Inequality in U.S. Social Policy
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Inequality in U.S. Social Policy

An Historical Analysis

Bryan Warde

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eBook - ePub

Inequality in U.S. Social Policy

An Historical Analysis

Bryan Warde

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Über dieses Buch

In the second edition of Inequality in U.S. Social Policy: An Historic Analysis, Bryan Warde illuminates the pervasive and powerful role that social inequality based on race and ethnicity, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, class, and disability plays and has historically played in informing social policy.

Using critical race theory and other structural oppression theoretical frameworks, this book examines social inequalities as they relate to social welfare, education, housing, employment, health care, and child welfare, immigration, and criminal justice. With fully updated statistics throughout, and an examination of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the United States, this new edition addresses the mammoth political and social changes which have affected inequality in the past few years.

Inequality in U.S. Social Policy will help social work students better understand the origins of inequalities that their clients face, as well as providing an introduction for other social science students.

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Social Policy

DOI: 10.4324/9781003023708-1


In the industrialized countries around the world, social policies are a major determinant of citizens’ standard of living and general welfare (Gil, 1970). For example, most developed countries have social policies that provide its members with universal or nearly universal access to a host of social protections against changing life circumstances and the unpredictability of a market economy. These protections include health care across the life cycle (the United States being a notable exception), social assistance, and social insurance. In spite of its importance to the quality of life, there is no universally accepted definition of social policy; each country has a definition that reflects its political ideologies, values, history, cultural norms, economic system, and structural institutions.
In the United Kingdom, where the pioneering social researcher and professor Richard Titmuss is credited with establishing social policy as an academic discipline, social policy is the study of human well-being and the systems promoting it. Of particular interest for analysis are the policies that the government has adopted in relation to social security, housing, and social services (Titmuss, 1974). Also of interest are how these policies shape the nature of caring and maximize people’s chances of a good life (Alcock & May, 2014; Dean, 2012).
Titmuss identified three models of social policy: the residual model, the industrial achievement-performance model, and the institutional redistributive model. The residual model is predicated on the belief that there are two channels through which individual needs are best met. These channels are the private market and the family; only when the private market breaks down should public social policy come into play and then only temporarily (Titmuss, 1974, p. 30). The industrial achievement-performance model posits that individual and social needs should be met on the basis of merit, work performance, and productivity, prompted by incentives and rewards (Titmuss, 1974, p. 31). The institutional redistributive model sees social policy as an integral part of society, providing universal access to resources outside of the market, based on need (Titmuss, 1974, p. 31).
In the United States, the Social Work Dictionary defines social policy as the activities and principles of a society that guide the way it intervenes in and regulates relationships between individuals, groups, communities, and social institutions. These principles and activities are shaped by society’s values and customs and determine the distribution of resources and level of well-being for its people. Thus, social policies include plans and programs for education, health care, crime and corrections, economic security, and social welfare made by governments, voluntary organizations, and the people in general. It also includes social perspectives that result in society’s rewards and constraints (Baker, 1991, p. 220).
Another perspective from within the United States views social policy as part of public policy and practice that deals with what Rittle and Weber (1973) describe as “wicked problems.” These problems are perennial social or cultural problems that are difficult to resolve because of the number of people and contradictory opinions. Also making these problems difficult to resolve are the substantial economic burden of doing so, as well as the typically interconnected nature of the problem. In the United States, these problems include but are not limited to poverty, health and wellness, education, and social inequality.
Dissenting from the enhancement thesis, American sociologists and political activists Piven and Cloward (1971) define social policy as a mechanism for powerful elites to contain, manage, and regulate poor people. To contain, manage, and regulate the poor, social policies impose the cultural norms and mores of the powerful elites on them by way of policy rules of suitable behavior and sanctions for noncompliance. Conceptually informing these social policies have been religious doctrine and ideas such as predestination and Protestant values of hard work and self-reliance, racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and the “survival of the fittest” mantra of Social Darwinism.
In a similar vein, Blau and Abramovitz (2004) suggest that social policy in the United States has not always contributed to the well-being of all of its citizens, especially those with less power. Examples include social policies that displaced Native Americans from their tribal homelands, legalized the enslavement and segregation of Blacks, excluded particular groups of immigrants, denied women basic civil rights, criminalized homosexuality, and penalized single motherhood (Blau & Abramovitz, 2004).
Broadly speaking, then, the common themes from these various definitions imply that social policy is a multidimensional construct. It includes the courses of actions that a society takes to enhance the well-being of its citizens or deal with wicked problems. It also has social control and discriminatory functions. These courses of actions cover a broad range of functioning, which include but are not limited to social welfare, health care, education, labor, criminal justice, and social inequality. It is a political and dynamic process, and through its resulting programs and institutions reflects a nation’s ideologies, values, history, cultural norms, and economic system. It also tells us about who we are and how we relate to each other.


