Skip to main content

Conservative Transition in American Social Policy

The Conservative Transition in American Social Policy

by Jerry D. Marx, Ph.D., M.S.W., Associate Professor
University of New Hampshire

The Rise of the Global Economy

Globalization, as defined in Chapter One of this book, is “the integration of markets, nation-states, and technology to a degree never witnessed before.” The technologies that make a global economy possible include computerization, digitization, satellite communications, fiber optics, and the Internet. These technologies, as previously stated, are allowing corporations to create a global market for their goods and services, a market that increasingly reaches across national borders, defense systems, and cultures.

Did You Know?
Although American corporations have blasted off in the application of Internet technology, the research that led to the development of the Internet was done in the government sector of the United States, not the business sector as you might expect. Despite laissez-faire rhetoric about government staying out of the way, the Internet is a good example of the way the public sector contributes to the private sectors, both for-profit and nonprofit, in the United States. Ultimately, it’s a partnership for social welfare.

The roots of the current global economy can be traced, in part, to the Great Depression and World War II. Policy planners in the United States wanted to prevent another “Great Depression” from happening in the future. To this end, policy planners from an elite private nonprofit group called the Council on Foreign Affairs, collaborating with planners from the federal State Department, provided President Franklin Roosevelt with a policy proposal for creating a postwar global economy. More specifically, the group’s recommendations called for the creation of an institutional framework for an open global economy. Combined with similar proposals from other sources such as the U.S. Department of Treasury, this policy planning was agreed to by the representatives of several western nations at an international meeting at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire when World War II ended. The global plan led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund became responsible for facilitating world trade by maintaining stability and liquidity in national currencies around the globe. In addition, the World Bank was charged with the mission of promoting capital investments in developing countries.  As the Cold War developed, these global economic policy plans also became a means to counter the Soviet Union and the spread of communism around the world.

During the 1980s, the policies of the Reagan Administration facilitated a series of corporate acquisitions, mergers, and downsizing. It was said to be the largest corporate restructuring in U.S. history with over 25,000 such deals during the Reagan presidency. What looked to the average observer to be a corporate sector out of control in pursuit of profit, was really to a large extent the redesign of the American economic sector. The objective was to position American corporations for success in the new global economy. Then in 1994, during the Clinton Administration, Congress passed legislation that approved the establishment of the World Trade Organization. This organization’s purpose is to facilitate world trade, in large part, by serving as an arbitrator in trade disputes between various nations around the world. These policy decisions by the World Trade Organization are binding, enforceable through trade sanctions on uncooperative countries.

Thus the age of the multinational, the transnational, and the global corporation is upon us for better or for worse. The promise is an integrated free-market economic system, led by the United States, that will raise the standard of living of all nations, developed and developing. The threat is that American economic, political, and social values will extinguish, to a great extent, cultural diversity and self-determination around the world. And as historian Paul Kennedy, author of “Preparing For The Twenty-First Century,” reminds us: “The rational market, by its very nature, is not concerned with social justice and fairness.”

September 11th and The Threat of Increased Terrorism
On September 11th, 2001, Islamic terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial airplanes, one of which crashed in Pennsylvania, one hit the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and two toppled the World Trade Towers in New York City. Thousands of people were killed in the attack. To what extent is globalization a factor in the attack? In other words, to what extent does September 11th represent a clash of cultures? What policy changes should be made to address the threat of increased terrorism?

Reagan and New Federalism
The Reagan Administration accelerated a conservative trend in social policy that began in the second term of Richard Nixon and continued through the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Nixon began proposing cuts in federal spending on numerous programs in his second term, while Ford and Carter passed very little health and human service legislation (although the Carter Administration did enact legislation supporting adoption and foster care in 1980). During the 1970s, the general public was increasingly concerned with a stagnate economy, high inflation rates in consumer prices, rising taxes, and the increasing deficit in the federal government budget. In addition, government regulation of the business sector had increased enormously during the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting public concern at the time for worker safety, product safety, and environmental quality. By the early 1980s, the concern, particularly on the part of business leaders, was over-regulation.

