Social Policy for Effective Practice
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Social Policy for Effective Practice

A Strengths Approach

Rosemary Kennedy Chapin, Melinda Lewis

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eBook - ePub

Social Policy for Effective Practice

A Strengths Approach

Rosemary Kennedy Chapin, Melinda Lewis

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About This Book

The fifth edition of Social Policy for Effective Practice offers a rich variety of resources and knowledge foundations to help social work students understand and contend with the continually evolving social policy landscape that surrounds them. The authors have continued theirvalues-based approach and kept the focus on clients' strengths to help students position themselves for effective engagement on new fronts where policy threats and outcomes affect clients' lives in myriad ways.

The new edition comprehensively covers the process of defining need, analyzing social policy, and developing policy, and each chapter builds on the practical knowledge and skills forged from previous ones. New to this edition:

  • Thorough examination of new policies, including challenges to the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, immigration, women's rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as situations involving substance use, mental health, and economic inequality.
  • Expanded coverage of shifting demographics, including population diversity and aging.
  • Increased connections drawn between historical, present, and potential future policy contexts
  • Updated exercises, exhibits, and social media links in-text and an entire suite of web-based tools found through, including complementary reading suggestions and teaching tips, a full library of lecture slides and exam questions, and EPAS guidelines.

For use as a resource in foundations generalist social policy courses, either at the baccalaureate or master's levels, the new edition of Social Policy for Effective Practice will challenge students to find areas of policy practice that spark their passion and prepare them to think about and use policy practice as a tool that can lead to the changes they care about.

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Social Work and Social Policy: A Strengths Perspective

TODAY, SOCIAL WORKERS FIND OURSELVES STRUGGLING TO FILL the gaps when vital mental health, child welfare, safety net, and disability services are underfunded or eliminated. The current political and economic environments create more uncertainty, as some of the tools social workers rely on seem increasingly precarious. How can social work students facing dilemmas like those described above build the skills they need to tackle these challenges? Perhaps even more importantly for the profession, clients, and society, how can the tremendous assets students bring—commitment to equity, compassion for those in need, and conviction that change is possible—contribute to fundamental improvements in social policy and substantial progress in the march toward justice? In all these cases—and in so much of social work practice—meeting clients’ needs and addressing the roots of their challenges will require changing social policy.
Social policy is part of the context in which practice occurs. Social policies are the laws, rules, and regulations that govern the benefits and services governmental and private organizations provide to assist people in meeting their needs. Social workers define a need as the gap between an existing condition and some societal standard or required condition. For example, our society has developed standards of adequate nutrition for children. When children do not have access to foods to meet those standards, their nutritional needs are not being met. Levels of funding are directly affected by social policies, as are the rules that govern who can receive which services and what hoops a client must jump through to access resources. And social policy practice is not a separate endeavor from other types of practice. As they build alliances and leverage power to improve systems, social work students who engage in policy practice experience the transformative power of relationships that is the foundation of all social work. Your social policy knowledge and skills, then, are additional tools that increase your ability to help your clients.
Social workers also press for social justice to combat unfair conditions. Social justice is a core social work value that refers to the equitable distribution of societal resources, including material goods and social benefits, rights, and protections. Social justice also encompasses procedural equity and fairness in the social, economic, and political spheres. While the negative effects of repressive and ineffective social policies are often easy to identify, social policies can also be instruments for promoting social justice and for improving clients’ lives.
While changing social policy is indeed difficult, so is all social work. Social work students who envision a career helping people overcome addiction, navigate to mental health, or recover from traumatic loss have no illusion that their work will be easy. Similarly, social workers who embrace policy practice do so with a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges. Indeed, this recognition often strengthens their resolve to understand and influence the policies that shape their practice and their clients’ lives. This book will provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to effectively engage in policy practice. Those of you already working on social justice issues will gain new competencies. Others will ignite a desire to develop social policies that better meet clients’ needs. Specifically, this text equips social work students to look at social policy through a strengths perspective lens. The strengths perspective is a philosophical approach to social work that puts the goals, strengths, and resources of people and their environments, rather than their problems and pathologies, at the center of the helping process (Saleebey, 1992). Evidence suggests that we can improve the outcomes of social policies by focusing on people’s strengths and resources in social policy development. You can read more about the strengths perspective, including its origins and its application in social work practice, at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare strengths website (
This chapter introduces and critiques some of the basic concepts and frameworks that will be the building blocks of your understanding of social policy. In addition, it explains how the ways we define and understand social problems shape the social policies we develop to address them. Social problems are concerns, widely held by broad consensus and/or voiced by social and economic elites, about the quality of life of large groups of people (Chambers & Bonk, 2013). Social workers spend much of their professional careers attempting to reduce social problems and/or helping clients deal with their effects. Addiction, juvenile delinquency, child maltreatment, and homelessness are just a few examples of social problems. You may have been drawn to the social work profession because of concern with these or other social problems. Subsequent chapters detail how social workers can analyze and develop social policies to address these problems. You will also learn about the historical, political, and economic contexts that shape policy and about the major social policies that affect clients’ experiences with these problems. Further, this text will consider the strengths and goals of those experiencing social problems, as well as the resources available in their contexts, as part of the examination of policy responses and articulation of proposed reforms.


