The role of social work is becoming more critical as the world confronts new and growing challenges. As a 2022 report by the International Federation of Social Workers noted, society faces an unprecedented host of crises in everything from the environment to health care and income inequality. These issues will require greater engagement by social workers in a variety of areas.
Empowering individual clients at the micro level may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about social workers. But social workers also have responsibilities at the broader, macro level. Social workers are active in addressing systemic issues that can affect whole communities and even the entire world.
Advocacy in social work has long been a pillar of the profession. From joining coalitions and advancing social movements to promoting policy changes, social workers are at the forefront of advocating for progress on issues that affect their clients, communities, and the world.
Exploring resources related to social work advocacy can inform anyone’s understanding of the profession’s obligation to advocate for vulnerable populations.
Defining Social Work Advocacy
The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) code of ethics requires social workers to advocate to:
- Promote society’s general welfare at all levels, ranging from local to global
- Advance the development of environments, communities, and people
- Advocate for living conditions that are conducive to fulfilling basic human needs
- Promote economic, social, cultural, and political values and institutions that are compatible with realizing social justice
In terms of specific actions social workers can take to fulfill their obligations in advocacy, NASW’s code of ethics specifies that social workers should:
- Remain aware of how actions in the political arena affect social work practice
- Advocate for policy and legislative changes to improve social conditions and promote social justice
- Engage in social and political action to help ensure that all people have equal access to opportunities, services, employment, and resources
- Work to expand choice and opportunity for all people
- Promote conditions that cultivate respect for cultural and social diversity
The variety of settings where social workers work provides them with extensive opportunities to act on their obligation to advocate. While engaging in social work practice in settings such as schools, social services agencies, or health care organizations, these professionals gain valuable experience and expertise that can inform their advocacy.
Opportunities for social work advocacy are only growing. For example, a 2021 article in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work discussed social workers’ responsibility to help eliminate the digital divide and advocate for communities that have no access to high-speed internet and other technology.
Why Is Advocacy Important in Social Work?
Advocacy in social work practice can advance some of the most fundamental principles of human rights. Examining how social workers promote equity, inclusion, and accessibility demonstrates why advocacy is important in social work.
Advocating for Equity
Social workers’ responsibility to advocate for equity is woven into their training and education. For example, the accreditation standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) require social work educational programs to integrate equity approaches into their curricula.
Social workers advocate for and promote equity in many ways, including by:
- Participating in professional development that fosters an equity-minded practice
- Seeking ways to advance equity in agency policy, state policy, and community relations
- Exploring disaggregated data about people with differing social identities to identify potential service delivery inequities or differing outcomes from treatment
- Implementing support strategies for marginalized clients
- Forming and growing networks of social workers to share ideas and strategies for advancing equity
Advocating for Inclusion
According to NASW, an inclusive environment:
- Ensures everyone has equitable access to opportunities and resources
- Advances individuals’ sense of belonging
- Enables groups and individuals to feel motivated, respected, engaged, safe, and valued
Social work advocacy to advance inclusion can take many forms. For example:
- A 2020 article in the Journal of Accounting and Finance in Emerging Economies noted that social workers can promote social inclusion in communities by:
- Participating in raising community awareness of marginalized people
- Working to develop bridges between communities and the oppressed
- Motivating communities to become more educated about people who are excluded from society
- The journal Social Work recommended a few ways social workers can advance social inclusion, such as by:
- Involving their clients as equal partners or leaders in their assessment, intervention, and evaluation processes
- Developing alliances across professional and social boundaries to promote change in their communities
- The Journal of Social Work suggested that social workers can strengthen social inclusion by encouraging marginalized individuals to conduct volunteer work in their communities.
Advocating for Accessibility
According to NASW, the ethical principles that underpin social work practice require social workers to ensure that people have access to the services, information, and resources that they need.