Republican Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan took office with an agenda that prioritized balancing the federal budget (through cuts in wasteful government spending), cutting individual and corporate taxes, reducing government regulations (particularly of business), and increasing military spending. To achieve all of this agenda, Reagan sought to decrease the role of the federal government in the American partnership for social welfare, preferring to rely more on private for-profit and nonprofit institutions. In Reagan’s view, poverty-related programs such as AFDC and Food Stamps should once again become primarily a responsibility of state and local government. Thus, Reagan’s “New Federalism” was really a return to the old role of the U.S. federal government in advancing social welfare.>

The essence of Reagan’s economic recovery plan, known as “supply-side economics,” was that tax cuts for the wealthy would be reinvested in business expansion. Business expansion would create more jobs and consumer goods. More jobs would create the income needed to buy those consumer goods. In short, increased production would create increased demand for the goods produced. This was the premise underlying the “supple-side economics” promise that “supply would create its own demand.”

Liberal critics predicted that the poor and working class would only receive a minimal benefit from the tax cuts and derisively referred to this strategy as “trickle-down economics.” Furthermore, Reagan’s seemingly contradictory proposal to cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the federal budget all at the same time became known, sarcastically, as “Reaganomics.”17 Even Vice President George H.W. Bush criticized Reagan’s policies when he earlier campaigned against Reagan for president. Bush labeled Reagan’s economic policies “Voodoo Economics.”
To the general public, much of Reagan’s political agenda reflected his conservative ideology. This was no doubt true. He believed that responsibility for many health and human services should be placed at the state and local level, much the way it was before the New Deal. He was also a product of the “Red Scare” and the “ Cold War,” therefore, his concern for increased military spending as a defense against communism. Yet, reductions in government spending, business regulation, and taxes were also what business elites claimed were needed in a global economy. International investors in a global economy would be more willing to invest their money in countries with streamlined governments.

As Thomas Friedman explains in his influential book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree:
“In the era of globalization it is the quality of the state i.e., federal
government that matters. You need a smaller state, because you want
the free market to allocate capital, not the slow, bloated government,
but you need a better state, a smarter state and a faster state, with
bureaucrats that can regulate a free market, without either choking
it or letting it get out of control…. One of the most competitive…
advantages that a country can have today is a lean, efficient, honest
civil service.”

With his large victory over Jimmy Carter, Reagan believed that he had a mandate from the people for his political agenda. His administration moved fast during its first term to enact several pieces of legislation to meet this conservative mandate. Part of Reagan’s strategy was to take numerous categorical programs and combine them into relatively few block grants, while at the same time cutting total federal funding for the programs. Thus, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts of 1981 and 1982 reduced or eliminated many “means-tested” programs (i.e., programs in which eligibility is based upon a certain level of income). AFDC, Food Stamps, SSI, unemployment insurance, and low-income housing were cut. Funding for Title XX social services, which became the “Social Services Block Grant,” was capped. In addition, incentive payments in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program were eliminated. The legislation confirmed the belief by liberals that much of what Reagan called “government waste” was, in fact, federal health and human services.

Class Discussion: Political Parties and Government Spending
A major campaign theme for Reagan was big government spending. As the Republican candidate for president, he promised to give the government less money, while letting each taxpayer keep more of their hard-earned income. Once elected, Reagan cut a total of $140 billion from social programs, including the elimination of free school lunches for over one million poor children. At the same time, however, Reagan increased defense spending by $181 billion. Is it true, then, that only Democrats “spend” your tax dollars? Is it closer to the truth to say that both major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, spend tax dollars. The difference lies in their respective spending priorities – that is, the incremental differences in each party’s spending on individual budget items.

A second major piece of legislation passed during Reagan’s first term was the “Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.” This legislation resulted in massive cuts in personal income taxes, particularly for wealthy Americans, while virtually eliminating the corporate tax. Indeed, the legislation represented the largest package of business tax cuts in history. To illustrate, while corporations contributed about a quarter of total government revenue in the 1950s, by 1983, they contributed only 6 percent of government revenue. What is more, one study showed that 128 out of 250 large, profitable U.S. corporations paid nothing in federal income taxes in at least one year from 1981 to 1983. (Even conservatives complained of AFDC as being Aid For Dependent Corporations.)

The Reagan Administration also passed the “Job Training and Partnership Act” during its first term. This program replaced the “CETA” job training program. Its distinction was the establishment of “Private Industry Councils.” These councils awarded contracts to job placement agencies, which received a fee for every person placed in private sector jobs. This emphasis on private, not public sector, employment reflected the more conservative nature of Reagan’s approach to social welfare.

Reagan also supported reform in the Social Security and Medicare programs. More specifically, to address the growing concern about the solvency of Social Security, Reagan taxed some social security benefits of wealthy Americans and returned the money to the Social Security fund. This reform also included a future delay in social security benefits until eligible citizens reached the age of 67. With respect to Medicare reform, the Reagan Administration established national levels of payment for 467 specific diagnostic categories. The purpose of this payment cap was to help control rising health care costs.

