Without social welfare Siddhartha Gautama would never have become Shakyamuni Buddha. It was through the ingrained, but not enforced it must be noted, social welfare structures of his time that allowed him to enter on the path of a Mendicant, or holy man who was wholly dependant on others for his food and clothing.
Traditional Social Welfare System Across Asia
The traditional social welfare system that enabled a Mendicant to survive is still present in many parts of the Asian continent. This ancient eastern social welfare system differs greatly from the western concept of social welfare in a number of ways, but primarily in that money or food is never just handed out to those who ask. This idea is intrinsic to the Buddhist concept of social welfare; it is always a two sided transaction, there is never, nothing for something and always something for something.
Buddha before and after his enlightenment would never dream of not repaying the giver, if only with some words of wisdom, teachings or a bit of physical labour around the givers homestead. This is one of the reasons a Buddhist monk as a guest will never turn away food of any type that is served to him by his host. Indeed Buddha himself actually died from eating a meal in just this manner, and some of his last words were to not reveal this to his host, but thank him for a nutritious meal that had given him strength.
In Buddhist culture the poor and needy are always looked after, but unless they are completely unable to help through advanced disease or thorough disability, they are expected to help, even in some small way, to contribute towards that aid that they have received.
It is a social welfare system of common sense that recognises we all need to participate and contribute in life to help ourselves and others, the willingness to rise above a situation of reliant poverty or reliance on others. All people can plant a seed and help it grow, and if you have even one metre of earth you can move towards self sustenance. If this willingness to contribute and participate is exhibited in any way then you can count on being aided and helped through hard times by any Buddhist you might meet. A Buddhist will bend over backwards to help if that willingness is present in those who ask for aid.
Social Welfare as Proactive Systems
Buddhism also encourages proactive systems of social welfare, such as the building of communal food gardens and subsequent teaching of sustainable agriculture. That old adage of, teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish, is wholly applicable to the Buddhist outlook on social welfare. It is a belief in empowering individuals and communities to rise above their circumstance through determination, hard work and community spirit. Because like so much in Buddhism the practitioner is taught to look for the root cause beyond the symptoms or effects, and to address this issue or root cause rather than just treating the symptoms with blind payouts.
Buddhism recognizes that we all live in a complex but completely related and dependent society, the rich company owner is just as important as the laborer who works for him. In fact neither would exists without the other, we are all dependant upon the societies we live in. Unless you can find a patch of earth and become wholly self-sustainable, you are intrinsically tied to the society in which you live, no man is an island. Buddhism realises that we all need to work together to survive in this world and its concept of social welfare springs from this and the belief that individual is completely capable of rising above misfortune to join in this wonderfully complex and symbiotic world we live in.