In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1950-1980

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Conference Proceedings
  • Bibliographies
  • Document Collections

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Social Work History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1950-1980
Paul H. Stuart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0113


The three decades between 1950 and 1980 were significant for the development of the profession of social work and for the development of social welfare programs throughout the world. The Second World War resulted in a significant expansion of government effort and led to the decolonialization movement that resulted in the creation of new nations in Africa and Asia. The war ended in 1945 and postwar recovery included the implementation of wartime proposals for welfare state expansion, resulting in expanded size and scope for social welfare programs in Western Europe, which were imitated widely. Increasing wealth resulted in a matured welfare state in many of the developed nations by the 1970s. However, by the late 1970s, problems in sustaining the social welfare enterprise were apparent. New ideas, in particular neoliberalism, would bring about changes in social welfare and in the social work profession during the 1980s. Limits to the growth of the welfare state seemed apparent. Increasing energy costs and a slowing of economic growth seemed to foretell a difficult future. In the United Kingdom, the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, won a majority of Parliament in 1979, and Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980. These leaders initiated a retrenchment of welfare state spending in the 1980s, which became worldwide in the 1990s and after. The social work profession expanded and grew during the same period in tandem with the expansion of state services. In the United States, developments in professional organization and education mirrored and stimulated an increasingly significant social assignment for the social work profession, only a half-century old at the beginning of the period. Social work research came of age during the period. Social work methods expanded to encompass group work, community work, and administration in addition to casework with individuals and families. Social workers engaged in new fields of practice and began to conceptualize a generic or generalist professional practice. These developments were mirrored in other countries, particularly as social workers in the United States attempted to export their professional practices to Europe and the newly independent nations created after colonial systems ended, not always successfully.

General Overviews

Included here are works that discuss the growth of social welfare programs between 1950 and 1980 as well as works that attempt to develop generalizations about the phenomenon of the welfare state as it developed in the decades following the Second World War. According to Ashford 1986, “by 1950 the institutional frameworks of the contemporary welfare states [in Britain and France] were in place” (p. 300). Wilensky and Lebeaux 1958 focuses on the development of social welfare programs in one country, the United States. Ashford 1986 and Janowitz 1976 provide comparative accounts of developments in two countries, while the remaining works (Esping-Andersen 1990; Hu and Manning 2010; Wilensky 1975) extend the analysis to consider multiple countries and a higher level of abstraction. Friedman 1962 provides a conservative critique of the emerging welfare state with recommendations about the proper relationship between individuals and governments.

  • Ashford, Douglas E. 1986. The emergence of the welfare states. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Focuses on Britain and France. Traces the development of social welfare programs to the Second World War and argues that the welfare state was institutionalized in those countries in the years immediately following the war,

  • Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A description of three welfare-state regimes—liberal, corporatist, and social democratic welfare states—developed in many nations as a result of the “fantastic pace of growth [of social welfare] in most countries during the 1960s and 1970s” (p. 1), based on data sets on welfare state development constructed in the 1980s.

  • Friedman, Milton. 1962. Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A leading conservative economist’s statement on the relationship between individuals and government; includes a chapter on social welfare measures that influenced policy makers in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Hu, Aiqun, and Patrick Manning. 2010. The global social insurance movement since the 1880s. Journal of Global History 5.1: 125–148.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1740022809990350

    Uses a model of interactive diffusion to explain global social welfare development in the 20th century. Argues that the period between 1945 and 1981 represented a period of great expansion, followed by increasing privatization in the last two decades of the 20th century. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Janowitz, Morris. 1976. Social control of the welfare state. New York: Elsevier.

    In this short book, Janowitz examines the welfare state—its origins, institutional bases, and effects on social structure—based on a study of Britain and the United States.

  • Wilensky, Harold L. 1975. The welfare state and equality: Structural and ideological roots of public expenditure. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A comparative study of welfare state development in sixty-four countries. Emphasizes determinants and outcomes.

  • Wilensky, Harold L., and Charles N. Lebeaux. 1958. Industrial society and social welfare: The impact of industrialization on the supply and organization of social welfare services in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    A discussion of social welfare in the United States in the 1950s. Argues that social welfare programs have become institutionalized as a result of the development of industrialization.

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