Ironically, much of Reagan’s second term was spent correcting the mistakes of his first term. For example, the “Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act” (better known as “Gramm-Rudman” in the media) was enacted in 1985 and mandated across-the-board budget cuts if the federal budget did not meet specified reductions. The act was needed to address the drastic increase in the federal budget deficit created by Reagan’s combination of tax cuts and defense spending increases. Despite his rhetoric about “big government spending” and his campaign pledges to balance the federal budget, in eight years as President, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. Even James Baker, a close adviser to President Reagan, later admitted that their administration had cut taxes more than they had intended. Whereas the Reagan campaign had pledged to cut taxes by $500 billion, once elected, the Reagan Administration enacted a $750 billion tax reduction.

What is more, the 1981 Reagan tax legislation had actually resulted in tax increases for the working poor. By 1984, a family of four had to start paying taxes when its annual income reached $8,700, even though the U.S. government considered such a family “poor” until its income reached $10,600. Consequently, the Reagan Administration passed another major tax reform bill, the Tax Reform Act of 1986. This legislation removed 6 million low-wage earners from federal tax obligations. In addition, to rectify the mistakes of the 1981 tax cuts, the 1986 tax reform increased corporate taxes and closed many “tax loopholes” through which corporations and individuals avoided paying federal taxes. While doing all of this, the legislation still benefited upper-income Americans as well. That is, the 1986 tax legislation reduced tax rates for wealthy Americans to rates comparable to middle-class families.

Congress did pass some legislation related to health and human services in Reagan’s second term. For instance, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was enacted in 1987. This legislation distributed funding for homeless shelters, the rehabilitation of single-room apartments, health care (including mental health care), job training, homeless children’s education, and nutrition. In addition, the Reagan Administration enacted the “Family Support Act of 1988.” This bill was a welfare-to-work program that contributed funding to AFDC mothers for education, training, and child care. Finally, although critics felt he moved too slowly, Reagan increased research and public health funds for AIDS during his second term.

Personal Profile: Ronald Reagan
Born in Tampico, Illinois in 1911 to a father who was an alcoholic shoe salesman and a mother who was a frustrated actress, Reagan worked his way through obscure Eureka College in hopes of being an actor or sports announcer. His mediocre grades gave no indication of a future president of the United States. Yet, Ronald Reagan became a very effective public speaker, earning him the nickname of the “Great Communicator.” He kept his message simple, while weaving into his speeches many anecdotes and self-deprecating humor. He acquired many of these skills in his jobs in radio, television, and movies. One of his heroes and role models was Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, during Roosevelt’s first year as president, Reagan was beginning a job as a part-time sports announcer on radio in Davenport, Iowa. In contrast to the loud and flamboyant public speaking style of traditional politicians in town halls, Reagan mastered a more conversational style of public speaking, one more appropriate for radio and television. Thus, as president in an age of television, audiences loved him. The last Gallup Poll taken during Reagan’s presidency indicated a public approval rating higher than any president leaving office since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The First President Bush: George H.W. Bush
Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, defeated the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, for president in 1988. During his campaign, Bush repeatedly told voters to “stay the course” of the previous eight years under Reagan. And when he became president, that is essentially what Bush did, proposing very little new health and human service legislation for several reasons. He got elected with a campaign pledge of “no new taxes.” At the same time, Bush inherited huge deficits in the federal budget from his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Thus, Bush found it difficult to fund new federal programs. He blamed his inactivity regarding domestic social problems on the Democratically-controlled Congress, claiming Congress was in a state of “gridlock.” Yet, to some observers, Bush seemed disinterested in domestic social issues from the start of his term in office and more preoccupied with foreign policy and world leadership. The Persian Gulf War later made this perception a moot point.
In its single term in office, the Bush Administration did enacted legislation resulting in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, signing the legislation in 1990. This federal grant provided funding to local child care providers for administration, staff training, and direct care. Also in 1990, the Bush Administration passed a major civil rights act, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The legislation opposed discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. The act required employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, including accommodations such as building modifications and the provision of interpreters.

