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Travels in the Trench Between  Child Welfare Theory and Practice

Installment 3 (Beginning of Chapter 2)

Child Welfare Policy:
Charity and Justice

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George Thomas

Athens, GA


According to social philosopher Charles Frankel (1965, p. 4),
child welfare policy is the consequent of a never ending struggle to achieve
a balance between charity and justice in responding to troubles or evils
in our midst. Contemporary child-welfare policy struggles over claims
to legitimacy in defining that balance.

In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote his Eight Degrees of Charity,
which defined how a balance between charity and justice might be established.
At one extreme, the least just form of charity, is reluctant giving, offered
only after people in reduced states hold out their hands. At the other
extreme, the most just form of charity, is preventative giving, giving
in anticipation of need which permits those in reduced states to avoid
the humiliation of begging.

The state was not envisioned by Maimonides as an active participant.
Throughout the Diaspora, for a thousand years before Maimonides’ time
and for centuries thereafter, the political states within which the Jewish
people established communities functioned benignly, at their best, in
permitting these communities to resolve this matter among themselves (Halkin,
1956, pp. 204ff.).

The emergence of the nation-state in the Western world brought
about a gradual shift in responsibility for defining the balance from
private philanthropy to the halls of government. Today we are accustomed
to debating the merits of residual and institutional social programming
rather than the merits of reluctant and preventative giving, but the dimensions
of the debate remain essentially the same (Wilensky & Labeaux, 1964).
Should we wait until need occurs and then apply specific band-aids to
specific wounds or take the longer view and devise permanent social programs
that anticipate need and prevent its occurrence?

The assumption of responsibility by the U.S. government did not
end the struggle to define the balance between charity and justice, because
fundamental issues remain unresolved. One issue has to do with the difficulty
we experience in reaching consensus over the good we seek to accomplish.
We find it far easier to come to some agreement on the bad we wish to
avoid or eliminate (Frankel, 1985, p. 6). For example, few would disagree
that it is bad for a child to be without a family, but what constitutes
a good family or a good alternative to a family remains controversial.
A second unresolved issue has to do with whether and to what extent the
plight of individuals is attributable to social conditions or to their
own doing and to what extent helping interventions do good or harm.

The task has become more complicated as government has assumed
ever greater responsibilities for achieving a welfare ideal (a proper
balance). The struggle has taken on new and more sophisticated dimensions
having to do with balancing an individual’s right to self-determination
and the state’s right to intrude. Preventative or institutionalized charity
tends toward intrusiveness, on the premise that it is both morally right
and more cost efficient to intervene before suffering occurs, or as soon
as possible. Reluctant or residual charity holds that it is both morally
right and more cost efficient to wait until those who are suffering signal
that they need help; intrusion before that time induces dependency and
destroys initiative. Neither claims that all state intervention is harmful
and both claim to value the individual above all else. Beyond that, agreement
on where the balance lies is subject to never ending negotiation.


There is a tendency to see things this way in the field, as well
as among the public. Some of this is reflected, for example, in Kamerman
and Kahn’s (1976) delineation of the polar positions in social welfare

The traditional view, which might be called the minimalist viewpoint,
holds that the major thrust of social welfare policy should be limited
to those in temporary trouble and that services should be withdrawn or
redirected once these people are restored to health. In contrast, the
philosophy underlying the personal social services system holds that a
complex technological society is a difficult environment for many of us,
and that good government works actively to make life easier for its citizens.
(p. 4)

Like Kamerman and Kahn, some portray increases in societal size
and technological complexity as creating a more difficult environment.
Rising divorce, crime, child abuse, and a host of other statistical trends
support this view. We visualize people like ourselves who have been victimized
by circumstance, often without warning. Few possess the economic and social
resources needed to immunize themselves against victimization. Fewer yet
possess the skills to use the resources they can marshall to pull themselves
up to self-sufficient status once a fall into dependency has occurred.
Given the widespread nature of these hazards and their potential effects
upon virtually any and all citizens, the solution lies in tipping the
balance toward a system of preventative charity through the creation of
a range of permanent welfare services made available on a universal basis,
without means testing to determine eligibility.

In opposition to this point of view is the perspective that interprets
societal trends towards greater size and technological complexity in a
more sanguine fashion. Declining stigma attached to being a single parent,
rising opportunities for women and minorities in education and the labor
market, job opportunities that did not even exist a few short years ago,
and so on are good trends (Centron & Davies, 1984). We can also visualize
people like ourselves who victimize themselves by not taking advantage
of the opportunities that surround them. This perspective shifts blame
from the social context to personal responsibility and the balance towards
reluctant charity, specific and time limited, with giving restricted to
those who pass eligibility tests, to those proven personally worthy of

Advocates of each perspective go beyond the search for balance
by advancing extreme positions, as when supporters of preventative charity
envision utopian plans for “cradle to grave” welfare systems or when
a proponent of reluctant charity, such as columnist James J. Kilpatrick
(1981), connects the problem of teenage unemployment with the observation
that classified sections in newspapers are loaded with job offers and
concludes, “The jobs go begging because too many teenagers who are able
to work are not willing to work. If they are therefore broke and hungry,
let ’em starve” (p. A13).

