What's in a title: Understanding meanings in community care
What's in a title: Understanding meanings in community care

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What's in a title: Understanding meanings in community care

3 Welfare

Earlier, in Activity 1, some contrasting associations with the word ‘welfare’ emerged. Just to remind you, they were:

Positive: concern, happiness, prosperity, wellbeing, success, profit, support, safety-net, sharing, goodwill, concern, benefit, provision.

Negative: needy, failing, controlling, labelling, deserving, denying, official, not managing, stigma, shame, poverty, idleness, fecklessness, scrounging, hand-outs, charity, demeaning, benefits.

From one set of meanings, it might be supposed that welfare is something which is done to people who have problems, and is associated with failure, exclusion and a need for help in managing lives. A more positive interpretation suggests that welfare is something everyone aspires to have and should have the right to expect. After all, most people want to feel they can successfully manage their lives without having to worry about such basic needs as food, clothing or shelter. There's the need to feel secure against any possible accident or change in circumstances which might threaten a person, their family, friends or where they live. There's also the need to be included in what's going on around you and to have the same chances at succeeding or doing what you want to irrespective of age, sexuality, impairment, gender or ethnicity.


Welfare was originally the phrase wel fare, mE, from well in its still-familiar sense and fare, primarily a journey or arrival but later also a supply of food. Welfare was commonly used from C14 to indicate happiness or prosperity (cf. wealth): ‘thy negheburs welfare’ (1303); ‘welfare or ilfare of the whole realm’ (1559). A subsidiary meaning, usually derogatory in the recorded instances, was of merrymaking: ‘such ryot and welfare and ydlenesse’ (1470); ‘wine and such welfare’ (1577). The extended sense of welfare, as an object of organised care or provision, came in eC20; most of the older words in this sense (see especially charity) had acquired unacceptable associations. Thus welfare-manager (1904); welfare policy (1905); welfare work (1916); welfare centres (1917). The Welfare State in distinction from the Warfare State, was first named in 1939.

(Williams, 1981)

Beyond the level of welfare as a personal goal, you'll also be aware of welfare as a system of organising ways to meet needs which people can't organise on their own. The Welfare State is an example of such a meaning and one which most people in the UK are familiar with. As well as state organised welfare provision, there's also the voluntary sector with its many organisations providing help and support, in part dependent on state funding, in part dependent on charitable and other sources – organisations like Mind, Age Concern, Mencap and its equivalent, Enable, in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Beyond that again, it's also possible to think about welfare as the philosophy attached to a particular kind of political endeavour which attempts to transform society itself, perhaps challenging ways of thinking about what is meant by need. Marxists, who have argued for fundamental changes in the way society is organised, and feminists, who have pressed for an end to society's oppression of women, have been at the forefront of such challenges (Hewitt, 1998, pp. 65–7).

However, there are other issues, central to people's lives, which also need to be taken into account if welfare policies are to be fully inclusive. The stigma of being in need may mean that for people of some cultures, welfare has no positive connotations. Waqar Ahmad and Karl Atkin suggest that this may account for low benefit take up among some Asian people. Fear of stigma may join other, perhaps more realistic, fears of links between welfare claims, control of immigration and the splitting up of families. In addition, long-standing institutional racism, including inappropriate assumptions, lack of translation and interpretation facilities, as well as experience of racist attitudes held by some Benefits’ Office staff, means that welfare has a quite different set of meanings for some black and Asian people (Ahmad and Atkin, 1996, pp. 131–3, p. 141).

People want to be reassured that their welfare, their needs, are taken care of in some way. How this is organised has long been a matter for debate. Should people fend for themselves, leaving a few welfare services only for those who can't manage their lives, or is welfare too important, too central to the quality of everyone's life to be left to individuals on their own? Taking the narrow view of welfare, developed by more right-wing commentators and politicians, leads to arguments which call for only the smallest safety net of support for the most poor or most marginal in society, with the rest providing for their own security privately (Burchardt et al., 1999, p. 2). Is it really possible that people can live in society without some kind of organised support? Let's pause for a moment and think about an ordinary activity like buying milk.

Activity 3: Joined up living

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

When you go out to buy milk from your local shop, who and what else gets involved? Just write down what comes into your head.