Clinton and Neoliberalism
The conservative shift of the Democratic Party beginning with the Carter Administration became known in the late 1980s and early 1990s as “neoliberalism.” In the late 80s, a group of young, aspiring Democratic politicians, a group that had not grown up during the Great Depression and the New Deal, formed the Democratic Leadership Council. The council included Bill Clinton, who would serve as its chair before running for president, as well as Al Gore, Richard Gephardt, Paul Tsongas, and Bill Bradley. In 1989, the council issued a new political agenda for the Democratic Party, an agenda detailed in “The New Orleans Declaration: A Democratic Agenda for the 1990s.” This agenda de-emphasized the welfare state mentality of the New Deal and Great Society eras. Instead, it aimed for a more moderate mix of compassion and free market economics. With America poised for leadership in the global economy, this new Democratic agenda was more optimistic about the potential for corporate contributions to social welfare, and therefore, more willing to support legislation favorable to the business sector. Not without controversy among traditional liberals, including many social workers, this new Democratic agenda included a continued withdrawal of the federal government in ensuring national social welfare, particularly with respect to the federal funding of health and human services.

In the presidential election of 1992, Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton, defeated George H.W. Bush. Clinton’s subsequent legislative successes reflected his neoliberal philosophy and the more conservative mood of voters around the country. One of the most important and immediate ways that Clinton could support the business sector in the global economy (by attracting international investors) was to cut the huge federal budget deficit. Consequently, Clinton signed the 1993 Omnibus Reconciliation Bill, which in fact, began cutting the federal deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, including increases on wealthy Americans. By 1999, Clinton succeeded in erasing the federal budget deficit.

The Clinton Administration also supported the American business sector’s global expansion efforts through enactment of two international trade agreements, the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as “NAFTA,” in 1993 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994. The basic purpose of NAFTA is to better integrate the economies of the United States, Mexico, and Canada by reducing barriers among the countries to the flow of goods, services, and jobs. It’s the North American piece of the global economy. Similarly, but on a world level, GATT is also intended to open national markets and facilitate international trade. For this reason, the GATT agreement led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization on January 1, 1995.

Furthermore, the Clinton Administration’s major social reform was, again, legislation with perceived benefits for American corporations competing in a global economy. This was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act, passed late in Clinton’s first term. Meant to satisfy anti-welfare sentiment and further reduce federal social welfare spending, the legislation had been a campaign promise of Clinton to “end welfare as we know it.” In so doing, the act ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children as an entitlement and replaced the program with a block grant, called “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” (TANF). Under this new legislation, no individual or family is “entitled” to welfare. Although the law gives states some flexibility in administering federal funds, as a general rule, individuals must participate in work activity within two years of receiving assistance and families are limited to a total of five years assistance in a lifetime.

Other important legislation passed during the Clinton Administration included the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act and the 1994 Crime Bill. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires public and private employers with 50 or more employees to offer family or medical leave for up to 12 weeks. Legitimate reasons for leave under the act include the illness of an employee or family member or maternity-related reasons. Although employers are not required to provide paid leave, the employer is mandated to continue health benefits and offer the same or a comparable job when the employee returns to work. Responding to surveys showing crime to be the leading social problem in the minds of voters, the Crime Bill provided funding to increase the size of police forces, build new prisons, and deliver certain crime-related services (including domestic violence services). Although Clinton failed in his attempt to enact new national health insurance legislation, it should be noted that he achieved a more incremental victory, when he increased federal funding to states in 1997 for children’s health insurance. In addition, legislation was passed in 1996 that prevented private insurance companies from discriminating against mental health coverage.

Social Developments
America’s Shrinking Middle Class

During the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the income gap between the rich and the poor widened, while many people slid from the middle class into the ranks of the working poor. Author, Kevin Phillips, in his 1990 book, “The Politics Of Rich And Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath,” emphasizes the great wealth accumulation of upper-income Americans during the Reagan years. According to Phillips, from 1980 to 1988, the number of millionaires in the United States roughly doubled. What is more, the number of billionaires went from five in 1981 to 52 in 1988 when Reagan left office. The transfer and concentration of income and wealth during this period was on a scale of the post-Civil War “Industrial Revolution” – the so-called “Robber Baron” era of the Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Rockefellers.

According to historian, Howard Zinn, the wealthiest one percent of the U.S. population experienced an 87% increase in after-tax income during the 1980s, while the bottom 80 percent of the population saw little or no change in their after-tax income. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, Donald Bartlett and James Steele, in their book, America: What Went Wrong,? provide further data.42 In the period between 1980 and 1989, the average wage for families in the $0-$20,000 annual income category rose 1.4 percent. In contrast, during the same time span, the average salary of those earning over $1 million annually shot up almost 50 percent.

