Ideas for teaching Social Welfare Policy and Services
Compiled by John McNutt


Teaching social welfare policy and services can be a very challenging and rewarding task. This document will give you some ideas about how to effectively present the material and stimulate student learning. These exercises were first presented at the 1995 Annual Program Meeting of the Indiana Association for Social Work Education.

How it works: Macroeconomics for Social Welfare Contributed by Robert Vernon, University of Indianapolis.

This is a prototype computer tutorial designed to teach basic principles of macroeconomic exchange and how various types of welfare are structured. The program is written in toolbox (an authoring program) and contains animations to illustrate several concepts.

Using the Popular Post to Teach Social Policy Contributed by David Metzger IUSSW

I teach policy without a text and have found that this approach works very well. I require students to subscribe to The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor and Sunday New York Times, as well as their local newspaper. I also require that they watch the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour for a week. These sources have different perspectives on the news, and students are given the opportunity to see different positions on policy and policy issues. I give the students an analytical framework of the policy enterprise and we then apply the model to current affairs. My framework has four parts, starting with policy goals. I emphasize that how one defines the problem highly influences how solutions are defined. In addition, students are also assigned a series of more traditional materials to read. This approach leads to exciting and stimulating discussions that make the material come alive. The thing that attracts me to the popular press is that they tend to be prescriptive which provides clear alternatives and they also provide a comparative look at policy issues.

Teaching Legal Issues Contributed by Ed Fitzgerald, IU East and IUSSW.

I use case law and legislation to facilitate discussion of social welfare policy. I demonstrate the use of case law to show the importance of clear administrative procedure to protect client's due process rights.

C-SPAN in the Classroom Contributed by John McNutt, Boston College

The C-SPAN network offers coverage of the House and Senate, as well as a variety of other events. C-SPAN’s licensing gives educators permission to copy most of its programming under very liberal conditions. C-SPAN Professor and C-SPAN in the Classroom are free services that provide many resources for teachers, including a free seminar in Washington (which I highly recommend). There is also an archive of C-SPAN programming at Purdue. The toll free number for C-SPAN educational services is 1-800-523-7586.

I use C-SPAN to teach the decision-making process and to teach lobbying skills. I obtained a prepared tape of the congressional process from Purdue’s archives. This particular tape traces the Clean Air Act of 1990 through the process from introduction to signing into law. Since this tape is long, I require students to watch it on their own time and be prepared to comment on it in class. Shorter tapes (there is an excellent presentation on lobbying) are also available and I usually show those in class. I also tape material from various hearings or speeches (generally five minutes or so in length) and use those as discussion starters.

There are two ways to obtain tapes for classroom use. You can tape C-Span, watch the tape, and copy what you need to a new tape for classroom use. The alternative way is to order the tapes you want from the archives at Purdue. There is a modest charge for the latter. Purdue publishes catalogs of available material and will produce a custom tape for you if you prefer.

Additional C-SPAN features can be used in other parts of the course. Booknotes (discussions of current books) often presents books of importance to social welfare and Russian TV News provides an interesting cross cultural comparison. C-SPAN has a gopher ( site with interesting resources.

Letter Writing Contributed by Kathy Byers, IU Bloomington and IUSSW

I assign students to write a minimum of one letter to a public official either supporting or opposing a piece of social welfare legislation under consideration at the local, state or federal level. I limit the length of the letters to one page and provide guidelines to the students in letter writing. For those who actually send the letter , they gain a sense of power and influence as constituents. Last year, many students wrote regarding the proposed cutbacks and block granting of head start. They felt that their letters had made a difference when head start was not folded into the block grants being proposed.

Explore and Analyze Policy Affecting Populations at Risk. Contributed by Elaine Owens-Snow, Indiana University East and IUSSW

The purpose of this assignment is to enhance student awareness about how policies affect populations at risk. I assign students to small groups and give them a library assignment concerning the way policy affects a given group (Women, Racial and Ethnic Groups, the Poor, People of Color, Gay Men and Lesbian Women). Each task group reports back to the larger body. They receive feedback from the larger group and they use this information to make changes. The final product is a report to the larger group (a three page written essay) on their findings.

I like the assignment because it gives students the opportunity to explore special topics of their interests and to participate in a small group experience. It also helps students to understand cultures that are different from their own.

Assessing and Monitoring Policy Information Contributed by Kathy Byers, IU Bloomington and IUSSW

I assign students the responsibility to keep track of a proposed state or federal social welfare policy. Students use newspapers, LEXIS/NEXIS, listservs and other sources to follow the progress of the proposal. Students turn in a two page report addressing the following points: the policy they were following, the major source they used to monitor the policy and any additional sources, how useful the source was for tracking the proposal, how the proposal was changed or modified and the fate of the policy.

Sterilization in Virginia Contributed by John McNutt, Boston College

Many students are unaware that involuntary sterilization was practiced in the United States. It’s legality was upheld in a Supreme Court case entitled Buck v. Bell . Carrie Buck, a poor Virginia woman, was slated to be sterilized against her will under Virginia’s Compulsory Sterilization Law. She appealed to Virginia and later Federal Courts. Finally, in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled against her appeal. Reading the actual case decision is an interesting assignment for students. A PBS feature entitled “Lynchburg” tells the tale of this tragic case and the practices that surround it. This is a tragic part of American social welfare history. Excellent discussions about the role of social control vs. humanitarian ideas in social policy are possible with this topic.