I thought of my trip down to the local shops and these were some of the things that occurred to me:

Having the money to buy some milk; my local council who employ the street sweepers and subcontract the tarmac gangs; the shop I go to – how clean it is and when it's open; the milk there on the shelf, the delivery van that brings it, the organisation of dairy farmers that gets the milk from the farms to the town; I could go on …

Put together, there are all sorts of ways in which my needs interconnect with the people and systems I count on to maintain my welfare. I feel pretty secure in my short shopping trip because I'm not aware as I walk down the street or buy my milk that I am anything other than an accepted member of the community and a valued customer at the shop. What if I was also known to be a regular user of the mental health day centre a few doors down, or someone who finds working out change difficult? I've not yet tested my local community for all its attitudes.

Could I expect more? Well, if I lived on the edge of a city on an estate where my only local shop was in danger of being closed down, or if the owner of my local shop was being subjected to racist attacks, I might want more direct intervention to make sure I can buy my milk – action by my local council and the police. If I were a single parent with a child with a chronic disabling illness I might be looking for help with daily transport to get to that shop, or to find someone to come in while I get out to do my shopping.

Figure 2
Right: The Independent/Syndication; left: Popperfoto. ©
Right: The Independent/Syndication; left: Popperfoto.
Figure 2 What do you expect to find down at your local shop? Right: Mal Hussein's shop in Rylands, Lancaster, after repeated racist attacks; left: shop in Broadway in the Cotswolds

I've used this example to show the interlocking nature of the many systems which together guarantee support, even care, in a society. At one level, welfare just happens as people look out for each other, taking turns, accepting differences, anticipating needs. At another level it's a range of organisations with policies which may provide, among other things, benefits, free prescriptions, payments for carers, regulation, housing, information, befriending, social activities and advocacy. These two levels of welfare together guarantee that when people need to do something like going down to the shops they don't also have to sort out how the street is cleaned or negotiate in advance about how to stop the traffic to cross the road or whether they'll be recognised and accepted at the local shop. We simply expect these things to be organised or to happen for us. We pay our local and national taxes and that's enough. But what about other aspects of our welfare, what about the things that can't be predicted, like losing a job, or having an accident, or becoming a single parent? What about someone who works in a low wage industry and can't afford to pay for all the things they need for their family's wellbeing? What if my neighbour decides that her parents need to move from their home in Nigeria to live with her, their only daughter, in the UK? What about people who live in areas where unemployment is high and jobs are few? Are these events and situations which need to be included and paid for in everyone's system of welfare? Or is it preferable, perhaps, to target welfare so the majority can choose how to provide for themselves while the minority who are at risk from poverty or misfortune, or simply a change of responsibilities, are looked after when they want to be?

The post-second world war Welfare State was just one way in which the government of the time tackled the problem of how to make sure that people who are disadvantaged in some way did not sink into destitution. William Beveridge, whose 1942 report initiated much of the public debate and some of the legislation which followed the end of the second world war, identified what he saw as the five ‘giants’ which society needed to deal with. These were: ‘disease, ignorance, squalor, idleness and want’ (Beveridge, 1942). Put into the language of 60 years later this might read as: illness and disability, lack of information, urban decay, unemployment and poverty.

At the time of the Beveridge report, there was continuing concern that the scope of the post-war changes, which saw the state take over responsibility for large sections of welfare provision, including health, housing, education, personal social services and social insurance, would still fail to include the most needy and those most at risk. Feminists, then and more recently, pointed out how those post-war changes were rooted in assumptions about a domestic role for women which locked them into a non-wage earning, dependent status while benefits and insurance were paid to husbands and fathers (Williams, 1989, Lister, 1998, pp. 309–10). Other critics have drawn attention to the ways in which the new system targeted people seen as problems or failures, rather than dealing with underlying causes such as low pay, attitudes to disability, poor environments and underfunded education and housing (Hadley and Clough, 1997, p. 13) and how a system built on means-tested benefits deterred substantial proportions of old and disabled people from claiming their entitlements (Phillipson, 1998, p. 71 and ff.). Yet others argue that the idea of a state-funded welfare system is demeaning and dependency creating, and hark back to notions of self-sufficiency and the need for policies which discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor (Green, 1999).

Activity 4: Witnesses to welfare

Timing: 0 hours 50 minutes

Click to view Reading 2, ‘Witnesses to welfare’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , where you'll find a selection of writings by people who, from the period between the two world wars up to the turn of the present century, have had personal experience of welfare systems, or the lack of them. The selection also includes people who have views on what welfare means. The excerpts begin with a brief history by Herbert Gans, a US sociologist, of the language used to describe who poor people are.

Read through these excerpts and, as you do, make a note of:

  • why it may sometimes be difficult to become a welfare recipient;

  • why welfare systems sometimes don't help the very people they are supposed to be helping;

  • any changes or continuities in the experiences of the people whose accounts you have read.