Advocating for accessibility can include a variety of actions. For example:
- A 2022 report on Social Work Haven suggested that social workers can advocate for accessibility to resources by:
- Identifying and addressing issues that affect people’s ability to connect with services and resources
- Advocating for changes to systems and policies to ensure that marginalized populations have equal access to housing, employment, goods, and services
- BMC Public Health offered recommendations for reducing barriers to community resources, such as advocating for:
- Structural changes to improve the accessibility of social resources
- Investment in incentives that improve relationships and coordination among social services agencies and health care organizations
- Increases in targeted support to remove barriers to social services
Types of Advocacy in Social Work
Social workers can engage in advocacy at every level of social work. They also can advocate for specific issues in which they have an interest. Given the many types of advocacy in social work and the number of issues that can benefit from social work advocacy, social workers have endless opportunities to advocate for those in need.
Advocacy at All Levels of Social Work
The types of advocacy that social workers can conduct parallel the three categories of social work practice, which NASW describes as:
- Micro social work. In this type of practice, social workers work with individual clients to help address their issues. Micro-level social work includes situations in which licensed clinical social workers provide therapy to clients or teach them new skills. Advocacy at the micro level could also involve helping individual clients access social services, housing, or employment resources.
- Mezzo social work. Social workers at the mezzo level primarily support groups such as families, schools, or communities. They help these groups work toward their goals and connect them with other professionals or systems that can help address their issues. At the mezzo level, advocacy could involve the identification of shared problems that multiple clients face and working in the wider community to address those common challenges.
- Macro social work. Advocacy at the macro level involves social workers’ advocating for entire populations of vulnerable people from the local level up to the global level. This could include organizing coalitions, working to influence public policy, creating petitions, or supporting specific legislation.
Social Work Advocacy to Address Specific Issues
From poverty and homelessness to climate change, social workers know there is no shortage of issues that can benefit from their advocacy efforts.
According to the United Nations, restricting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius could help the planet avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change; however, current policies could result in a 2.8 degrees Celsius increase in temperature by the close of this century. Climate change has the potential to negatively affect communities’ ability to grow food, protect health, provide sufficient housing, and offer stable employment.
Social work advocacy to address the effects of climate change can encompass many activities. For example, social workers can collaborate with public health officials and engineers to to help vulnerable people who are already experiencing the effects of climate change. They can also advocate for renewable energy policies and policies that reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
The World Health Organization has reported that, from 2015 to 2050, the proportion of the global population aged 60 or older will almost double — from 12% to 22%. In addition, 80% of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries by 2050.
A 2022 report explained that social workers can advocate for seniors on the micro and macro levels by providing individual or family therapy for cognitive issues, organizing volunteers to assist older adults, coordinating health care for elderly people, or advocating for legislation to protect the elderly from abuse or neglect.
In a 2022 article, Human Rights Watch reported that progress in addressing racial inequity is still elusive. Issues such as discrimination in the legal system, law enforcement’s use of force, and disparities in terms of economic opportunity continue to persist.
In a 2022 report on social work and racism, NASW set forth a number of recommendations for social workers’ advocacy to promote racial equity. For example, they can:
- Advocate for social work education that consistently embraces an anti-racist orientation
- Work to educate the public about discrimination and racial inequity
- Advance anti-racist organizational policies
- Promote training on white supremacy and its effects on society
- Challenge legislation that is discriminatory or racist
- Conduct research into best practices for anti-racist social work
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. face higher rates of poor health and disease compared with white Americans.
Social workers can take a number of actions to advocate for health equity, such as:
- Collaborating with public officials on health policy interventions for vulnerable populations
- Advocating for reducing food insecurity in urban and rural areas
- Translating research about health disparities into practice and policies
A 2021 report in JAMA Health Forum also stressed the importance of integrating social workers into health care delivery teams to improve health equity.
The United Nations describes the right to life and liberty, freedom from torture and slavery, freedom of expression, and the right to education as among some of the most fundamental human rights.
A 2021 report in The British Journal of Social Work described social work as a human rights profession. As such, the practice of social work is guided by a framework of human rights that involves advocacy efforts such as:
- Helping vulnerable people realize their human rights in areas such as housing, education, or health care
- Teaching vulnerable people how to cope with experiences in their daily lives in which their human rights are violated
- Encouraging vulnerable people to actively participate in community services and identifying barriers to participation
- Engaging in political advocacy to denounce structures and systems that violate human rights
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report on U.S. immigration:
- More immigrants live in the U.S. than in any other country.
- Immigrants in the U.S. represented one-fifth of all the migrants in the world.
