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What is Social Welfare History?

What is Social Welfare History?

by John E. Hansan, Ph. D.

October 23, 2017

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The term “social welfare” does not have a precise definition. Currently, social welfare refers to a wide range of activities and services by volunteers, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies. Social welfare encompasses help provided to persons in need; activities and resources to enhance or promote the well-being of individuals, families and the larger society; and broad efforts to eliminate or reduce the incidence of social problems.

The history of social welfare is an interdisciplinary study of the evolution of charitable works, organized activities related to social reform movements and non-profit or public social services designed to protect or benefit individuals, families and citizens of the larger society. Charitable efforts have often grown out of religious beliefs — beliefs that inspired reformers to deep compassion, firm ethical convictions, and a strong sense of justice. The reformers’ faith backgrounds were the foundation of movements such as abolition, temperance, and the establishment of settlement houses. And from the nation’s earliest days, religious groups and individuals have provided significant labor and financial support for social reform and humanitarian aid.

A major first step in creating organized social welfare programs was enactment of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 by the Parliament of England. It authorized government provision for the poor residing in local parishes and established a system of obligatory financing outside the church.

The principles and policies of English Poor Laws were carried by the settlers of the American colonies in the early years; however, the impact of the Revolutionary War, large scale immigration, rapid industrialization and widespread urbanization increased the incidence of poverty and raised the costs of taxes required for poor relief. To cut the costs of poor relief, new laws were enacted so no able-bodied person between the ages of 18 and 50 would be given public assistance; and the young, old and disabled residents unable to care for themselves were placed in public or religious institutions.

Very shortly, circumstances demanded more public attention to preventing poverty and other social ills and finding ways to help those in need to become more independent and self-sufficient. Contributing to this was the embarrassing reports published about the conditions of institutional care and a number of significant developments such as a large influx of immigrants, rapid industrial and urban growth, low wages, slum housing, diseases, and child labor. These conditions developed greater public health efforts, a mental health movement, the settlement house movement and other programs.

For example, between 1800 and 1860, six million immigrants came to the U.S., composed mainly of very poor German and Irish Catholics. These foreigners were not welcomed into the Protestant ethical society of America, nor did they receive help from existing private or sectarian charities. Eventually, these new American citizens would adapt and create their own social service and charitable organizations similar to what the Jewish and Protestant communities provided their members.

A final step in the evolution of modern social welfare history was determined by the impact of the Great Depression, the New Deal, enactment of the Social Security Act and the domestic programs known as the Great Society. The consequences of the Great Depression motivated President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to enact the New Deal policies designed to provide a very large number of unemployed workers with paying jobs. These initiatives were the impetus for creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), the National Youth Administration (N.Y.A.), the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) and Public Works Administration (P.W.A.). Federal work relief programs were looked upon favorably by most Americans because they made public assistance something earned rather than granted.

On August 15, 1935, enactment of the Social Security Act established a national system of old-age insurance for retired workers, benefits for victims of industrial accidents, unemployment insurance, aid for dependent mothers and children, the blind and the physically handicapped. The Great Society was a set of domestic programs launched during the term of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964–65. The main goal was the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. During this period, new major spending programs were launched that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty and transportation.

Social welfare history describes the changes in helping activities and services initiated in the United States to combat a variety of social ills of complex origins. While poverty and public assistance play large roles in this narrative, they are not the entire story.  Social welfare history reflects the lives of people living, being educated, working and voting in the nation. The efforts of individuals, religious groups, non-profit organizations and governments recounted in this history have strengthened the fabric of American society and improved the quality of life for many who live within our borders.


How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2017). What is social welfare history? Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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