Sarah Young
The Debate over Public and Private Service

from the author:
I wrote this paper for Henry Jankiewicz’s Writing 209 Honors class. We needed to prepare a research paper on any topic of our choosing. I approached this topic because it was a highly-contested issue at the time when I was writing it. In addition, issues about the history and debates in the profession of Social Work are precious to me, and I do my best to bring these issues to the forefront whenever I can.
from the teacher, Henry Jankiewicz:
In Studio 2 Honors, we used principles of rhetoric and argumentation to examine controversies in three academic communities, then students selected a controversy to research and write about during the rest of the semester. Sarah decided, in an almost reflective research piece, to weigh the pros and cons of two modalities for the delivery of social services. She speaks authoritatively of her field and models the process of using fair and balanced deliberation to arrive at an informed preference.
from the editor:
In this well researched and strongly supported essay, Sarah Young breaks down the controversies that surround an aspect of society that so often seems to slip through the cracks of public service. She brings to light some interesting and surprising facts, and addresses the pros and cons of all sectors of the social work profession. Be it poor government funding or dubiously enforced religious propaganda, Young is ready to admit that no one form of service has cracked the code just yet; however, as an aspiring social worker herself, her thoughtful and cohesive essay could be the first step toward a much-needed change.

With a new President elected (albeit controversially), in came the rush of a new agenda. Gone were the days of the Clinton era, a time of continued investment in big government programs and a commitment that the federal government would assist in healing societal wounds. With President Bush in office, the social work community knew it was in for big changes.

Armed with an agenda consistent with his conservative beliefs, President Bush came forth with policies that attempted to downsize the federal role in social issues and social work, to return power to the states in the form of block grants, and to increase reliance on the market as a solution to problems. Like his father before him, Bush wanted a return to a time when helping a neighbor was something one did out of the goodness of the heart. To make the tax cuts he promised happen, Bush had to shave dollars from the welfare programs administered by social workers to the nation’s most downtrodden citizens.

With support for faith-based social service agencies, a taste for private school vouchers, and an incessant urge to privatize what is known among policy analysts as the “third rail of politics” (Social Security), President Bush was able to stir up a long-standing debate within the social work community (Zastrow, 1999). Social workers began to ask, once again, what was the most effective, most emblematic type of delivery to the needy: public-sector services or private-sector services?

The debate over public and private social services is a constant in the social work profession. To truly understand the debate, the definitions of such agencies must be clear. Barker defines private social agencies as “nonprofit agencies that provide personal social services, mostly to members of targeted groups (such as residents of certain neighborhoods or those of certain religious affiliations, ethnic groups, age categories, or interest groups)” (Barker, 1999). Private services can be “nonprofit,” as Barker alludes to, or can be “for profit” or “proprietary” social agencies (Barker, 1999).

Michael Reisch defines public social service loosely in his article “Public Social Services” as “programs made available by other than market criteria to ensure a basic level of health, education, and welfare provision by making use of government resources and money” (1982). While private-sector social workers “are employed by their clients, maintain their own facilities, determine their own intervention methods, and base their activities on the norms of their profession rather than requirements of social service agencies,” public service is constrained by government regulation (Reisch, 1983).

Funding differences also exist: namely, public services constantly receive government money and private services receive very little, if any. Controversy exists over the pervasiveness of services, the constraints put on each setting, and the recent trends in privatization of social services. By discussing the history and motives of the social work profession and by analyzing the use of funding, religion, selective screening, the debate between public and private social welfare can be more closely examined.

Whether or not people deserve help is perhaps a moot point in the profession of social work. But the debate over who should provide the service is the one on which the entire profession was founded. Private sector (charities) and public sector (government) social services have their own unique positive and negative attributes. Tied into the public vs. private sector debate are the political and religious beliefs of the workers and their feelings toward effective care. Perhaps more confusing in trying to find the best way to provide services to clientele (whether they be therapy, income support, food and shelter programs, or any other social service) is the fact that both deliveries of service grew up around the same time. So in order to understand the debate, one has to understand the history of social work.

