In This Article History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1980-2014

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Selected Internet Websites
  • Journals
  • Histories of the Social Work Profession, 1980–Present
  • Books on Social Welfare Policy with Historical Content
  • Racial Inequality and Social Policy
  • Children’s Issues and Child Welfare Policy

Social Work History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1980-2014
Michael Reisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0223


The US social welfare system has undergone a major transformation since 1980. Economic globalization and technological developments have fundamentally altered the nation’s political economy, the nature of work, and the economic prospects of millions of Americans. The US political system has become increasingly polarized on ideological grounds, and the electoral process has changed as a consequence of the influence of money on politics. Demographic and cultural shifts—particularly the aging of the population, the growth proportion of racial and ethnic minorities in the US population (especially in urban areas), the expansion of women’s and LGBT rights, and the increase in the number of children born outside marriage—have created new social problems. As distrust of government has become more widespread, market-oriented ideas and values have permeated the culture of nonprofit and public-sector organizations. New unprecedented issues also emerged during this period, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crack cocaine, pervasive and chronic homelessness, terrorism, and the effects of climate change. The focus of social welfare policy shifted from the expansion of legal entitlements to concerns over fiscal responsibility and from the protection of vulnerable populations to an emphasis on work over welfare. The consequences of the early-21st-century Great Recession exacerbated long-standing political and social conflicts and created new sources of tension in US society, particularly over the future of domestic policy. The sources listed in this article address this wide range of interconnected issues from a variety of disciplinary and ideological perspectives.

General Overviews

Most general histories of US social welfare and social work focus on developments since the 19th century. Material on the post-1980 period, therefore, is often presented within this more expansive temporal context. Events during the post-1980 era are frequently contrasted with the broader trends in the evolution of social welfare and the profession of social work. Books that reflect these themes include Day and Schiele 2013, Katz 1996, Patterson 2000, Stern and Axinn 2012, and Trattner 2007. Several books focus specifically on the changes produced by the policies introduced by specific presidential administrations since the early 1980s. These include Piven 2004, Piven and Cloward 1997, Piven and Cloward 1982, and Stoesz 1996. Finally, Bailey and Danziger 2013 examines the early-21st-century impact of policies that emerged during the War on Poverty of the 1960s.

  • Bailey, M. J., and S. H. Danziger, eds. 2013. Legacies of the War on Poverty. National Poverty Center Series on Poverty and Public Policy. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    E-mail Citation »

    These essays by experts from the fields of economics, political science, and public policy examine the long-term impact of the War on Poverty, with a particular emphasis on three areas: (1) increasing human capital, employment, and earnings, (2) raising incomes and living standards, and (3) improving access to medical care and health. The book counteracts many of the myths that often characterize portrayals of the War on Poverty.

  • Day, P. J., and J. H. Schiele. 2013. A new history of social welfare. 7th ed. Connecting Core Competencies. Boston: Pearson Education.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book traces the evolution of social welfare from its earliest origins in Africa to recent developments in the 21st century. It devotes approximately one-third of its chapters to the post-1980 period, which it characterizes as “The Return to the Past.” The book emphasizes the role of values and ideology and focuses on the impact of social welfare on racial/ethnic minority groups, women, and the LGBT population.

  • Katz, M. B. 1996. In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    This revised edition of a classic history of welfare in America was updated in the aftermath of welfare reform. The book places this issue in its historical context, examining the origins of public and private social welfare, from the days of the colonial poorhouse to the present. It concludes with an analysis of how the War on Poverty of the 1960s became the war on welfare of the 1980s.

  • Patterson, J. 2000. America’s struggle against poverty in the twentieth century. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The revised edition includes content on the debates over poverty and welfare that occurred during the 1990s, a period of extraordinary economic growth. Patterson examines the contradictions of persistent poverty and growing inequality during a period of unprecedented prosperity. He places the debate over the 1996 welfare reform legislation within the broader context of the retreat from New Deal liberalism and the political climate of the Bill Clinton era.

  • Piven, F. F. 2004. The war at home: The domestic costs of Bush’s militarism. New York: New Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book examines the effects of the War on Terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on domestic social policies during the George W. Bush administration. It demonstrates how the enormous costs of these military adventures prevented the United States from taking sustained action against persistent social problems, such as an increase in long-term and intensive poverty, growing income inequality, inadequate public education, and lack of access to affordable health care.

  • Piven, F. F., and R. A. Cloward. 1982. The new class war: Reagan’s attack on the welfare state and its consequences. New York: Pantheon.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book is a concise analysis of the immediate impact of the massive changes in social welfare policy introduced by the Reagan administration in 1981. These changes shifted government spending from domestic purposes to the military, and tax burdens from the wealthy to middle- and lower-income Americans. The authors discuss the extent of these changes, and predict what their future consequences are likely to be (predictions that proved remarkably accurate).

  • Piven, F. F., and R. A. Cloward. 1997. The breaking of the American social compact. New York: New Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book argues that social welfare policies since the early 1980s have destroyed the long-standing consensus on government’s role in addressing Americans’ economic and social problems. The authors argue that the welfare reform legislation of 1996 culminated a two-decade-long attack on the policies of the New Deal and the War on Poverty and a fracturing of the social contract that enabled millions of Americans to improve their lives and well-being.

  • Stern, M. J., and J. Axinn. 2012. Social welfare: A history of the American response to need. 8th ed. Connecting Core Competencies. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors place the developments of the post-1980 era in the context of US social welfare from colonial times to the present. They devote several chapters to the impact of the Reagan-Bush era, the significance of welfare reform in the 1990s, and US social welfare during the 21st century. These chapters illustrate how policies enacted since the late 20th century reflect continuity or change from historical patterns.

  • Stoesz, D. 1996. Small change: Domestic policy under the Clinton presidency. White Plains, NY: Longman.

    E-mail Citation »

    This tightly written book, published during the height of the debate over welfare reform, emphasizes how changes in the political-economic climate of the United States limit the scope and narrow the goals of US social welfare. The author astutely analyzes the “small-bore” policy efforts of President Clinton’s first term and the failure of his attempt to implement a reform of the nation’s health-care system.

  • Trattner, W. I. 2007. From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America. 6th ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    E-mail Citation »

    Trattner provides an in-depth examination of developments in child welfare and public health, and the evolution of social work as a profession, showing how all these changes affected the treatment of the poor and needy in America. He explores the impact of public policies on social workers and other helping professions—all against the backdrop of social and intellectual trends in American history.

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