Social Welfare Policy for a Sustainable Future


Katherine S. van Wormer & Rosemary J. Link

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    Vision of the Text

    Sustainability is an inspiring concept. It conjures up all sorts of images and even a color, which would have to be green—the color of nature, fresh and bountiful. As a season, it would be spring. When applied to social work, we have green social work, a new term introduced in the title of a recent environmentally based book by Lena Dominelli (2012).

    Appropriately, therefore, the publishers of this book have chosen for its cover a globe tinged in various shades—from chartreuse and emerald to a deep forest green.

    Young people everywhere have a burgeoning interest in sustainability. Today, colleges and universities across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are at the forefront of the green movement. An environmental sustainability focus is seen in university building design, the sponsorship of interdisciplinary ecological research, the introduction of energy-saving initiatives, expanded curricular offerings to promote ecological awareness, and the training of a new generation of environmental leaders.

    Sustainability is a highly versatile concept. Not only does it relate to the preservation of natural resources for future generations, but it also refers to policies necessary to meet the needs of the people at the present time. When applied to the social welfare system, the notion of sustainability links the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of human existence and leads us toward social justice considerations. As the profession that aims to enhance people’s well-being and work toward social equality, social work has a vital role to play in the promotion of environmental rights and economic justice.

    In common with other social work textbooks on social policy, our aim is to describe contemporary U.S. social welfare policies that impact social work practice and to analyze the success of such policies in meeting the needs of all the people. Following the basic values and ethics of social work, we consider areas in need of substantive change and strategies for effecting such change. A second, but not secondary, purpose in writing this text is to do something that no other book does at present—to examine U.S. social policy within the context of sustainability. Toward this end, we will show how caring for people is inextricably linked to caring for our natural habitat, and we will explore ways in which social welfare provisions maintain human life and livelihood. As we examine the delivery of health and mental health care services, we will remind ourselves to ask “To what extent are current policies sustainable or unsustainable?”

    To get at the answers, a global perspective is essential. In this way, solutions that seem impractical or even impossible can be shown to be doable and cost-effective. An experiment in one part of the world can thus be emulated elsewhere if it works or rejected if turns out to be a failure. Never before has information concerning social and scientific discoveries traveled so fast, and never before have so many nations relied on communication of their findings through a common language—English—with instant translation possible across multiple languages through universally available computer programs.

    Nations are interlinked today not only by means of instant communication but also by an ever-increasing flow of goods and investments. Virtually no part of the world today is immune from transnational economic forces, and international corporations along with the world banks often determine not only monetary policies in a given country but the shape of social welfare policies as well. Investment in capitalist enterprises is generally favored over investment in the people. International forces, in short, need to be understood as a part of our critical analysis of social welfare policies and in our shaping of proposals for change.

    Consistent with a global perspective, our analysis of social policy is informed by an awareness that such policy is not shaped in a vacuum but reflects a nation’s cultural ethos. A comparative approach helps explain why an approach that is feasible and productive in one country may not even be considered elsewhere. Still, cultural beliefs change over time, so a historical view can provide us with hope that intransigent attitudes may not be so intransigent after all.

    A basic assumption of this book is that the first step toward impacting social policy is to learn the forces that sustain them and the barriers that have to be overcome to successfully advocate for change. Three key factors—cultural ideologies, economics, and political constraints—are viewed as integral to shaping and maintaining particular social welfare provisions. To provide some basic understanding of how the system works is an underlying goal of writing this text.

    To achieve this mission, Social Welfare Policy for a Sustainable Future is divided into two major sections. Part I explores social policies within a theoretical and historical context. The U.S. social welfare system is discussed in terms of its structure and function. Chapters on environmental sustainability, social and economic globalization, poverty and inequality, and issues related to minority groups are included in this section.

    Part II looks at the specific policies themselves, policies that are designed to meet human needs and/or for social control, such as child welfare policy, health care offerings, mental health policy, and care for older adults. Separate chapters are devoted to human rights and policy analysis and practice. Information on the social work profession and roles for social workers is infused throughout all the chapters.

    Consistency With Council on Social Work Education Requirements

    Given its international focus, this book helps fulfill the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requirement for students to achieve a global awareness in their studies. The countries chosen for a close focus are countries in which the authors have lived and worked: These are the United Kingdom and Norway. Boxed readings from writers on South Korea, Nicaragua, Zambia, and Ghana provide detailed information on those countries as well. The following statement is included in the 2015 CSWE Educational and Policy Accreditation Standards (2015) for undergraduate and graduate programming:

    The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being. Guided by a person-in-environment framework, a global perspective, respect for human diversity, and knowledge based on scientific inquiry, the purpose of social work is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons, locally and globally. (p. 1)

    Social Welfare Policy for a Sustainable Future aids social work departments in meeting these goals by providing the policy analysis and international content in one source. Previously, a supplemental text would have to be used if such content was to be provided in the social welfare policy course. Now, there is a textbook that presents the basic facts on social welfare policy and policy analysis in the United States while placing the policies (e.g., health care provisions) within a global context.