Part of the cause of this widening income gap was due to the previously described restructuring in the economic sector, the repositioning of American corporations for success in the global market place. This repositioning resulted in an increase in high technology jobs. Concurrently, however, American corporations drastically reduced the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. To illustrate, from 1981 to 1991, 1.8 million manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States. Many of these “losses” were the result of corporate acquisitions, mergers and downsizing (i.e., reductions in the number of employees). Many domestic jobs were moved to foreign countries where labor costs were lower. In any case, millions of Americans lost their jobs, falling out of the middle-class as they took lower paying jobs, often in the service sector. With the passage of the NAFTA, many critics predicted these trends would continue under the Clinton Administration.

Case Study: Victims in a Post-Industrial Era
The transition to a global economy is like other epic events in American history. Some people win and some lose. As with Westward Expansion and the Industrial Revolution, some take advantage of changing institutional structures to become wealthy; other, more vulnerable groups, cling to familiar institutional relations and fall victim to events. Bartlett and Steele offer the cases of Larry Weikel and Belinda Schell, both former blue collar workers at the Diamond Glass Company in Royersford, Pennsylvania. For most of the Twentieth Century, Diamond Glass was a typical industrial era company offering solid middle-class wages and benefits to local community residents. The corporation expected hard work and loyalty from employees; employees expected to retire from the company.

During the 1980s, however, Diamond Glass took advantage of Reagan business tax policies (which allowed corporations to take a tax deduction for corporate debt) to borrow money and acquire other glass companies. Soon Diamond Glass, itself, was acquired by another glass company, which proceeded to “downsize” the number of employees at the company, while expecting more production from the remaining employees. At the same time, the new management refused to invest in new technology and modern equipment. The strategy of the new owners appeared to be to squeeze as much profit as possible out of the plant in the short term and then shut it down, perhaps building a modern plant in a low-wage foreign country. In any case, all of the employees of the Diamond Glass plant lost their jobs, including Larry Weikel and Belinda Schell. In an interview, Weikel, who was years old at the time he lost his job, described his predicament: ” That’s all I ever did in my life, work in a glass plant. I went to work there when I came out of the service and, you know, I really never learned anything because all I did was make bottles.

Schell at the time of the layoff was 33 years of age, married with three children. Although she earned $10 an hour at Diamond Glass, she was forced to take a job as a nursing home aid, paying “considerably less.” Her husband also lost his manufacturing job and had to accept a lower-paying job. Like the Schells, millions of Americans, both blue collar and eventually white collar workers, were compelled to take lesser-paying jobs after becoming a casualty of corporate “reengineering” and the transition to a global economy.

Did You Know?
Part of the transition to a global economy involved the “reengineering” of American corporations. Michael Hammer and James Champy published a best-selling book on the subject in 1993. Essentially, “reengineering the corporation” involves the use of new computer and information technologies to redesign corporate work processes and employee structures. Of interest to social workers is the fact that a major characteristic of reengineering is combining several jobs into one, thereby lowering corporate personnel costs, but adding to the problems of unemployment and poverty in America.

Promotion of Charitable Giving and Volunteerism
As the administrations of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton supported the devolution of federal responsibility for health and human services to the states, at the same time, each encouraged increases in volunteerism and charitable giving to address unmet social welfare needs. In fact, beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 70s and 80s, the federal government took an active role in establishing several national volunteer programs. These included Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Foster Grandparents, and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. The Bush Administration continued this policy emphasis with its “Thousand Points of Light” program as did the Clinton Administration with “AmeriCorps.” In addition, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her role as the First Lady, organized the first White House Conference on Philanthropy in October of 1999. Given the healthy American economy, Americans did increase their charitable giving during the 1980s and 90s. Including donations from individuals, bequests, foundations, and corporations, total charitable giving as a percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from about 1.8 percent in 1980 to about 2.1 percent in 1999. In terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, total charitable giving in the U.S. grew from just over $120 billion in 1988 to $190 billion in 1999.

Did You Know?
By his mid-forties, Bill Gates, the computer software pioneer, had already given more money to charity than did Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in their entire lifetimes. Adjusted for inflation, the total value of Carnegie’s philanthropy in the year 2000 was about $3 billion, while Rockefeller’s was roughly $6 billion. At the time, Gates had given away $17 billion.