Kamerman and Kahn used the term “Minimalist” for those who share
the reluctant charity perspective, but they offer no equivalent label
for proponents of preventative charity. Since the logic of this position
often leads to schemes of universal services, it seems appropriate to
call them “Universalists.”

The ideas of the Universalists and Minimalists about how to balance
charity and justice are diametrically opposed. The Universalists seek
to install welfare as a permanent, government sanctioned social institution
along with the family, religion, justice, education, health, and commerce,
over which government exercises varying levels of control. The Minimalists
devote themselves to seeing to it that welfare is not elevated to that
status, primarily by working to minimize governmental involvement in its
provision. Both claim to represent public sentiment and to have the best
interests of the general public and its suffering members at heart.


The Universalists lost, but the Minimalists did not win. From
World War II through the War on Poverty, the contest over who would determine
the balance between charity and justice was between the Minimalists and
the Universalists. The Minimalists have always been with us, but the rise
of the Universalists to a position of power in the welfare policy-making
process can be attributed to the brief period of the Affluent Society.
During that time any scheme seemed affordable, no matter how grand. Money
was no object and public support for Universalist propositions and grandly
designed systems reached its zenith.

With the demise of the Affluent Society the Universalists’ perspective
lost credibility and simply played itself out. During their heyday the
Universalists were successful in fathering massive expansion of government-supported
children and family services and the training of an army of social work
professionals to staff them, over the protests of the Minimalists.

Merging large numbers of professionals with rapidly expanding
bureaucracies introduced a new and increasingly influential player to
the debate in the form of the Bureaucratic/Professional (B/P) Complex.
This entity, by virtue of its size and critical location, has risen to
a position of dominance in the welfare policy-making process today. Even
if the Universalist perspective had been able to sustain itself a bit
longer, it seems inevitable that it would have run up against the “Structuralist”
perspective of its brainchildren, which would have devoured it.

This perspective is the one shared among the leadership in the
B/P Complex. It cannot be indexed by Maimonides Eight Degrees of Charity
because it does not busy itself with the intellectual struggle involved
in defining charity. Charity is simply the commodity that the Structuralists
deliver. Charity and justice are balanced by delivering whatever is to
be delivered using the ethical standards of impartiality, fairness, and

This intellectually sterile approach is ideally suited to the
interests of the B/P Complex because it permits striking a neutral posture
on intellectual issues while remaining a major player in the policy-making
process. It takes no public position in the struggle to balance charity
and justice, but in maintaining its central role as the delivery mechanism
it materially influences the balance that is struck.

If anyone was triumphant, it was the Structuralists. Today the
Structuralists’ main competition comes from the Minimalists, those hoary
adversaries still intent upon reducing the size and reach of the B/P Complex,
and from a new perspective called the “Maximalists” because its common
interest is empowering persons, families, and/or communities so as to
maximize client self-determination.

The Maximalist approach to balancing charity and justice is also
difficult to index by Maimonides’ scale because its interests lie in relieving
suffering by energizing “stakeholding” rather than directly intervening
to effect the balance between giver and receiver. “Stakeholding” means
many things, but one thing Maximalists seem to share in common is the
belief that most who are defined as inadequate, problematic, or otherwise
deviant would function much like the rest of us if the enabling resources
we take for granted were also at their disposal (Joe & Nelson, 1989, pp.
214-223; Sherradan, 1990, pp. 580-603).

The current struggle for legitimacy shapes up as follows: The
Structuralists hold the high ground and the Maximalists and Minimalists
are hard at work seeking to topple them.


First, ownership of the debate over the proper balance between
charity and justice has shifted from the public domain to the arena of
politics. Second, the focus of the now fully politicized debate has shifted
from ideas to strategies. The Structuralists have come to exercise dominant
influence in setting the terms of the debate, which means that what matters
to them is what tends to get debated. What matters to the Structuralists
is that charity must be defined in a way that legitimates their role in
delivering it. In short, the Structuralists worship the Core Commonalities
of True Belief: Planning over logical reasoning, strategy over ideas,
short term impact over long term consequences, and fanciful problem definitions
over factual definitions of personhood.