- More than 40 million people in the U.S. were born in another country.
In light of these statistics, immigration advocacy in social work is crucial. Social work advocacy efforts for immigrants can include activities such as:
- Working with legal organizations to offer immigrants support in areas such as health care, housing, or therapy
- Helping immigrants to access and navigate systems of child welfare, employment, or education
- Supporting legislative and political advocacy efforts related to immigration
- Advocating for alternatives to immigration detention
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate in 2021 was 11.6%; this translated to 37.9 million people in the U.S. living in poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, experiencing poverty can have significant negative consequences on physical and mental health, housing, education, or employment.
Nonprofit organization Casey Family Programs has noted that many financial assistance programs provide for basic needs, but only on a one-time, emergency basis. It suggests longer-term advocacy efforts to help alleviate poverty such as:
- Promoting supportive housing programs that include on-site, wraparound services, such as employment assistance and counseling
- Advocating for tax-related support such as child tax credits
- Establishing career centers that offer a full complement of services such as job training and job placement assistance
- Advancing efforts to provide quality child care that is affordable
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, point-in-time homelessness counts conducted on a single night in 2022 determined that:
- 582,462 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness (this translated to 18 out of every 10,000 people in the country facing homelessness).
- 60% of people experiencing homelessness stayed in shelters, while 40% stayed in locations not intended for habitation.
A 2021 study in Campbell Systematic Reviews analyzed interventions for homelessness and identified those that were most effective. For example, social workers can advocate for:
- Permanent supportive housing programs to improve housing stability
- Intensive mental health interventions and income assistance programs that address certain causes of homelessness
- “Housing first” strategies that do not make access to housing contingent on sobriety
Additional Resources for Advocacy in Social Work
The following resources offer additional information on social work advocacy:
- Association of Oncology Social Work, Advocacy. This resource provides information on the Association of Oncology Social Work’s advocacy efforts on behalf of people affected by cancer.
- Clinical Social Work Association, Advocacy Priorities. This website offers information on the Clinical Social Work Association’s advocacy efforts.
- National Association of Social Workers, Policy Issues. NASW offers information on important policy issues on which it conducts advocacy efforts.
- National Association of Social Workers – California Chapter, “Save the Date! Social Workers L.E.A.D on August 10.” This article provides information on Legislative Education and Advocacy Day in California.
- School Social Work Association of America, Macro Level Advocacy Toolkit. This toolkit provides extensive information regarding advocacy in school social work.
- WebJunction, “Resources for Social Work and Library Collaboration.” This article provides information on collaborations between libraries and social workers.
Advocacy in social work can also encompass the social work profession itself. For example, social workers can advocate for:
- Equitable compensation for social workers
- Portability in social worker licensure across states
- Medicare reimbursement for the services of licensed clinical social workers
- Expanding the scope of social work practice
- Student loan forgiveness and debt relief for social workers
- Increasing social work telehealth services
- Reducing violence in social workers’ workplaces
Additional Resources on Advocacy for the Social Work Profession
The following resources offer additional information on advocating on behalf of the social work profession:
- The British Journal of Social Work, “Not Rocket Science: Implementing Efforts to Improve Working Conditions of Social Workers.” This study examined methods for improving the working conditions of child welfare social workers.
- Council on Social Work Education, Advocacy & Policy. This website summarizes the Council of Social Work Education’s advocacy efforts on behalf of social worker education.
- National Association of Social Workers, “The Art of Self-Care for Social Workers.” This article discusses and provides resources for social worker self-care.
- National Association of Social Workers – New York City Chapter, Strengthening the Social Work Workforce. This website is a resource for a variety of methods to bolster the social work workforce.
- The New Social Worker, “Self-Advocacy in Social Work: A Time for Reflection.” This article offers social workers advice on advocating for themselves.
- UNICEF, “Let’s Stand Together for Social Workers.” This website provides information on raising awareness of the social work profession.
Effect Social Change Through Social Work
Advocacy is a key component of social work practice. Through their advocacy efforts on an array of issues, social workers can improve the quality of life for individuals, communities, and all of society. The many forms of advocacy in social work are vital to helping vulnerable populations and advancing the cause of human rights across the globe.