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Some professionals and universities consider social policy a subset of public policy, while other practitioners characterize social policy and public policy to be two separate, competing approaches for the same public interest (similar to MD and DO in healthcare), with social policy deemed more holistic than public policy. Whichever of these persuasions a university adheres to, social policy begins with the study of the welfare state and social services. It consists of guidelines, principles, legislation and associated activities that affect the living conditions conducive to human welfare, such as a person's quality of life. The Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics defines social policy as "an interdisciplinary and applied subject concerned with the analysis of societies' responses to social need", which seeks to foster in its students a capacity to understand theory and evidence drawn from a wide range of social science disciplines, including economics, sociology, psychology, geography, history, law, philosophy and political science. The Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard University describes social policy as "public policy and practice in the areas of health care, human services, criminal justice, inequality, education, and labor". Social policy might also be described 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. Social policy often deals with wicked problems.
The discussion of 'social policy' in the United States and Canada can also apply to governmental policy on social issues such as tackling racism, LGBT issues (such as same-sex marriage) and the legal status of abortion, guns, euthanasia, recreational drugs and prostitution. In other countries, these issues would be classified under health policy and domestic policy.
The study of social policy can either be a stand-alone degree in social policy such as the University of York, Oxford University, and the University of Pennsylvania, or a specialization as part of a public policy degree program such as at McGill University, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Harris School of Public Policy, and the Hertie School of Governance. In the Global South, social policy is offered along with public policy degree programmes, as at the Institute of Public Policy, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, combined with development policy.