The evolution of social work

Updated on March 2, 2023

For over 150 years, Americans have benefited from programs developed by social workers, which aim to help the poor and promote social change. 

Social work, however, is a relatively new profession. In the early days, the intent of social work was to address poverty and inequality. Charity was informal and took the form of donations of food and clothing, without a great deal being done about identifying the cause of the problems or developing permanent solutions.

In the early 1700s, poorhouses and workhouses were built to house vulnerable people without any means of support, the aged and ill people without families. Poorhouses and workhouses were designed to provide those in need with the bare minimum to survive. At this point in time, intense social stigma was associated with being unable to support oneself.

The technological and scientific developments in the 19th century spurred an influx of people into urban areas, creating a new set of social problems. The prosperous middle and upper-class citizens began to find ways in which to improve the physical conditions of the poor underclasses. Around the same time, a religious revival encouraged urban missions to resolve problems such as poverty, disease and prostitution.

A new policy of ‘scientific charity’ evolved, stating that charity should be secular, rational and empirical. Mental asylums were built to house the mentally ill, and rescue societies found alternate ways for prostitutes to earn a living.

Modern social work

In the last quarter of the 19th century, millions of people emigrated from both Europe and the southern states to cities such as New York, seeking to make a living. Most, however, ended up poverty-stricken.

In England, Octavia Hill was a moving force behind the development of social housing, making a point of getting to know her tenants personally and encouraging them to better themselves. She organized charitable grants and pioneered a system of home visits, which laid the foundation for modern social work. She was a critic of the ‘outdoor relief’ system, which provided for people who were not living within the workhouse system. She believed it would not motivate people to work to improve their conditions, which resulted in it being a waste of funds. 

Hill’s work prompted the establishment of a settlement house, Toynbee Hall, by two of her friends. Toynbee Hall was situated within the impoverished East End of London and occupied by male students who were living the lifestyle they were accustomed to, while at the same time involving and uplifting the community around them. Settlement houses became synonymous with social accommodation for years to come.

It was a visit to the Toynbee Hall community house that inspired US social worker, Jane Addams. Addams returned to America and founded Hull House in Chicago along the same lines. Based on what she had learned at Toynbee Hall, Addams and a friend moved into Hull House, engaging with the poor people living in their immediate area. Within a week, they had established a kindergarten to help the mothers in the area with daycare. Eventually, they established German and Italian clubs in an effort to connect the many immigrants in the area who were battling with poverty in a strange new country. 

As the popularity of Hull House grew, Jane Addams enlisted additional young, educated women to come and live with them and assist in community initiatives. Hull House offered courses in sewing, art and English. They established playgrounds for children and adult education courses. Addams became known as the founder of modern-day social work in the US.

Around that time, another innovator of change, Mary Richmond, grew up with her grandmother in a boarding house on the wrong side of town in Baltimore. Not having the funds to attend college, Richmond found employment at the Charity Organization Society of Baltimore City, a movement established to coordinate relief activities. She soon realized that there was no structure to the way they were operating and set about applying scientific principles to their projects. This was the beginning of professional casework. 

Richmond was instrumental in establishing the first social worker training school at Columbia University and later began teaching and traveling around the country gathering data on society’s problems and its causes. Mary Richmond published a book, Social Diagnosis, which was used as a college textbook. She saw social work as an integrated process of casework and social reform and introduced the idea that social workers should have a sound understanding of the individual circumstances of people.

Following the abolition of slavery, a large population of African American people immigrated to the northern states, resulting in an urgent need for Black social workers. They were integrated into African American settlement houses. 

As a young African American, Edward Franklin Frazier was determined to fight racial segregation. After graduating with honors and armed with a master’s in sociology, he accepted a research fellowship to study rural cooperatives in Denmark, a poverty-stricken area in the South and later accepted a post at a social work school in Atlanta. Determined to make changes, Frazier went on to establish a school of social work at Howard University in Washington, DC. 

When the Great Depression hit America in 1929, the developing profession of social work faced its greatest challenges. Franklin D Roosevelt promised the American people a New Deal and brought in educated social workers to fulfill his promise that people would not die of starvation. 

Harry Hopkins was designated by President Roosevelt to administer the $500m emergency relief fund. He took risks and stood up to powerful politicians who criticized his methods. Later, Hopkins stated: “On the question of a work program and direct relief, it is my conviction… that the federal government should never return to a relief program.” He wanted America to provide the opportunity for every able-bodied unemployed person to hold down a job. 

