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The United States of social work

As the forces of a global pandemic, growing income inequality, political entrenchment, social unrest, racial tensions, and climate change converge, the moment calls for a new generation of social workers eager for change.

Social workers throughout U.S. history have performed important, revolutionary work in marginalized communities. But in 2020, the profession faces perhaps its largest challenge ever in the unique intersection of social and racial unrest, the ongoing toll of COVID-19, and historic economic upheaval.

From the first class in social work at Columbia University in 1898 to the 2020 launch of the online bachelor of social work at Pacific Oaks College, here’s how the profession has shaped history—and how it could become a solution to the complex and interconnected issues of today.

Early efforts

Informal methods of social work have been around as long as society has existed. And for thousands of years, religious groups have offered resources and services for those in need—after all, every major religion instructs its followers to care for the poor.

In Colonial America, the colonies had formal channels to serve children and the poor, and even offered some mental health services, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that social work as we know it today really took off in the U.S. After the American Revolution, responsibility for social programs shifted from the small circles of towns and counties to the states, and more nongovernmental agents such as charities and activists launched their own initiatives to help those in need.

The Civil War only accelerated major social initiatives that still do important work today, including the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Red Cross. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the struggles of newly freed slaves led to the formation of the first federal social welfare program, the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The latter half of the 19th century saw social work evolve further as the failures of Reconstruction, multiple financial depressions, rapid industrialization, a flood of immigrants, and reactionary racism created a rash of new social issues.

The Mother of Social Work

Any discussion of social work in the U.S. is likely to include the story of Jane Addams, an iconic activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams began her life’s work in 1889 when she founded a settlement house in Chicago to serve the poor population in the community. Addams’ vision for Hull House was for social workers to live in the community they served, educating and supporting the impoverished people around them. Hull House’s team of progressive reformers offered child care for working mothers, job placement and training for workers, and English language classes for immigrants.

Addams’ Hull House served as a template for the hands-on, holistic support services that social work would come to embody. Progressive and compassionate, this new wave of social workers were primarily educated women with a passion for helping the marginalized and underserved who used their own education and resources to lift up and care for the poor.

The 20th century

Social work in the U.S. went through its greatest metamorphosis so far in the 1900s. Before the Great Depression, social work existed as a hodgepodge of public agencies at the state and local level and private charity work such as Addams’ Hull House, offering services that were far from comprehensive or uniform. When Franklin D. Roosevelt won the White House in 1932, more than 20% of the U.S. population was unemployed, with numbers reaching as high as 90% in some cities, and social work as it stood was insufficient to help the millions plunged into poverty and homelessness.

FDR’s New Deal would change the face of social services forever, creating a giant network of federal social programs that offered a range of services, including unemployment benefits, work placement, housing, child welfare, and more. The federalization of social work had a positive effect on the profession as a whole. As it gained visibility, thousands joined the workforce.

The next major evolution for social work came in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a federal “war on poverty” in 1964, inspired by the same challenges that had driven him to champion the historic Civil Rights Act. Johnson was eager to make meaningful economic policy changes that would reach all Americans. Over the next two years, he oversaw the birth of the Economic Opportunity Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Food Stamp Program, and more.

The latter half of the 20th century was defined by the swinging pendulum of political opinion toward poverty, welfare, and racial and class disparities. Republican presidents by and large sought to cut social programs, while Democratic presidents sought to reinforce and expand them. This bifurcated attitude toward social welfare that persists to this day.

The promise of the profession

2020 has already seen more than its fair share of social crises. COVID-19 has killed more than 215,000 Americans and spurred a major recession, pushing the unemployment rate at one point to reach a historic high of 14.4%. According to recent Pew Research analysis, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, and the wealth gap between Black and white Americans has persisted, with Black households bringing home 61% of white households’ incomes.

Meanwhile, natural disasters continue to take major tolls, from wildfires in the western U.S. to hurricanes in the southeast, with experts stating these events will continue to intensify as a result of climate change. Racial unrest has reached a breaking point as police violence has come under the microscope following several high profile deaths of black people at the hands of police officers.

For many, these challenges might seem overwhelming and impossible to surmount. But social workers might be exactly what is needed to start the tough work of rebuilding lives, families, and social structures.

The historic variety of social workers, from people pursuing charity work in their own communities to leaders enacting major policy changes on the national stage and every iteration in between, is what makes the profession the perfect stopgap to the cascading and interconnected challenges of today.

For those who hope to make a difference at any level, social work is one path to take. The long-standing profession has already seen many reincarnations in the U.S., and many are eager to see it evolve as it takes on the challenges of the 21st century.


Learn more about the online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work available from Pacific Oaks here or request more information below.

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