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Social policy interventions include policies affecting the social conditions under which people live. Social policy aims to improve human welfare and to meet human needs. Many policies that are ostensibly economic, such as cash assistance to the poor, fall under the rubric of social policy interventions because they have a direct impact on the social conditions under which people live and are aimed at improving human welfare and meeting human needs. Social policies may also regulate and govern human behavior in such areas as sexuality and morality. Policies that involve access to abortion or laws governing marriage and divorce therefore fall within the sphere of social policy interventions.
Between the 1880s and the 1920s, many European countries instituted pension and social insurance programs for industrial workers and needy individuals. These programs became comprehensive social welfare systems in the 1950s to 1960s. Early U.S. social policy involved the most inclusive system of public education in the industrializing world, as well as generous benefits to elderly veterans and their families. The United States also instituted social benefits for women and their children. The Social Security Act of 1935 created a basic framework for U.S. social policy interventions that is still in place today. In the 1960s, in conjunction with the war on poverty, major new programs of public assistance were established in the United States.
Among comparably developed countries, the United States has the highest level of economic inequality and the lowest level of cash assistance to the poor. With noncash assistance added, the United States falls in the middle. Cash benefits require trust that recipients will spend the extra income on expenditures the public deems worthy. Noncash public assistance programs pay directly for those expenditures deemed worthy, such as food in the case of the Food Stamp Program or health care in the case of Medicaid.
Examples of Social Policy Interventions
A broad set of public assistance or antipoverty programs exists in the United States; these programs constitute a fundamental social policy intervention. The four largest components of U.S. public assistance include: the Food Stamp Program; Medicaid; Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replaced in 1996 with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant; and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
The Food Stamp Program is a nationally provided program. It is the only public assistance program available to all poor people, whether or not they have children. The Food Stamp Program is the first line of defense against hunger in the United States. Food stamp recipients spend their benefits to buy eligible food in authorized retail stores. As family income increases, food stamp benefits decline. Therefore, recipients who live in states that provide less in the way of cash assistance to the poor receive more in food stamps.
Medicaid, established in 1965, pays for health-care costs among eligible low-income groups. The program is run by the states, with certain mandates from the federal government. Like all health-care costs, Medicaid costs have substantially increased over the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. This is mostly due to increased costs for longterm care among the elderly and disabled, as well as the fact that the benefits expanded in the 1980s to include all poor children. Medicaid is the most costly of U.S. public assistance programs.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare, provides cash assistance to poor families with children. An individual receives the highest level of assistance from AFDC when she or he has the least income; in fact, for every extra dollar in income the recipient earns, a dollar is lost in benefits. In many cases, the economic reality of AFDC recipients’ lives means that neither welfare nor low-wage work gives them enough income to meet their families’ expenses. Moreover, inflation has steadily eroded the real value of AFDC benefits over the years. AFDC is a controversial social policy intervention, primarily due to changing views regarding the primary recipient population—single mothers. In 1996 Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which implemented fundamental changes in the design and funding of public assistance programs in the United States, particularly AFDC. AFDC was abolished and replaced with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. States were expected to replace their AFDC programs with new programs of their own; federal mandates include work requirements for recipients and limited time periods for benefits.
The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is another large and growing public assistance program. EITC is a refundable tax credit that reduces or eliminates the taxes that low-income working people pay. The program frequently operates as a wage subsidy for lowincome workers. People who work, earn low wages, and have children are eligible to receive EITC. In contrast to AFDC, since EITC pays nothing for people who are not working, it provides an incentive to work, assuming that recipients understand how EITC operates. The rationale underlying this intervention is that employment alone is insufficient to bring people out of poverty. By the early 2000s, EITC had become one of the largest antipoverty tools in the United States.
Another example of an important, albeit controversial, social policy intervention is affirmative action. Affirmative action is a policy or program whose stated goal is to redress past or present discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity, generally to higher education and employment. The stated goal of affirmative action is to counteract discrimination sufficiently such that the power elite reflect the demographics of society at large, at which point such a strategy will no longer be necessary. Groups who are targeted for affirmative action are characterized by race, gender, ethnicity, or disability status.
Proponents of affirmative action generally advocate it either as a means to address past discrimination or to enhance racial, ethnic, gender, or other diversity. Proponents argue that the simple adoption of meritocratic principles of race blindness or gender blindness will not suffice to change the situation for several reasons: (1) Discriminatory practices of the past preclude the acquisition of “merit” by limiting access to educational opportunities and job experiences; (2) ostensible measures of “merit” may be biased toward the same groups who are already empowered; and (3) regardless of overt principles, people already in positions of power are likely to hire people they already know or people from similar backgrounds. Opponents claim that affirmative action: (1) acts as a new form of discrimination and benefits privileged individuals within minority racial groups (such as middle- to upperclass blacks) at the expense of disenfranchised individuals within majority racial groups (such as poor whites); (2) increases racial tension and creates a stigma such that all minority groups within a college or employment setting are perceived as having received special treatment; and (3) creates a skill “mismatch” (i.e., individuals who are less qualified than their peers are admitted into more rigorous programs in which they cannot adequately perform).
Evaluation of the Effects of Social Policy Interventions
A central issue in the evaluation of social policy interventions is how the outcome of interest is defined. Many Americans contend that because high poverty rates continue to exist in the United States, antipoverty programs must be ineffective. However, many public assistance programs have accomplished exactly what they were intended to accomplish. Most of the antipoverty programs were not designed to eliminate poverty, but to provide assistance to needy families. For example, the Food Stamp Program has improved nutrition among the poor, and Medicaid has increased access to medical care and contributed to improvements in the health of the poor. The combined impact of these programs has also improved the health of pregnant women and reduced low birth weights among infants born to low-income mothers.
Studies have found that while cash assistance for the poor does not do much to decrease the overall poverty rate in the United States, such assistance provides more cash income to families than they would have otherwise, making them less poor. In the absence of welfare benefits, individuals work more on average, but do not earn as much money as they would receive or did receive from welfare. Moreover, earnings of less-educated U.S. workers have stagnated or fallen since about the 1970s, such that employment is not necessarily effective in combating poverty.
Affirmative action is another example of a controversial social policy that provokes intense debate regarding its effects. The evidence suggests that affirmative action has had a major impact on the representation of minorities in university admissions and employment, even if the overall numbers of redistributed positions is small. Replacement of affirmative action programs based on race and gender with class-based practices is likely to reduce the presence of minorities on college campuses while doing little to improve the overall position of white males. There is some evidence that the performance of students admitted to colleges and universities with the aid of affirmative action lags behind that of students admitted without such aid. However, there may be an overall benefit to more diversity on campuses. Moreover, minority students benefit greatly in the labor market from having attended college. Nevertheless, affirmative action programs remain under intense challenge.
Serious evaluation of any social policy intervention requires some sort of comparison group. A comparison group provides a means of evaluating the counterfactual, that is, what would have happened to program recipients in the absence of participation in the program. A randomized experiment where one group is assigned to receive the benefits of a program while another group receives no such benefits is typically considered the best way to deduce causation. However, most programs, particularly nationwide entitlement programs, provide limited opportunities for randomized experiments.
- Black, Rebecca. 1997. It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Freeman, Richard. 1997. When Earnings Diverge: Causes, Consequences, and Cures for the New Inequality in the U.S. Washington, DC: National Policy Association.
- Holzer, Harry J., and David Neumark. 2006. Affirmative Action: What Do We Know? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 25 (2): 463–490.
- Neckerman, Kathryn, ed. 2004. Social Inequality. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Skocpol, Theda. 1995. Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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