International Perspectives on Welfare to Work Policy
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However our discussions highlighted two main areas where a social work agenda could, and should, be further developed: 1 the identification of public policy themes that would benefit from increased social work involvement with respect to policy development, and 2 the role of practice in policy implementation. While this has always been one of the objectives of social and economic policy, the current focus on paid work as the most important and central policy goal appears to represent a paradigmatic change in the nature of the social welfare systems in these as well as other, countries.
These shifts represent profound changes in the nature, meaning and activities of the welfare state in the 21st century.
Social and Public Policy
However, there are also significant cross-national differences in what welfare-to-work means in practice. At least three key differences can be noted for these countries. First, there are differences in the way that the target groups are defined. In the USA, it is single mothers lone parents who are the key target group. In the other countries, the focus is more on long-term unemployed people or on unemployed youth, and lone mothers are usually included in welfare-to-work policies but are not the most important target group.
Secondly, there are differences in the extent to which compulsion is embedded in these policies.
Again the USA is different, with a mandatory system in which work has indeed replaced welfare for most potential recipients, such that some engagement with work is a condition of welfare receipt and sanctions are applied to those who do not comply. In the other countries the extent of compulsion varies for different groups of people; generally, the highest degree of compulsion is applied to those who are unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed and other groups — such as disabled people, lone mothers, etc.
These differences reflect the importance of path dependency in structuring the ways in which reforms are developed and implemented. Path dependency in the development of social policies refers not only to the goals and aspirations of policy makers but also to the previous history of social policy, the nature of institutional structures used to implement social policy, and the cultural and political values of the larger society.
In essence, national identities shape policy options and choices and even radical reform is a reform of what is already in existence. As a result, welfare provisions reflect the values of the society in which they are developed and cross-national comparisons demonstrate how social policies are defined differently in different countries. On the other hand, our small world is in many ways getting smaller and these case studies also reflect the importance of policy transfer whereby ideas are transplanted from one country to another.
This is true with respect to the ideological basis of these policies as well as the specific provisions being introduced. Research and evaluation have also been an important influence, especially for government policy leaders eager to learn from the experiences of others. However, the lessons learned by others are fraught with dangers when seeking local or country-specific application; for example, the evidence may be less than robust, the wrong conclusions may be drawn, and the importance of context underestimated.
Again there were substantial differences across the countries. In Australia social workers have been involved in the delivery of income maintenance programs for some years, taking an advocacy role, working in community development and working with staff to improve delivery.
In Hong Kong social workers have become increasingly involved in welfare-to-work programs, partly as an opportunity to engage in welfare reform debates and poverty-related work.
In the USA and the UK, by contrast, there is very little direct involvement by university-educated social workers in these programs and services are often provided by career civil servants with little or no social work education. In making links to the wider policy context, it is clear that labor market and wage policies are very important.
In the US, in particular, there is very little recognition of links between child welfare, poverty and income support systems. The UK, however, is implementing welfare-to-work in the context of a specific national anti-poverty policy goal that is expressed in terms of the elimination of child poverty. And finally, it is important to assess the extent to which welfare-to-work policy developments are in tune with public opinion.
Many people without paid work want to work and often welcome the help that they can receive under these programs. However, the extent of public support for employment obligations and the compulsion to enforce them varies across countries and among different groups of people in need youth vs. In particular there are very different views about the right balance between child rearing care work inside the home and paid work outside the home, especially in relationship to lone mothers.
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Obligations for single mothers to work full time, as in USA, are likely to place immense pressure on their capacity to also provide care for their children, even if public childcare were substantially expanded. In these approaches, welfare rights are viewed as collective rights for the benefit of society as a whole and not simply as individual entitlements. Practice Perspectives It is well-known that the professional backgrounds of persons in senior policy positions in government can have a significant impact on the multiple administrative guidelines generated to implement public policy.
A similar pattern can now be seen in Australia with respect to implementing welfare-to-work programs that are guided by senior social workers in the national government. However, today it appears that the reforms in national welfare-to- work programs in the US and UK are being implemented by senior policy officials with backgrounds in economics and political science and little experience in delivering services to poor people. Until more social workers are educated and advance their careers into senior positions in welfare-to-work programs, this situation is not likely to change.
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At a time when many governments in the industrial world are reducing social expenditures and privatizing social programs, International Perspectives on Welfare to Work Policy encourages the social work profession to be more actively involved in lobbying for social and economic policies that promote social investments, maximize opportunities, foster productive employment, ensure a decent standard of living, and make it easier for everyone to be involved in the economic, political, cultural, and social lives of their communities.
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