What is Social Welfare? - Definition & Services

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  • 0:05 Social Welfare
  • 1:02 Distributive and…
  • 2:20 AFDC & TANF
  • 3:59 Social Security
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we will discuss social welfare policies that are implemented in the United States to provide support to individuals in need. We will contrast distributive and redistributive policies, using the examples of welfare and Social Security.

Social Welfare

The United States has many different policies and programs to address the needs of those who struggle with poverty. We call programs designed to reduce poverty social welfare. Unlike other countries, which organize these policies into a national network of programs, our policies have been criticized for being disorganized and difficult to access. The requirements for each program vary from state to state, including differing minimum income thresholds, work or education requirements, and minimum eligibility ages.

Some kinds of social welfare include: cash assistance for the elderly and disabled, free or reduced cost school lunches, help with a home loan, and provision of physical goods like groceries, medical devices, and health insurance. What types of social welfare policies are you familiar with? In this lesson, we learn how to categorize social welfare policies and discuss two examples in the United States: welfare and Social Security.

Distributive and Redistributive

We can classify social welfare policies by their intended recipients (those who will benefit from the policy) and by those who must pay for it. Generally, policies are either designed to be distributive or redistributive.

A distributive policy is one where everyone must pay out of their own pocket, usually though taxes. It is money spent on programs that benefit everyone equally. For example, you pay sales tax every time you purchase something. This money goes back to the state where you bought it, and that state can use the money to pay for necessary projects. Some of it may be spent on road improvements, some to pay salaries of county sheriffs, and so on. These policies are less controversial, because the benefits are visible and accessible by everyone.

A redistributive policy is one where money is taken from one group and given to another, usually from wealthier individuals in the form of higher taxes, to subsidize social welfare programs that benefit those in need. To qualify for access to a redistributive policy, a person must provide proof of need, usually by submitting bank account records or medical bills demonstrating why they need help from the state or federal government. Most social welfare programs are inherently redistributive. Let's consider a few examples to help explain these policies in more detail.


In 1935, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was passed. This was the first nation-wide social welfare program to provide cash assistance to families. Any family could apply if their children had lost one parent to death or divorce, or if one of the parents was disabled or unemployed. It was designed to provide a safety net to reduce the suffering of these children as a result of their family's poverty. Each state administered the program as it best saw fit, setting income limit restrictions, determining the amount of cash assistance to distribute, and administering the program. States funded the programs with unlimited matched funds from the federal government, such that for every dollar spent on the state for AFDC, the federal government matched it.

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