Organized educational, cultural, medical, and financial assistance to those in need. Measures of assistance include care of destitute adults; treatment of the mentally ill; rehabilitation of criminals; care and relief of the sick, the handicapped, the young, and needy families; and educational activity for children. Access to such programs is considered a basic or inalienable right of those in need. Nations that provide social welfare programs are known as welfare states.
In the 16th century, the English poor laws made local authorities responsible for the collection of voluntary contributions to employ paupers on the one hand and provide direct relief to needy citizens on the other. The poor laws demonstrated a progression from private charity to a welfare state whereby the care and supervision of the poor were embodied in law. The laws further helped the destitute by guaranteeing a minimum level of subsistence. Relatives were simultaneously expected to assume responsibility for their poorer kin.
In 1883, the first modern social welfare system was implemented by the German government. This system supplied assistance to a wider range of groups than just the poor. Assistance included health insurance for workers, accident insurance, and retirement pensions. By the 1930s, most industrialized nations had some type of social welfare program.
In America, the colonists brought the English poor laws with them. In the earliest colonial times, there was recognition of an obligation to aid the needy, through almshouses and workhouses, when other efforts were deemed insufficient. Unlike the German system, the American social welfare programs that evolved were implemented in response to specific problems rather than resulting from a national agenda. Perhaps the most comprehensive and far-reaching social welfare program was that proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, the New Deal was implemented to provide relief to the unemployed and lift the United States out of the Great Depression. Most social welfare programs since the Depression have built on or subtracted from Roosevelt's programs. For more information, see Trattner (1979) and Gormley.
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