    This text also uniquely

    • provides a sustainability focus (environmental and economic sustainability) in a textbook to be used for the core social work curriculum;
    • evaluates government policies in terms of sustainable and unsustainable aspects;
    • contains a focus on economic globalization and the conflict between corporate interests and policies designed to meet the needs of all the people;
    • includes a chapter on the impact of human activities on the natural environment and forces of the natural environment on human life;
    • incorporates biological content in a policy book through attention paid to health/mental health care as well as to human needs pertaining to access to clean air, water, and uncontaminated soil;
    • draws parallels between the importance of cultural diversity in human life and biodiversity in plant and animal life;
    • is informed by concepts not ordinarily found in other U.S. policy books, such as social exclusion, anti-oppressive policy analysis, harm reduction, restorative justice, and sustainability ethic; and
    • includes personal narratives to bring home the human side of facts presented in relevant and meaningful ways.
    The Book’s Audience

    Our book is designed for the generalist portion of the social work curriculum. This encompasses the junior and senior policy classes for undergraduate students and the first year, or foundation course, for graduate students who did not major in social work as undergraduates. To meet the needs and interests of this audience, we have made every effort to write in a readable, user-friendly style, and to emphasize memorable events in the evolution of social welfare and social work up to and including modern times.

    The Sustainability Theme

    Missing from the social work literature, as stated in the descriptions above, is a social work policy text that offers an international perspective in conjunction with a presentation of the basics of U.S. social welfare policy—the history, sociological aspects, and a focus on policies pertaining to dependent populations—persons in poverty, children, and the frail elderly. The most exciting piece of this book, in our opinion, however, is the choice of sustainability as the organizing theme.

    The selection of this theme for the text is consistent with Nancy Mary’s (2008) proposal for the development of a new paradigm of sustainable practice for social work. The focus of this model is on prevention, community development, and a recognition “that the natural environment is an integral part and the foundation of our world and must be sustained as a living and sacred part of our global social welfare” (p. 25).

    The Learning Design

    Included in this book are brief, dynamic boxed readings that make the subject matter come alive for the student. Some will be biographies, such as of social work pioneers Jane Addams, Katherine Kendall, and Sattareh Farman Farmaian. Others will be writings of social workers who have practiced abroad or who have successfully lobbied for the passage of a piece of legislation or who have confronted some aspect of injustice in the system.

    At the end of each chapter we have included critical thinking, or thought questions, to help enhance the reading and direct the analysis of the content. To highlight the reading, we have selected from our personal files (and other sources) two or three photographs to include with each chapter.

    A Note to Students

    It is our hope that if you are a social work major, this book will give you an appreciation for a different and more activist side of social work than what you have seen before in your other classes (which likely focused on direct practice). And for students of all majors, we hope what you learn here will inspire you to want to become politically active, if you are not so already, and to advocate for the kinds of policies that will improve social conditions and thereby enhance social policy development.

    A Note to the Instructor

    A comprehensive instructor’s manual with essay and multiple-choice exam questions, creative exercises, references to films, and other relevant resources is provided at Additionally, PowerPoint ® slides are available for lecture use.

    Information on the Core Competencies

    As an organizing framework, sustainability corresponds nicely with the requirements of the CSWE’s (2015) most recent Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. These standards require that students in accredited programs receive an education that prepares them for an understanding of how policies are formulated in order to engage in advocacy for the implementation of policies. For this text, in a separate format provided by SAGE Publications we have provided a breakdown by chapter and section of the placement of content related to the competencies as mandated by CSWE.


    Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

    Dominelli, L. (2012). Green social work. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

    Mary, N. L. (2008). Social work in a sustainable world. Chicago, IL: Lyceum.


    I(Katherine van Wormer) wish to acknowledge Kassie Graves, senior acquisitions editor, for her support and patience through this lengthy process, Peter Labella, developmental editor, for his helpful guidance and suggestions and many thanks to Melanie Birdsall for an outstanding job on the production. From this end, I’d like to thank my graduate assistant Whitni Warnke, whose proofreading and suggestions about the wording were very helpful. Finally, I owe a debt of thanks to my husband, Robert van Wormer, and son, Rupert van Wormer, for their photographic contributions.

    SAGE gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following contributors:

    • Stephanie Warnecke Adams, Eastern Kentucky University
    • Yolanda Meade Byrd, Winston Salem State University
    • Michel Coconis, Wright State University
    • K. Abel Knochel, Augsburg College
    • Shannon D. Mathews, Winston Salem State University
    • David J. Pate, Jr., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
    • Jacky Thomas, Eastern Kentucky University


    This book is dedicated to people of courage across the world who are often overlooked when accolades are given: environmental activists; conscientious objectors everywhere; families of murder victims who speak out against the death penalty; survivors of sexual violence who take a public stand against the treatment of victims; gay, lesbian, and transgender people and their allies who advocate for justice; and above all, the people who see themselves not as citizens of a particular nation or commonwealth but, rather, as citizens of the world. There has been no time of greater need for us to grasp the sense of being global citizens than now.