The Structuralists have been quite successful over the last three
decades in holding their competition at bay by religiously applying the
Core Commonalities of True Belief. Both the Maximalists and Minimalists
seek to return ownership of the debate over balancing charity and justice
to the public and to restore the primacy of ideas over strategy. The Minimalists’
interest in drawing the Structuralists out of their political womb rests
in the hope that a public airing of their transparent ideas and the self-serving
strategies that inform them will rekindle public sentiments about personal
freedoms and create a ground swell of support for reducing the corrosive
intrusiveness of the B/P Complex in our personal lives. The idea is to
portray and expose the Complex as the enemy to marshall the public support
needed to defeat it.

The Maximalists’ interest lies in rekindling public sentiments
about self-initiative and the shared “can do” spirit of the American
people. The idea is to depict and expose the B/P Complex as an intermediary
that absorbs resources that clients could use and distributes them in
ways that clients can’t use. They hope to marshal the public support needed
to effect a transfer of command over resources to clients themselves.

Either way the Structuralists know that no good can come from
letting the debate slip back into a contest between ideas in the public
domain. The Structuralists seek to keep things politicized because they
know full well that they alone can benefit: They alone possess a solid
structural base into which the small gains produced by strategic in-fighting
can be consolidated to achieve further growth and influence. In this political
struggle the Structuralists have been highly successful in keeping many
Maximalists and Minimalists from “going public” with their competing
ideological claims. They have succeeded by buying them off, offering them
a piece of the action, and then absorbing them into the body of the B/P
Complex. Small victories, all around. Everybody wins, the public and clients


Meeting the needs of those served would be a more convincing base
upon which to establish credibility. It is the route that every other
social institution has followed to gain ratification by the public. But
the child welfare field in its present form is little more than a “middleman,”
allocating and providing service resources. This role hardly makes the
case for canonization or elevation of the field to the pantheon of social
institutions. To achieve this status the field would have to identify
and then fill a significant niche among the institutions of family, religion,
justice, education, health, and commerce. It is hard to see an opening,
and this accounts for the fact that Universalist advocates of the welfare
state had such a hard time making the case for their concepts with the
American public.

The next best alternative is a “takeover” of one of the established
institutions. In the case of the social services, the family is the only
suitable target, and strategies proceed bit by piece-not in a grand sweep,
which experience has taught riles the public-to convert family functions
to governmental responsibilities. This is done quite effectively by defining
more and more family functions and children’s behaviors as dysfunctional
or problematic. Doing this warrants the expansion of involvement by the
B/P Complex in family affairs.

The child welfare field focuses specifically on parental functions
and child behavior. There are three things that can fundamentally endanger
the futures of any child which qualify them as public policy issues of
concern to the child welfare field:

  • Poverty.
  • Inadequate parenting.
  • Poor behavioral skills and/or performance on the child’s part.

The question is, “What can the child welfare services, in their present
form, do about any or all of these three things that endanger the futures
of children?” The answer is, very little.

Concerning poverty, child welfare services neither create wealth
for their clienteles nor help them create it themselves. All they do is
distribute wealth deposited with them, and what is distributed, by design,
never exceeds whatever is officially determined to be the poverty level.
Both the Maximalists and Minimalists think poverty could be better addressed
with the distributive middleman out of the way. The former trust parents
to make good use of such resources, once they are given more direct control
over them; the latter think parents should simply be urged off their backsides
into employment.

While the Structuralists acknowledge the endangering effects of
poverty on children’s futures and upon prospects for success of their
own services, they tend to do so in a curious fashion that reaffirms their
resolve to continue doing exactly what they are doing. Costin (1972) observes

Until the unconscionable blight of poverty is removed, priority must be
given to services for poor families and their children. The effects of
poverty are manifest throughout the range of child welfare services and
prevent the attainment of social service goals. (p. 401)

Rather than joining forces with either the Minimalists or Maximalists
and throwing their resources behind initiatives to reduce poverty, the
Structuralists prefer to follow their own agenda, which is centered on
using resources available to them to relieve inadequate parenting and
problematic child behavior. In targeting these problems, the B/P Complex
makes an implicit claim that the number of children facing endangered
futures will be diminished. Thus it is reasonable to ask how well they
are doing in relieving those problems and reducing those numbers.

Concerning inadequate parenting, the primary response has been
to compensate by substitution. This response has appeal because foster
and group caregivers can be consolidated into the operations of the B/P
Complex, whereas parents can’t. Taking children from their homes is an
effective way to reduce the number of children with endangered futures
in an immediate sense, although the social and financial costs attendant
on its implementation are often contested, as are any claims that child
placement has value beyond its immediate protective purposes. As an alternative,
some moves are now being made in the direction of providing more parent-
and child-focused home-based support and training services, but this remains
a minuscule investment compared to that being made in out-of-home care

The Maximalists and Minimalists press the question whether these
home-based services might not be more appropriately provided through established
religious, health, education, and even commercial institutions. Child
welfare services have hardly made the case that they are better then these
institutions at supporting good parenting or child behavior, and it seems
dubious, given their record over the past several decades, that they have
acquired a body of knowledge and skills clearly superior to those possessed
within other social institutions that they could use to their advantage.