Figure 3
John Birdsall Photography ©
John Birdsall Photography
Figure 3 Growing up on Tyneside in the 1930s, this little boy, whose leg was amputated when he was two, was helped to walk and play with help from his parents, despite doctors' predictions. How will his later life have been affected by subsequent policy changes in welfare systems and changing attitudes? What support will society be offering him as he approaches his seventies?


There's quite a range of experience and opinion here among the experts. Gans lists the many derogatory labels which have been used to stigmatise and blame poor people over the centuries. You might have wondered if there is continuity with the excerpt from the writing of the right-wing political theorist, David Green, who argues for an end to welfare rights and the promotion of individual responsibility. The people who remember their disabled childhoods in the 1930s and the account from the woman who worked as an investigator for the Unemployment Assistance Board (UAB) between the wars offer evidence of continuity with the people from later decades quoted in the pieces by Peter Beresford and his co-authors and by Cliff Prior. Again, stigma and prejudice play their part, but it's important also to note the resilience and resistance which welfare recipients showed, and still show. It's this resilience, together with the experience of stigma and judgement by others, which explains why the people quoted in the Peter Beresford and Suzy Croft piece tend to distance themselves from welfare services. Finally, the philosopher Michael Ignatieff points to some reasons why welfare systems are needed and yet may fail the very people they are supposed to help. He argues that welfare systems must meet needs beyond the most basic but that they won't be able to identify what these are if they don't guarantee a voice, ‘ the democratic requirement of informed consent’, for people who may be different to ourselves, ‘strangers’ as he puts it.

The social policy theorist, Peter Taylor-Gooby, points out how unemployment, the worldwide movement of people and businesses, rising divorce rates and single parenthood combine to make life different in terms of predictability and security compared with 60 years ago. At the same time, he suggests, there's a tendency to assume that people want less control and interference from government, even one which is committed to welfare. They want to organise and manage their own lives (1999). For this reason, some people suggest that the idea of a welfare state now no longer seems appropriate. They argue that all that is needed is for the state to work out what the risks are and then deal with the fall-out from that risk (Dean, 1999, p. 274).

There's a difficulty, however. The two trends, greater insecurity and a push for a lighter touch by the state, can sometimes contradict or cancel each other out. Quoting research from families in the 1990s, Taylor-Gooby goes on to suggest that people who are unemployed or living in single parent families are worst off in all social groups, that ‘risk … affects some people harder’ (1999). And some groups are consistently hit harder than others. There is evidence that members of some minority ethnic groups experience high levels of social and economic deprivation. So, for example, while older Indian people show similar levels of deprivation to white older people, just below half of older Pakistani and Bangladeshi, two-fifths of older African Caribbean and a quarter of Irish elders experience medium or high levels of deprivation. Poverty in later life for these people stems directly from not having worked long enough in the UK to have built up sufficient years of national insurance contributions and having worked in low wage occupations (Evandrou, 2000, p. 17).

Figure 4
John Birdsall Photography ©
John Birdsall Photography
Figure 4 Friendship at the mosque can mean help and support, but many older people from black and minority ethnic groups also face poverty in retirement

While work and self-management, as advocated by the right-winger David Green (1999), may be solutions for some people, they can't answer the needs of everyone at all life's stages, nor can they ensure protection against the unwanted effects of unexpected events and accidents. It may be that our systems of welfare have to be tailored and organised around the recognition that while society may have changed, those basic needs – food, shelter, mobility and support – are still the same.

That mid-twentieth century attempt by William Beveridge and the post-second world war Labour government to resolve the dilemma of balancing individual need and rights with collective state-funded welfare has been modified over the years. Arguments about who is entitled to be cared for, under what conditions and for how long have led to some changes. At the same time attitudes towards cohabitation, single parenthood, disability and old age have changed the basis on which many judgements as to rights, entitlements and participation are made. Nevertheless, looking back over the last hundred years it's interesting to see how some attitudes persist. For example, the views of those who are defined as welfare recipients have not changed greatly. Whether they're called ‘paupers’, ‘recipients’, ‘the underclass’, ‘destitute’, ‘claimants’, ‘service users’, ‘scroungers’ or ‘poor people’, the welfare system may seem much the same from the receiving end, especially when the deterrence of the workhouse is echoed a hundred years later in an approach which has been characterised as ‘work for those who can, welfare for those who can't’ (Guardian, 1999).

Now we're going to move on to look at the third word being explored in this course and, in so doing, you'll be able to identify the links between the three words ‘care’, ‘welfare’ and ‘community’.


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