Corporate Strategic Philanthropy
With respect to corporate giving, a significant increase in the number of private nonprofit organizations during the 1960s and 70s created increased competition for corporate philanthropy. Many of these nonprofits were social advocacy groups, reflecting the increased concern for social reform during the 60s and early 70s. Cutbacks in federal discretionary spending during the 80s and 90s further increased competition for corporate donations. Corporations were not prepared to process the ever growing requests for support. With limited contributions budgets and facing increased competition in the global economy, American corporations looked for a way to get “more bang for their charitable buck.” One solution was “corporate strategic philanthropy.” Strategic philanthropy is the integration of contributions management into the overall strategic planning of the corporation. That is, “to do well by doing good,” corporations began to target charitable contributions to serve their business interests while also meeting the needs of recipient organizations. Corporations achieved this by directing their donations to stakeholders and social issues that were important to the success of the company. When a publishing company makes a donation to a literacy program, both the literacy program, and eventually, the company benefit. That is corporate strategic philanthropy.

Examples of major American corporations practicing strategic philanthropy in the 1990s were McGraw-Hill, Dupont, IBM, Exxon, Digital Equipment, and Enron. McGraw-Hill, the publishing company, focused its donations on literacy. Dupont, IBM, and Exxon were among the leading corporate donors to Harvard University. In return for their charitable contributions, these companies, no doubt, expected to receive research and highly trained personnel to benefit the company. Furthermore, Digital Equipment Corporation, given increases in its foreign revenues, began targeting a greater percentage of its donations to international groups – a trend that may accelerate as American corporations become increasingly global.

What is more, in another illustration of strategic philanthropy, American corporations began establishing local “public-private partnerships” with public entities to address social problems of mutual concern. The most prominent efforts were the public-private partnerships in education. These partnerships included adopt-a-school projects, work experience programs, mentor programs, and the Boston Compact, which guaranteed jobs in exchange for public school improvements. In an increasingly high-tech economy, such efforts addressed the growing concern of the business sector regarding quality public education in America. Partnerships such as these, as well as corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility in general, are expected to become ever more important in a global economy. Glenn Prickett, vice president for corporate partnerships at Conservation International states, “There is no hiding place anymore for bad corporate behavior in a world of globally interconnected activism…. Customers, regulators and shareholders everywhere can now reward or punish companies for what they do in faraway places. For those who behave well, they can open doors and for those who behave badly they can close them.”

And Charles O. Holliday, chairman of DuPont Corporation, warns, “With the Internet and all, now it’s like you have six billion neighbors that you have to satisfy….You can get government approval for lots of things, but now it’s a question of whether you can build wider public coalitions.

Critical Analysis: Private Philanthropy verses Public Funding
The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations, as a matter of social policy, encouraged increased volunteerism and charitable giving to offset cuts in federal discretionary spending on various programs. Philanthropy has been defined as “voluntary action for the public good.” Can “voluntary action” in the form of volunteering and charitable donations ever fully replace significant pieces of New Deal or Great Society programs? Does philanthropy have to be coerced through, for example, taxation? In terms of social policy, how do policymakers control how much money is donated to health and human services verses education or the arts?

Developments in Social Work
Reflective of the conservative trend in American society during the late 70s through the 90s, the profession of social work returned to a casework emphasis – specifically, clinical social work (i.e., casework with a strong psychotherapy orientation).57 Accordingly, the National Federation of Societies for Clinical Social Work was established in 1971. This period in social work history also witnessed a trend toward private practice. This was, in part, the result of the profession’s successful lobbying for private insurance reimbursement as well as Medicare reimbursement. Schools of social work experienced healthy enrollments of students wanting concentrations in casework, while students focusing on macro-level practice, including administration and community organization, decreased. In addition, the profession and its educational programs began to focus more on life span adjustments (particularly of the middle class), family therapy, and group work.

With the growth of managed health care in the 1990s, the broadness and flexibility of the social work profession allowed it to redefine its role in an increasingly cost-controlled health care system. Social workers began to emphasize existing roles and explore new roles in areas such as care management (including the appropriate use of services), community outreach and support, integrated care (ensuring continuity of service), ethical care (as advocates within and outside the health care system), brief psychotherapy, and prevention (including community organization roles in advocating for healthy community environments).

Furthermore, as the 1990s came to a close, social workers could be found working for corporations in Employee Assistance Programs, community relations departments, and charitable contributions programs. It is likely that the knowledge, skills, and values of social workers in areas such as race, cultural, oppression, diversity, and self-determination will be even more attractive in the future to corporations doing business in nations around the world.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Marx, J.D. (2011). The conservative transition in American social policy. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

0 Replies to “Conservative Transition in American Social Policy”

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.