Concerning poor child behavioral skills, the record of the child
welfare services is ambiguous. The reason for this is their historical
reliance on problem-oriented theory and problem-solving technology, which
makes it difficult for these services to prove their effectiveness in
unequivocal ways that are convincing to the public. Placing priority on
the detection, analysis, and resolution of harmful experiences arising
from problematic conditions and personal behavior has the effect of lifting
such experiences out of the context of children’s everyday lives, thereby
magnifying their apparent importance. A problem-oriented service delivery
approach tends to detect problems not obvious to either clients or the
lay public, to heighten their seriousness by examining them out of context,
and to project dire long-term consequences unless they are professionally

The general effect is to create an inflated baseline for assessing
effectiveness in reducing problematic conditions or behavior, one that
is comparatively broader, deeper, and longer in dimension than the straightforward,
common sense one used by the public. This inflated baseline yields errors
in assessing effectiveness and leads to dubious claims that intervention
has led to problem resolution when, in fact, the observed reduction or
non-recurrence in problematic conditions or behavior may well trace to
(a) their not having existed at levels of seriousness sufficient to warrant
intervention in the first place; (b) to their having been one-time, chance
induced, or otherwise non-recurring in nature; (c) to their having been
outlived by children as they mature; (d) or to their having been canceled
out by self-directed changes in circumstances.

In sum, a problem-oriented approach makes it difficult for the
public to comprehend what child welfare services are doing and achieving.
As illustrated above it makes it difficult for these services to produce
unambiguous proof of intervention effects. Further, and most importantly,
agencies dependent on problem-oriented service delivery approaches are
dependent upon detecting more and more problems for their livelihoods.

This leads the public to the common sense observation that the
child welfare field is experiencing chronic mission failure, because the
number and severity of problematic conditions and behaviors afflicting
children are inevitably presented as spiralling upward, in spite of the
field’s best efforts and repeated additions of more resources. If the
public’s interest in behavioral competency development is growing, this
shift in public demand will inevitably lead to a perception of chronic
mission failure, because the field will be seen to be less responsive
to changing public demand.

This is likely for three reasons: First, the field’s claims that
rates of problematic behavior are escalating obscure whatever success
it is having in reducing problematic behavior; second, the methods the
field relies upon to reduce problem behavior incidence rates, including
child removal and supervision, produce that result without necessarily
increasing the behavioral competencies of those exposed to them; and,
third, the “talking” therapies the field relies upon cannot unequivocally
be shown to produce greater behavioral competence among those exposed
to them for the four reasons already indicated. The absence of compelling
proof that the field’s interventions are producing more behaviorally competent
children and families breeds doubt among the public, doubt that leads
to the conclusion that the child welfare field is not doing what is being
asked of it.

Both Maximalists and Minimalists believe that the capacities needed
to help children develop behavioral competencies lie outside the B/P Complex
and are spread among clients and established societal institutions. As
“proof” they appeal to the powerful common sense argument that, left
to their own devices and/or provided the resources needed to make good
choices, families assisted by established societal institutions have been
developing their children into behaviorally competent adults for centuries.

For both parties this is enough to justify finding ways to bring
education, justice, health, commerce, and religion back into play. Both
feel the family is the key social institution, although opinions differ
between them about the amount of support that is needed or is justifiable
from other social institutions, and both see the intrusion of the child
welfare field into family functioning as doing more harm than good. If
the field persists in attempting to prove the merits of its case in terms
of its ability to reduce behavior problems, chances are that the public
will look elsewhere for solutions and find either the Minimalist or the
Maximalist perspective increasingly appealing.

Electronic Editor’s Note: This is the end of the third electronic installment.
In the next installment, we will start with the following question:


Readers are invited to send in their own answer to this question. The
electronic editor will publish the best responses received. You can send your responses
to the author, George Thomas,
or the electronic editor, Tom Hanna.

We welcome your feedback! And be sure to visit us:

[ Index ]
[ Table of Contents ]
[ The Cover ]
[ The Haworth Press ]
[ The Child Abuse Prevention Network ]

[Haworth co-indexing entry note]: Thomas, George.
Co-published simultaneously in Child & Youth Services (The Haworth Press, Inc.)
Vol. 17, No. 1/2, 1994, and: Travels in the Trench Between Child
Welfare Theory and Practice: A Case Study of Failed Promises and Prospects for
Renewal (George Thomas) The Haworth Press, Inc., 1994, pp. xxiii-xxiv. Multiple
copies of this article/chapter may be purchased from The Haworth Document
Delivery Center [1-800-3-HAWORTH; 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (EST)]. © 1994 by
The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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