In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Social Welfare in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Understanding the American Social Welfare Model
  • Historical Documents and Data
  • Especially Notable Social Policy Developments
  • Social Work and Social Welfare

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Social Work History of Social Welfare in the United States
P. Nelson Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0075


“Social welfare” is an encompassing and imprecise term, but most often it is defined in terms of “organized activities,” “interventions,” or some other element that suggests policy and programs to respond to recognized social problems or to improve the well-being of those at risk. Social welfare, then, is concerned with what Richard Titmuss referred to as the “right order of relationships in society,” some ideal of the way in which a society works and fits together to form a suitable place for human habitation and development. That suitable place, in the American context, would provide opportunities for work and human meaning and a reasonable amount of security from want and assault, promote fairness and evaluation based on individual merit, and be economically productive and stable. Underneath, of course, is an assumption that human society can be organized and governed to produce and provide these things, and that because it is feasible to do so, there is a moral obligation to bring it to fruition. The distinctiveness of the American model is often described in negative comparative terms: the United States does not have a European-style welfare state. It is historically far less generous to the poor in terms of social benefits, far less protective of low-wage workers, does not have a comprehensive public structure for health services, has less progressive taxation overall, and has higher levels of inequality and poverty than do most of its high GNP counterparts. But with all of that, according to a 2008 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis, the United States spent 31.1 percent of its net national disposable income on social welfare, a figure above the OECD countries’ average expenditure of 28.5 percent and ranking the United States in total social expenditure about on the same level as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, countries normally placed in the welfare-state category. This use of private spending and tax expenditures in the United States is quite distinctive. Add to this that the great bulk of public social-benefit expenditures in the United States are effectively “work based” (either requiring work for eligibility or in return for benefit) and what Neil Gilbert brilliantly dubs the “enabling” as opposed to the “welfare” state. In this way, the distinctive character of the United States welfare state becomes quite clear. Understanding this combination of reliance on private action, market allocation, and private expenditure and the American cultural, and policy-related, preference for work and employment over relief is central to understanding the strange architecture of American social welfare. That architecture is, of course, substantially influenced by the federal structure of American government and the regional and demographic diversity across the third-largest nation in the world.

General Overviews

The selections below are commonly utilized volumes inclusive of the major eras, policies, program developments, and people in US social welfare. Axinn and Stern 2005 and Trattner 1999 provide a rather comprehensive view from the emergence of state responsibility and poor law in England, through the American colonial and New Republic eras of public institutions and private relief organizations, and on through the Progressive Era, the New Deal, to the “modern” era of post-1960s work- and opportunity-focused programs. This last policy era is, of course, supported and sustained by the conservative transition in the 1980s ultimately leading to “welfare reform” and a distinctive move away from traditional relief models for the poor and toward work-based and incentive programs. Jansson 2008, too, is rather comprehensive in scope but organizes the material around the theme of American “reluctance” to embrace a more sustaining and humane social welfare system. Katz 1996 uses the idea of the “poorhouse” as the organizing construct for American social welfare and illustrates the persistence of the assumptions and intentions embedded in the poorhouse in 19th- and 20th-century America. Leiby 1978 incorporates both social welfare development and the rise of the social work profession and finds in both uniquely American expressions of faith in individual change and persistent concern about dependence and undermining individual responsibility. Marx 2004, too, offers a very broad historical view that provides context for exploring the American preference for private social welfare and the effective “partnership” that has emerged. Berkowitz and McQuaid 1992 is less concerned than the preceding works with the failures and limitations of American social welfare and more concerned with the economic structures and interests that shape American politics and are expressed in governmental policy. Herrick and Stuart 2005 provides a useful companion to this collection, with short descriptions of many of the people, organizations, and motivating ideas in American social welfare.

  • Axinn, June, and Mark Stern. 2005. Social welfare: A history of the American Response to need. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A commonly used text that covers social welfare development from the colonial to current periods. It is notable for its inclusion of selected documents that provide insight into the prevailing attitudes and problem constructions at the time.

  • Berkowitz, Edward, and Kim McQuaid. 1992. Creating the welfare state: The political economy of 20th-century reform. Rev. ed. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

    Among the very best texts on social welfare, taking the reader through 20th-century social policy development with a keen understanding of the role of economic interests in shaping policy. Considerable policy and program detail while illustrating, time and again, a rather practical, as opposed to ideological, policy process in which the interests of business combined with an elaborate public bureaucracy to create a disparate and uneven “welfare state.”

  • Herrick, John M., and Paul H. Stuart, eds. 2005. Encyclopedia of social welfare history in North America. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A compilation of 180 essays on the people, ideas, and organizations important in the development of social welfare in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Entries have references to primary sources.

  • Jansson, Bruce S. 2008. The reluctant welfare state: Engaging history to advance social work practice in contemporary society. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Brooks-Cole.

    The newest edition of another commonly used historical text, this one placing emphasis on understanding the underlying values and assumptions expressed in American social welfare history. The origins of those values are found largely in early American experience. Emphasis as well on the development of a student’s “policy identity.”

  • Katz, Michael B. 1996. In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America. 10th ed. New York: Basic Books.

    A well-written and intellectually focused criticism of American social policy toward the poor, organized around the author’s construct of both the idea and the reality of the poorhouse in the early United States. The original fall from grace is followed by a series of fits and starts that result in the “semi-welfare state” and ultimately a “war on welfare.” Katz provides considerable historical and policy detail and a solid conceptual framework that distinguishes between public assistance and social insurance in both design and political impact.

  • Leiby, James. 1978. A history of social welfare and social work in the United States, 1815–1972. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    A classic work relating the evolution of both social welfare policy and the development of the social work profession to the “progress” of American society in becoming economically powerful and stable, more homogeneous in population and more “middle class” in culture. Leiby, writing in the 1970s, sees the political currents, liberal and conservative, as less defining elements of social welfare than the more enduring and penetrating ones of culture and economic structure.

  • Marx, Jerry D. 2004. Social welfare: The American partnership. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A comprehensive social policy text organized around the public/private partnership aspect of American social welfare. Develops a complex picture of relationships between government, business, and the nonprofit and foundation world, and examines their policy and political implications.

  • Trattner, Walter I. 1999. From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America. 6th ed. New York: Free Press.

    A standard text in the field first published in 1974 and updated through 1999, providing a historical overview of developments in child welfare, public health, benefits for the poor, and the evolution of professional social work. The author is particularly interested in, and critical of, social and intellectual trends in American history that shape social policy and the politics of policy making.

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