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What role do the concepts 'need' and inequality play in social policy?

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What role do the concepts 'need' and inequality play in social policy? From the inauguration of state organised welfare the concepts of 'need' and inequality have been at the centre of discussions and debates on social policy. Since the 19th century it has widely been accepted that the state has some responsibility towards attempting to fulfil some of civil societies needs and the needs of those most at risk. Changing definitions and attitudes surround the concepts of need and inequality; this means any discussion of these instantly encapsulates the political and ideological debates which effect all aspects of social policy. Titmuss (ed. 1987) writes that 'collectively provided services are deliberately designed to meet certain socially recognized 'needs'; they are manifestations' this means any changes within these are interrelated with those in society. Miller (1987) draws from Titmuss's work explaining that the inequality which creates need is formed from the very nature of an advanced industrial society as 'the costs of economic growth and stability are not evenly distributed' he describes the welfare state as 'compensation for the vulnerables who pay the prices of 'progress' (1987).


Yet there were many different ideas on what was seen as real 'need' and who was seen as deserving of welfare. In the Victorian era people were either deemed as 'deserving' or 'undeserving' poor; basically meaning that their poverty was either created by their own failings such as alcohol abuse or by eventualities which were out of their control such as job losses or illness (thus making them deserving) (Fraser, 1984). With the expansion of State welfare, and the bureaucracy which came with it, the poor were no longer categorised into deserving or undeserving instead their 'needs' were assessed. The introduction of the means test established a way of determining the extent of the needs of people. Although this may appear a fair way of organising welfare it has in fact had detrimental effects; according to Deacon & Bradshaw (1983) the means test is 'socially divisive' as it has 'given rise to gross distortions in the distribution of income amongst poorer families'. This system has also failed to deliver benefits to many people who need them as the means tested service has reflected values approved by society for example marriage, thus leaving those who do not conform to these values in a worse position financially (Deacon & Bradshaw, 1983).


This meant what was constituted as 'need' was dramatically reduced. Financial inequalities were seen as a natural part of having a free market economy. New Labour (which came to power in 1997) is often described as the 'third way' between redistributive 'old' labour and New Right Thatcherism. This basically means New Labour's policies aim to address the needs of those most at 'risk' in society such as single parents and the unemployed, thus taking responsibility for those in need. However, this help is kept to a minimum for the benefit of the economy and the promotion of a meritocracy. The notion of responsibility is increasingly meaning a citizens responsibility to the society and the state. Powell (2004) describes New Labours 'sanctions' of its distribution of welfare as it's 'version of the old tension between security and incentives, and the division into the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor' which has faced British social policy. In late modernity the vastness of financial inequalities are generally accepted within mainstream politics and discussions of equality of opportunity have turned away from being class based. Now when New Labour discusses attempts to end inequality it is normally part of a discussion on gender, ethnicity or religion rather than the gap between rich and poor or the elimination of the poverty trap.

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