Teaching Policy Analysis from an Historical Perspective. Contributed by Kathy Byers, IU Bloomington and IUSSW

I have students identify an area of practice or a policy area that interests them early in the term. Some areas of possible interest are civil rights for people of color and/or women, housing and homelessness, mental retardation, child welfare, family planning, substance abuse and so forth. I ask them to develop an understanding of the historical development of the policy area, using textbooks, the Encyclopedia of Social Work and other sources. I assign a written project about a specific policy or piece of legislation, instructing them to use the following suggested outline: suggested outline:

1. Introduction to the policy or topic, placing it in
Historical Context;
2. Need or problem the policy was designed to address;
3. Major dimensions of the policy or legislation.
4. Goals or objectives of the policy or program
5. Eligibility
6. Benefits, provisions and services;
7. Funding and Administrative Structure
8. Evaluation of the impact of the program at the time.
9. Analysis of the historical impact of the program in light of more recent proposals to deal with the policy or program area?

Policy Practice Skills Questionnaire Contributed by John McNutt, Boston College

I borrowed this exercise from Dr. George Haskett of Marywood College School of Social Work. Dr. Haskett developed a questionnaire of policy advocacy activities. I have students use the questionnaire to interview a social worker in the community about their involvement in policy-change activities. The students also write up the interview and tell about their impressions of the interviewee. I usually get an interesting discussion about the range of policy interventions that practitioners are actually using. This tends to dispel the idea that “real” social workers aren’t involved in policy change activities. I have found Dr. Haskett's questionnaire to be extremely useful. For more information read:

Haskett, G. T. (1990). Teaching social policy: Implications for a part-time social work education model. Journal of continuing social work education. 5 (1), 22-26.

Researching Community Needs/Problems in a Policy Context. Contributed by Kathy Byers, IU Bloomington and IUSSW

I assign each student to a group that studies a problem or need in the local community. Students are expected to find out how the community responds to the problem or need, identify the areas of unmet need and discuss what policy or program changes are needed to address those issues. The groups make oral presentations to the rest of the class at the end of the semester. I give the students a format that includes the following items: the problem as your group defines it; the problem as defined by others in the community, the indicators, dimensions and facts about the problem; what services are available to address the problem? how well are these services integrated? what agencies are providing services? How well are the services addressing the needs? What unmet needs are apparent? What recommendations can your group make and what strategies will help get your ideas enacted?

Examining Historical Policymakers: A Diversity Perspective. Contributed by John McNutt, Boston College

I have an assignment that helps students examine policy through the eyes of an historical figure from a diverse background. The assignment reads as follows: Term Project: Each student will prepare a course research project. Select a historical figure who was active in the development the social work profession, the cause of social justice and social reform or the development of social welfare. This person must be different from you in terms of gender, race, social class or nationality. Study this person's life and accomplishments and write a paper addressing (1) the major course of the person's life and accomplishments, (2) how the time period in which they lived affected their life and career and (3) how their gender, race, nationality, social class and other important issues affected their life and career. Also discuss what relevance this person's life and career have for your future career in social work and what you have learned by studying their life.

Attending Policy Forums Contributed by Kathy Byers, IU Bloomington and IUSSW

I require students to attend and write a report about two meetings where policy decisions are made. They attend meetings such as those of agency boards, the local school board and the city council I give the students a format for evaluating the decision making process they observe and for reporting on the results of the group’s deliberations. Seeing the policy-making process in action is always an enlightening experience.

Additional Resources for Teaching Social Welfare Policy
Compiled by John McNutt Boston College


Bergenson, P. (Ed) (1991). Teaching public policy: Theory and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Coplin, W. (Ed) (1978). Teaching policy studies. Lexington: Lexington Books.

Van Soest, D. (1992). Incorporating peace and social justice into
the social work curriculum. Washington, DC: NASW Press.


Counihan, W. A. (1986). The analyst’s tool box. The Bureaucrat., 29-32.

McFarlane, D.R. & Gordon, L.J. (1992). Teaching health policy and politics in US schools of public health. Journal of public health policy. 13 (4), 428-434.

Salamon, L. M. (1993). Mastering the federal data monster: Some advice for policy wonks. Nonprofit management and leadership 4 (1), 123-132.

Class Exercises:

Brawley, E.A. (1985). Making a difference: An action oriented approach to social policy for undergraduate social work students. Arete. 10 (1), 50-55.

Chittick, W. (1981-82). Writing policy memorandum. Teaching political science. 8(4),98-105.

Jansson, B. S. (1994). Using cases from published sources. Social welfare policy. 2 (1), 3-4.

Kent, G.(1973). Teaching practical policy analysis. Teaching political science. 2 (1), 100-103.

Neubeck, K. (1977). Economic inequality and cultural values. Teaching sociology. 4, (2), 167-176

Wiley, K.B. (1991). Teaching policy analysis using a briefing format. PS: Political science & politics. 24, 216-218.

Simulation Games:

Endersby, J.W. & Webber, D. J. (1995). Iron triangle simulation: A role-playing game for undergraduates in congress, interest groups and public policy classes. PS: Political science & politics. 28,
(September), 520-523.