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948

    On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act, the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”

    • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
    • Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
    • Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
    • Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
    • Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
    • Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
    • Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

    Now, therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

    Article 1

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

    Article 2

    Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

    Article 3

    Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

    Article 4

    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

    Article 5

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

    Article 6

    Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

    Article 7

    All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

    Article 8

    Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

    Article 9

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

    Article 10

    Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

    Article 11
    • Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
    • No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
    Article 12

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

    Article 13
    • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
    • Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
    Article 14
    • Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
    • This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    Article 15
    • Everyone has the right to a nationality.
    • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
    Article 16
    • Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
    Article 17
    • Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
    • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
    Article 18

    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

    Article 19

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    Article 20
    • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
    • No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
    Article 21
    • Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
    • Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
    • The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
    Article 22

    Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

    Article 23
    • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
    • Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
    • Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
    • Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
    Article 24

    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

    Article 25
    • Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
    Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
    • Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
    • Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
    Article 27
    • Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
    • Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
    Article 28

    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

    Article 29
    • Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
    • In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
    • These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    Article 30

    Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

    Source: United Nations, Resolution 217A (111). Passed by General Assembly, December 1948.

    Relevant Internet Sites

    Government Resources
    Professional Advocacy
    International Resources
    Professional Links
    Social Policy
    Human Rights
    The Environment

    About the Authors

    Katherine S. van Wormer, MSSW, PhD, grew up in New Orleans, has a BA in English from the University of North Carolina, where she became active in the Civil Rights Movement and peace movement. She then moved to Northern Ireland and received a postgraduate degree in education from Queen’s University. She taught English in Northern Ireland for 2 years and was active in the Irish Civil Rights Movement before returning to the United States to pursue graduate degrees in sociology and in social work much later on. As a social work practitioner, her specialty was alcoholism counseling, a specialization that provided her the opportunity to work for 2 years in Norway. Today, she is professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. Since the 1990s, van Wormer has written around 20 books on various subjects related to various forms of social justice and oppression. Most relevant to the present text are the following: Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Macro Level (Oxford University Press, 2011, coauthored with Fred Besthorn); Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications (2013, Sage, coedited with Lorenn Walker); Confronting Oppression, Restoring Justice: From Policy Analysis to Social Action (2012, CSWE Press, coauthored with Laura Kaplan & Cindy Juby); and The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (2012, LSU Press, coauthored with David W. Jackson III & Charletta Sudduth). Dr. van Wormer’s interest in policy and in the role of citizens in community organizing to accomplish social change is reflected in these writings as well as her community service work. On her university campus, she has been an active member of the University Committee on Sustainability and has worked unsuccessfully to integrate sustainability principles into the university core curriculum.

    Rosemary J. Link, PhD, LISW, was born in St Albans, England, and gained her undergraduate honors degree in modern history and politics with sociology from the University of Southampton and her postgraduate diploma in applied social studies from the University of London. After 10 years as a school social worker then educational administrator, Dr. Link came to the University of Minnesota for her PhD in social work with a special interest in children’s rights and social policy. Dr. Link served as a professor of social work and dean of graduate studies at Augsburg College, where she assisted in building the MA in leadership and gaining the accreditation of the MSW and nursing programs. Rosemary is currently associate vice president for academic affairs at Simpson College, Iowa, where she is primarily responsible for building undergraduate and graduate programs for adult learners. In addition to administration, Rosemary Link has chaired the Board of Southside Family Nurturing Center ( for 6 years (2003–2009) and she has ongoing research interest in children’s well-being and human rights. Dr. Link has served as external examiner to the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, and the University of Bharathair, Coimbatore. She has published numerous articles relating to child poverty, human rights, and social development and five books, including a study of child poverty together with Dr. Anthony Bibus, titled When Children Pay (CPAG, 2000); a textbook in human behavior together with coauthor Dr. Chathapuram Ramanathan, titled All Our Futures (Brooks/Cole, 1999); a curriculum design text together with Dr. Lynne Healy, titled Models of International Curriculum in Social Work (CSWE, 2005); a textbook in economic and social development Human Behavior in a Just World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) together with Dr Chathapuram Ramanathan; and coeditor of the Handbook for International Social Work and Human Rights (Oxford, 2012), which she coedited with Dr. Lynne Healy Dr. Link has taught on short programs in Slovenia, Mexico, India, and the United Kingdom. In 2005, Dr. Link received a State Department grant to serve as an educational ambassador in Slovenia, India, and Singapore. The project included working to set up exchanges for students of social work and human service and generating interactive video classrooms and curriculum with a global perspective. Dr. Link describes herself as an educational administrator, social worker, writer, and human rights advocate.

    About the Contributors

    Christina L. Erickson, MSW, PhD is an associate professor of social work and environmental studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. After receiving her MSW, she practiced in community-based refugee services and in a medical neurology facility with older adults. She received her PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has a special interest in how the natural environment and human experience interface. She has taught social work in China.

    Suzanne McDevitt, MSW, PhD is an associate professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where she has taught since 2000. Previously she taught at the University of Northern Iowa, where was awarded the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence. Previously she served as manager of special projects at Allegheny County Children and Youth Services. Her current research focuses on food assistance and its impact on those who use it.

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