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Social policy primarily refers to guidelines, principles, legislation and activities that affect the living conditions conducive to human welfare. The Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard University describes it as "public policy and practice in the areas of health care, human services, criminal justice, inequality, education, and labor."
Social policy often deals with wicked problems. Social Policy is defined as actions that affect the well-being of members of a society through shaping the distribution of and access to goods and resources in that society.
The earliest example of direct intervention by government in human welfare dates back to Umar ibn al-Khattāb's rule as the second caliph of Islam in the 6th century. He used zakah collections and also other governmental resources to establish pensions, income support, child benefits, various stipends for people of the non-Muslim community.
In the West, proponents of scientific social planning, such as the sociologist Auguste Comte, and social researchers, such as Charles Booth, contributed to the emergence of social policy in the first industrialised countries. Surveys of poverty that exposed the brutal conditions in the urban slum conurbations of Victorian Britain pressured changes reform of the Poor Law and welfare reforms by the British Liberal Party. Other significant examples in the development of social policy are the Bismarckian welfare state in 19th century Germany; social security policies introduced by the New Deal in the United States between 1933 and 1935, and health reforms the Beveridge Report of 1942.
Social policy in the 21st century is complex and in each state it is subject to local, national and supranational political influence. For example, membership of the European Union is conditional to member states' adherence to the Social Chapter of European Union law.
Social policy aims to improve human welfare and to meet human needs for education, health, housing and social security. Important areas of social policy are the welfare state, social security, unemployment insurance, environmental policy, pensions, health care, social housing, social care, child protection, social exclusion, education policy, crime and criminal justice.
The term 'social policy' can also refer to policies which govern human behaviour. In the United States, the term 'social policy' may be used to refer to abortion and the regulation of its practice, euthanasia, homosexuality, the rules surrounding issues of marriage, divorce, adoption, the legal status of recreational drugs, and the legal status of prostitution.
Social Policy is also an academic discipline focusing on the systematic evaluation of societies' responses to social need. It was developed in the early-to-mid part of the 20th century as a complement to social work studies. London School of Economics professor Richard Titmuss is considered to have established Social Policy (or Social Administration) as an academic subject and many universities offer the subject for undergraduate and postgraduate study.