The Works Program Administration was launched in 1935. By 1935, Hopkins took charge of the largest federal works program in the nation’s history. The Social Security Act of 1935, sanctioned by President Roosevelt, authorized unemployment compensation, old age pensions, the abolition of child labor and the protection of ill health.

The Social Security Act created a need to employ professional social workers within the system. The president created a Committee on Economic Security with Jane Hoey as director of the Welfare Council. As an advocate of professional standards in social work, Hoey had held numerous high-profile positions in the social welfare and child welfare fields. She developed a statistical reporting system and a special unit to assist the various states in the hiring of professional social welfare staff. This brought professionalism to the administration of public welfare across the US.

The first woman to be elected to the senate was Frances Perkins in her role as labor minister. She pushed for laws against child labor as well as the enforcement of reasonable working hours and safe working conditions for adults. The Fair Labor Standards Act was established in 1938, with a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, safe factory conditions and laws to protect children from industrial exploitation. 

At the end of World War II in 1945, soldiers returned with wounds, both physical and mental. The war had taken its toll on all of society. A Veteran’s Association was established with the aim of restoring the employability of disabled veterans, and social workers began to evaluate ways of rehabilitating them and re-integrating them into the community. By the end of 1950, social work was steadily growing.

As a Black war veteran, Whitney Young saw the tragedy of Black people returning from the war. While in the army, Young had honed his negotiating skills, acting as a mediator between the Black troops and the White officers. After achieving a master’s degree in social work, Young found employment with the Urban League, a social work agency. He became a director of the League in Omaha, Nebraska, and persuaded employers that by ignoring talented labor on the basis of color that they were missing a lot of opportunities. 

Young urged young Black people to “plan and prepare”, so that they would be able to step into opportunities as they arose. He understood the need to unite Blacks and Whites, as well as the government and corporate labor. His focus was on the civil rights of all Americans, and he called upon Whites to cast off their prejudices. He brought the humane values of social work into clear focus.

In the early 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson, the successor to President Kennedy, declared war on poverty. The poor received housing, food stamps and Medicare. However, the war on poverty faltered with the start of the Vietnam war. President Nixon wanted to put a stop to welfare, as the government was not coping with the demands it put on the country. 

Around this time, Ana Dumois recognized the need for healthcare in poverty-stricken areas in New York’s Lower East side. She campaigned for community healthcare centers, introducing the concept that the people had the right to participate in, and take responsibility for, their own healthcare facilities. She organized the first federally funded healthcare center in the country which was controlled by the community. At the close of the 20th century, large federal initiatives had come to an end, and healthcare programs had become the responsibility of the individual communities, aided by social workers.

Social work in the 21st century

Fast forward to the early 2000s, where, through necessity, social work has developed into a more structured, complex discipline, encompassing human rights, social and economic justice, substance abuse, mental illness, child abuse, domestic violence, and much more. Nowadays, social workers are well-versed in advocacy and the empowerment of individuals and entire communities as families find themselves under immense pressure to survive. 

The escalating frequency of gun violence, domestic abuse, substance abuse and terrorism have necessitated an increase in trauma counseling services.

A more recent challenge facing social workers today is the constant access to negative news from around the world, brought to us by widespread and instant access to information via the internet and social media, resulting in a high incidence rate of ‘secondary trauma’. 

Technology and social work

On a more positive note, individuals and companies are identifying problem areas in social work and developing computer-based solutions that minimize paperwork and improve efficiency within the various social work departments and agencies.

With the vast array of technological aids currently available, social workers have access to multiple options to provide information and services to their clients. From online and telephone counseling to videoconferencing, social networks, mobile apps, automated tutorials, emails and text messages, today’s social workers can communicate with clients more efficiently than in the past. 

In addition, they can access client information, and make use of encryption tools to store sensitive information efficiently. When it comes to addressing social justice issues and advocating improvements in communities, social workers can enlist the aid of creative software packages and online tutorials to get the point across more effectively.

In these exciting times, an online master’s degree in social work from Florida University will enhance your skills as a social worker and enable you to move into more challenging areas of the profession. Learn more here about this prestigious degree which allows you to study online while you continue working.

Moving forward

With the increasing diversity and complexity of today’s world, there is an escalating need for advocacy of human rights and social justice, as well as ongoing endeavors to solve economic and environmental issues. There is no time like the present to get involved in social work, making a difference in communities and families, advocating for the poverty-stricken and abused and innovating change in your surrounding environment for the good of all.

Social workers help people to cope with their problems and endeavor to prevent further issues; however, social work needs funding and manpower to be successful. It needs innovative leaders like Jane Addams and Mary Richmond to come forward with creative ideas. 

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