reaffirming the importance of welfare within the mainstream of sociology, and enlivening discussions in the field.

The relevant theoretical issues are introduced in Anthony Forder, et al., Theories of Welfare (1984). For a more substantive treatment see John Dixon, Social Welfare in Developed Countries (1989).”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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