Social policies shape the U.S. social welfare system. The term social welfare refers to the system of programs, benefits, and services that help meet those social, economic, educational, and health needs fundamental to the maintenance of society. Social policies make it possible for clients to receive benefits and services they need. To a considerable extent, we are all clients of social welfare systems, since we all benefit from investments in health, safety, education, and other social policies (Abramovitz, 2001; Dolgoff & Feldstein, 2013). In this book, however, the term client refers to the recipient of the direct service or benefits a social worker provides. The terms client group and service users also refer to the population that is the primary focus of a social policy or program. While taxpayers and policymakers are important social work constituents, clients are a social worker’s main concern.
In 1973, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defined social work as “the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities to enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal” (p. 4). In 1996, the NASW further delineated the mission of social work, stated as part of the NASW Code of Ethics. This mission was reinforced in the 2017 revision to the Code:
Social workers are ethically obligated to combat injustice through policy practice. Section Six of the NASW Code of Ethics speaks to this responsibility:
In addition to these explicit policy practice mandates, it is arguably impossible to fulfill the mission of the profession—to enhance human well-being and meet basic needs—without securing and preserving policies that advance justice. Further, the quality of the services we deliver is influenced by policies that govern delivery systems, staffing ratios, and funding allocations, so social workers’ ability to act with integrity and competence—in essence, to do social work—is also affected by social policy constraints and complements. Social workers are ideally positioned to see ways that client concerns could be addressed by social policy changes and to use policy practice skills to achieve these goals. Additionally, we are professionally obligated to do so. Those opposed to needed changes in the service system count on public apathy and professional complicity, but your policy practice can be a powerful tool.

The Relationship between Social Policy and Social Work Practice

The relationship between social policy and social work practice is illustrated in policies, programs, and practice governing social work with different client groups. For example, social policies in child abuse and neglect determine who may remove children from their homes, where the children can be placed, whether they receive specialized counseling services, who can provide those services, and how much providers are paid. Social workers serving children and other client groups cannot hope to help their clients without understanding the parameters social policies set and how those parameters shape practice.
The child in foster care, the older adult in a nursing facility, and the teenager in prison have all experienced the results of social policies in potent ways. Social workers, whether in private practice, public child welfare, health care, schools, or other settings, also experience the consequences of social policy. A basic understanding of how policy influences practice will make you a more effective social worker. These insights can also help you to move beyond understanding how policies work and coping with their implications to begin to proactively shape policies. For example, a social worker with knowledge of the challenges foster children face can educate legislators about the need for social programs to help them successfully transition to adulthood. Further, social workers approaching this policy practice from a strengths perspective can begin by asking youths about their goals and inviting them to advocate for the policies that would best support them.
Both public and private sector entities can develop social policies. Social policies created by federal, state, and local governments are public policies. Although most social policy in the U.S. is public policy, private entities, including businesses and religious organizations, may also develop social policies. For example, policies put in place by program directors influence child-care and elder care programs offered in their private organizations. Social workers can influence these entities’ policies as well. Indeed, many students’ policy practice begins with efforts to influence policies of their practicum placement or employer. For example, a social work student convinced her agency to remove gender-binary pronouns on its intake forms, while another shared stories of clients’ negative experiences with the agency’s no-show policy to convince the executive director to alter it. Social workers should recognize the considerable power they have over the policies of their organizations; indeed, in many cases, social worker discretion moderates clients’ experiences of social policies (Lipsky, 1980).
Social policies can benefit clients in many ways. They can help clients achieve their goals, as when, for example, a policy mandating equal opportunity in employment helps single mothers secure well-paying jobs. Social policies can also help clients by creating social programs. Social programs are specified sets of activities designed to solve social problems and/or meet human needs. For example, public social policies that create childhood nutrition programs and private programs that fill gaps during the summer break both make it possible for children to receive adequate food. Social workers are integral to making the programs created by social policies work. They often deliver program services, help clients navigate program resources, and attempt to overcome program gaps.
Exhibit 1.1 illustrates the relationships between the social welfare system, social policy, and social workers. Here, the social welfare system includes benefits and services to families who, because they have insufficient incomes, cannot adequately nourish their children. The Child Nutrition Act is the social policy that created the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Clients who qualify receive food benefits, nutrition and health education, and referrals to other social services. Social workers deliver some of these services. Note that the arrows in Exhibit 1.1 go in both directions. Social workers are both influenced by and influence social policy.
Although social policies and programs are often created to assist people, they can also be used to oppress them. For example, public social policies mandated separate schools for students of color. Women and people of color were denied the right to vote. While these policies have been changed, other policies still oppress some groups. For example, public policies that inequitably finance public education still result in inequitable educationa...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Social Policy for Effective Practice
APA 6 Citation
Chapin, R. K., & Lewis, M. (2020). Social Policy for Effective Practice (5th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Chapin, Rosemary Kennedy, and Melinda Lewis. (2020) 2020. Social Policy for Effective Practice. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Chapin, R. K. and Lewis, M. (2020) Social Policy for Effective Practice. 5th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Chapin, Rosemary Kennedy, and Melinda Lewis. Social Policy for Effective Practice. 5th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.