In the politically pluralistic United States, social policy choices do not derive from any one single source; rather, they are the product of the competing political ideologies of citizens, political parties, religious groups, special interest groups, think tanks, and monied interests. Political ideology, simply put, is a belief system (Sartori, 1969). It consists of a relatively coherent set of ideas about human nature, the proper role of government, and which types of social policies should be prioritized (Blau & Abramovitz, 2004). These ideas derive from a variety of sources, including personal and societal values, religious doctrine, traditions, myths, and principles.
In the United States, there are numerous political ideologies, including but not limited to conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, radicalism, feminism, communism, socialism, Black nationalism, and fascism (Sargent, 2009). Despite the number of political ideologies, the traditional range of ideological debate in the United States has been limited to conservatism, liberalism, and to a lesser extent libertarianism (Sargent, 2009). The other political ideologies are considered outside of the mainstream of political debate, or, as in the case of libertarianism, radicalism, and feminism, are included on the continuum of conservatism or liberalism (Abramovitz, 2008; Blau & Abramovitz, 2004). Examples include libertarian conservatives, radical centrist, and liberal feminists.
As these examples indicate, then, while political ideologies are a relatively coherent set of ideas, one cannot always apply unitary definitions to them. Rather, they are best understood as being fluid, contested, and existing along a continuum of beliefs (Blau & Abramovitz, 2004). Within conservatism, for example, as well as libertarian conservatives, there are classic conservatives, social conservatives, and neoconservatives. Similarly, within liberalism, as well as liberal feminist and radical centrist, there are classic liberals, social liberals, and neoliberals (Harvey, 2005).
Political ideologies are identified not just by their ideas but also by their positions on a political spectrum. On the political spectrum, there is a left wing, center (moderates), and right wing (Jost et al., 2009). Left-wing ideologies view the proper role of government as active and progressive in developing social policies that promote equality. Left-wing activists have been instrumental in advancing many of the progressive social changes in recent United States history, which include labor rights, civil rights, gender equality, and so forth. Liberalism is identified as being on the left of the political spectrum (Jost et al., 2009). Right-wing ideologies view the proper role of government as passive and in deference to strong state and individual rights. There is the promotion of unregulated capitalism, a strong military, and personal responsibility. Conservatism is identified as being on the right of the political spectrum (Jost et al., 2009).
Centrists (moderates) are arguably the least ideological on the political spectrum, preferring instead a more pragmatic blend of left- and right-wing ideologies to maintain the status quo (Heywood, 2012). Most voting-age Americans identify themselves as centrists.



Classic and social conservatives believe that human beings are essentially limited and security seeking, with an inclination toward the familiar and the tried and tested (i.e., tradition, status quo, etc.). If left to their own devices, human beings also have a strong tendency toward irrationality. Neo- and libertarian conservatives have a slightly different view of human nature, which they see as fixed and dual in terms of the capacity for good and bad (Sargent, 2009). In order to negate the capacity for irrationality, conservatives, in general, believe that human beings need strong moral guidance from traditional authorities. Ideally, these traditional authorities are the family, religious institutions, and the community. Social conservatives add the government to the list of traditional authorities as it relates to their law and order functions (Heywood, 2012; Sargent, 2009).
Across the conservative ideological continuum, there is a consensus about the need for liberty from oppressive and regulating forces if human beings are to live up to their fullest potential. These oppressive and regulating forces include the federal government and controlling social policies. It also includes philosophies that posit equality or seek to promote a social order to achieve a certain desired outcome without regard to the limitations of human nature. Only with liberty, which recognizes and embraces the individual talents and skills that set human beings apart from one another, can people and society fully thrive (Heywood, 2012; Sargent, 2009).


In general, conservatives see society as a living organism that exists as an entity outside of the individual. What holds society together are bonds of tradition, mutual obligation, authority, and a common morality (Heywood, 2012).


Across the conservative ideological continuum, there is a stated preference for small government, strong states’ rights, and a noninterventionist approach to the economy. In particular, neoconservatives have championed state responsibility for social welfare programs. Relatedly, libertarian conservatives have been consistent in their opposition to big government as embodied in the numerous federal government programs (Heywood, 2012; Sargent, 2009). Yet, in actual practice, traditional and social conservative lawmakers in Congress have all helped to the grow the federal government rather than diminish its size and influence. It has been done through the passage of federal legislation such as the Medicare Prescription and Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 (P.L. 108–173). Signing it into law was President George W. Bush, a Republican and a traditional conservative (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003). Moreover, there was the Troubled Asset Relief Program of 2008, bailing out private financial institutions, also signed into law by President George W. Bush (Webel, 2013). These are two of a number of examples of actual policy practice being significantly different from the ideological rhetoric of the small government. Indeed, this seeming contradiction has caused much infighting among conservatives across the ideological continuum.


Across the conservative continuum, there is general support for prioritizing social policies that reduce social welfare spending, decrease taxes for the wealthy, and support and stimulate private sector employment. There is also the prioritization of social policies bolstering national defense and b...