American social work was built on the founding Puritan ideals of hard work, diligence, and suffering to meet goals. After adopting the Elizabethan Poor Laws from England, the United States seemed to be on its way to a private social welfare system. The Elizabethan Poor Laws created the distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” poor and sent those “unworthy” of help to privately owned and operated workhouses (or poorhouses). The community and the family took primary responsibility for any needs a person might have had. Throughout much of the 1700s and 1800s, the government did nothing to regulate or deliver social services. A voluntary attitude toward societal problems soon developed (Zastrow, 1999).

The official development of the profession of social work is recognized by scholars to be connected to the Charity Organization Society (COS) and the Settlement House Movements. Both started in the late 1800s. Jane Addams founded the first settlement-house in 1889, and the Charity Organization Society started in Britain in the 1850s. These two separate and different movements are credited with developing the organization and delivery of social work (Karger & Stoesz, 2001).

The Charity Organization Society, led in the United States by Mary Richmond, finds parallels in both private sector social work and in the Conservative theory of today. The COS, for example, attributed poverty to the moral failings of the poor, ignoring social and economic forces that shaped individual behavior. Believers in private (voluntary) social work felt that “by giving aid ‘indiscriminately,’ affluent people encouraged ‘pauperism,’ or long-term dependence on handouts” (Abel, 1997). Consistent with private sector social work, the COS valued individual social work (therapy), contracting between client and worker, and the notion that assistance should be provided by the generosity of the nation’s citizens.

Led by Jane Addams, the Settlement House Movement has influence on the public sector social services, as well as on the contemporary liberal political theory. In contrast to the COS, the Settlement House Movement sought widespread social change and believed that many of the ailments facing the downtrodden were the fault of society and its institutions (Karger & Stoesz, 2001). Like public social service, the Settlement House Movement honored the importance of affirmative action on a macro-level to make broad change. Instead of blaming (and subsequently trying to fix) individuals, the Settlement House Movement aimed to affect society.
Perhaps unique to this debate is the fact that both theories of social work grew up at the same time. Today’s social workers recognize that both types of social services exist, and I believe that many social workers recognize the values of each type (not as in other disciplines where the aim is to extinguish opposing view points). Because of the willingness to let both deliveries exist, social workers of today face a web of entangled service types.

Even if social workers are aware and accepting of the differences that exist between public and private sectors, many have their preferences between the two. So how does one come to value one delivery over another? Perhaps the preference lies somewhere in the comparison of the two types of service delivery.

\Differences exist on many levels between public and private social deliveries, but perhaps none create such debate as the use of religion and/or selective screening. Recognizing the role that religion has played in helping the poor, blind, and generally disadvantaged, it is no surprise that many private social welfare agencies grew out of faith. Well-known examples of such organizations are the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, the Jewish Community Centers, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Red Crescent.

Since private agencies operate outside the realm of government control, they need not heed the First Amendmentís “separation of church and state.î Proponents of private sector services feel that since the agency can work with an extra dimension (religion) it can best help the “whole person.” Opponents feel that by using what Barker refers to as “selective screening techniques,” many needy people of varying (or absent) religion are excluded. Supporters of public sector work feel that since their agencies are banned from addressing the personal issue of religion, the agency can best address a broader, more diverse clientele. While both sides bring up valid points, it is my opinion that spirituality is a dimension that is both useful and key to treatment within the realms of social work practice.

A second major difference between public and private sector agencies is the source of funding. A major critique of private not-for-profit social work is its reliance on voluntary contributions and fundraising as its fundamental source of income. While it is true that many agencies are well funded, many social workers are hesitant to work in these agencies because of the smaller salaries in comparison to government workers. With a reliance on voluntary contributions, the money often dries up and agencies are faced with firing staff members, cutting back benefits to the clientele, or turning to government aid (and the subsequent loss of agency autonomy to government demands). Private sectors are charities; there are no safety nets once the money dries up or the resources (such as food) run out.

The private for-profit (proprietary) agencies are often critiqued as elitist and selective. Since proprietary agencies charge a fee, they are only accessible to fairly wealthy or insured clients. Proponents of private sector work still assert that, “The superiority of [privatization] is now approaching the status of undisputed, conventional wisdom: the private sector exacts a toll from the inefficient for their poor performance, compels the service provider or asset owner to concern himself with the wishes of customers, and spurs a dynamic, never-ending pursuit of excellence all without any of the political baggage that haunts the public sector as elements of its very nature” (Berkowicz, 2001). They feel that reliance on the marketplace and the voluntary sector is the only method consistent with the American values of hard work and minimalist government action in such matters.

