What is social and public policy?

Social and public policy is an interdisciplinary and applied social science that aims to critically analyse societal approaches to real-world issues. 

Through a combined application of political science, sociology, economics, law and philosophy, it investigates government action in response to social, demographic and economic development. The purpose of social and public policy is to understand the impacts of policy-making on welfare states and their communities.

There are notable disparities between the two fields. Public policy refers to the actual system of laws and regulatory measures underpinning government action. It comprises resource allocation within the areas of civilian life that impact society at large (such as crime, defence and education). 

Social policy, on the other hand, is more specifically concerned with the administration of social services and welfare. It draws on sociology to address the social context of policy-making, highlighting issues such as growing health disparities, class division, economic inequality and racial discrimination.

In terms of their interrelation, experts differ in opinion. Some believe social policy to be a subset of public policy, while other professionals consider them to be two separate, competing approaches for the same public interest. Overall, social policy is deemed more holistic than public policy.

What are the different types of public policy?

There are three primary types of public policy: regulatory, distributive and redistributive.

Regulatory public policy

This type of public policy ultimately provides the framework for ministerial rulemaking, setting the standards of what is lawful and what isn’t allowed in a bid to protect economic and social welfare. Regulatory public policy establishes the guidelines for developing, implementing and enforcing a system of public protections impacting the economy and civil society, and places restrictions on business practices in aims of keeping the market efficient and fair. Examples include minimum wage legislation and consumer safety law.

Distributive public policy

This type of public policy concerns legislation surrounding government funding into public goods or services that provide for the common good. Examples of this include funding of educational facilities and access to healthcare (such as the free distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines).

Redistributive public policy

These policies involve redistributing government funds from one group of people to a different group of people, to aid the more disadvantaged within society. Examples include progressive taxation systems, welfare distribution programs (such as Universal Credit) and student loans.

What is the purpose of social policy?

Social policy is concerned with how a government meets human needs. As a field of study, it considers the initiatives impacting quality of life (spanning health services, social care, housing, education and financial aid) and critically examines the policies, regulations and financial distribution that shapes the provision of welfare.

In doing so, social policy addresses the social and economic conditions that define barriers to access – such as poverty, age, health, disability and disadvantage. It notes the ways in which policies can be divisive and reinforce privilege and social inequality, with race, gender, class, sexual orientation and economic status acting as contributing factors to social cohesion and division.

Examples of social policy include an examination of antidiscrimination law, equal opportunity employment law, unemployment benefits, pensions, welfare initiatives (such as food stamps) and affordable housing initiatives. 

As British society has become more diverse, divided and disparate, social policy continues to expand fields of interest, including: 

  • regional inequalities;
  • the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities (such as those living in urban developments); 
  • government approaches to immigration and citizen’s rights; 
  • minimum living wages and modern slavery; 
  • education and social mobility; 
  • the policing of the poor.

At a top level, social policy also addresses how governments respond to global challenges (such as migration, pandemics and globalisation). As the divisions between the most privileged and vulnerable members of the community continue to grow, the case for social policy becomes ever more imperative to the survival of a fair and functioning society.

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