Perhaps the biggest asset that public sector agencies have is the large funding base they possess. Often, public agencies are backed by a wealth of funding and by “safety net” laws. In its constitution, for example, New York State has a “safety net clause” which states that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine” (Lurie, 1998). This default illustrates the commitment of the government for many of its programs. In addition, it creates the feeling of entitlement as opposed to charity.

By law, entitlement is something a government guarantees for all its qualifying citizens. In fact, one can sue for benefits denied if one qualifies for such a program. An example is the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefit. If a woman and her children qualified for such a program and the money was not there to provide her due compensation, the woman has the legal right to sue for such an entitlement and to regain such benefit. Because of the financial backings and the entitlement of many of its programs, the public sector social services appear stronger than private sector services.

Perhaps hardest to prove are the intentions of each of the sectors of social work. Much debate has ensued over which service delivery is most consistent with the ethics and intentions of the profession. Each service delivery can be challenged separately in accordance with the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. Private, for-profit services are perhaps most easily attacked because of the profit motive. Is it ethical, for example, for a social worker to be concerned with individual profit when changing the broader society is the aim of social work (Code 6.0l)? Is it fair to charge a fee when doing so excludes the commonly served poor population that social workers aim to help (Code 6.04)?

On the other hand, private not-for-profit services with deep ties to religion are critiqued for violating Section 6.04 d, which states that “social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability.” By promoting and adhering to religious tactics (for example, when Christian food pantries require clients to pray before a meal, or Catholic Charities refuse to provide options counseling to pregnant women), does it discriminate against other beliefs and ideas of citizens who need help? And perhaps a subtler point is that by relying on donations from a dominant affluent class, does it create dependency of the poor on the rich? Does that in turn foster the domination of elitists in this country?

Public sector social workers face a different critique from the Code. Often, with such a large client base, public sector workers enforce a “cookie cutter” or generic feel on much of the delivery. In an effort to stress sameness, does ignoring diversity violate the Code? According to some workers, yes. The code states that “social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief: religion, and mental or physical disability” (Code I.05c). Since public agencies cannot address religion or promote specific religious ideas, this limits the treatment of a person as an individual with unique needs.

It is undoubtedly true that each service sector has its positive and negative attributes. It is also true that each social worker (for one reason or another) will develop a preference for working in one sector over another. It is therefore erroneous to assume that this paper could change the mind of a social worker with solid experience in the field. However, it is hoped that the audience can connect more to the positive attributes of one of the sectors and can then support that sector.

Personally, I feel that public sector social services, while forced to largely ignore individual attributes, are better equipped to fight large-scale social injustice. With a better funding base it is inevitable that public social workers can provide a more pervasive service. I also feel that providing public services sends a message of political support and devotion to social welfare causes. If the nation turned to privatization, that would signify a greater faith in the market economy than in our government to solve societal problems. As a future social worker, I urge for continued support of public sector agencies. With the goal of changing broader society, the public sector is the only method of delivery equipped for such a battle.

Works Cited

Abel, E.K. (1997). “Medicine and mortality: the health care program of the NewYork Charity

Organization Society.” Social Service Review. 71:634.

Barker, Robert L. The Social Work Dictionary. 4th ed. Washington D.C.: NASW, 1999.

Berkowicz, B. (2001). “Prospecting Among the Poor: Welfare Privatization.” Welfare

AdvocacyResearch Project (WARP). Retrieved from the World Wide


Karger, H.J. & Stoesz, D. (2002). American social welfare policy: A pluralist approach (4th

ed.).Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Lurie, I. (1998). Welfare Reform in New York State. Poverty Research News. Retrieved from

the World Wide Web: <>.

NASW Code of Ethics. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:


Reisch, M. (1999). "Public Social Services." Encyclopedia of Social Work. (19th ed.) New York:

NASW Press.


Sarah Young  
Sarah Young is a Junior Social Work major in the College of Human Services and Health Professions. She is the Public Relations Manager for Social Workers United and an active brother in Alpha Phi Omega. Sarah is an Honors student currently working toward her senior thesis