The Fascinating History of Social Work in the U.S.

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Since the late 19th century, social workers have faithfully advocated for racial equality; public assistance for homeless individuals; and health care for the poor, people with disabilities, and the elderly. They fight for justice and see firsthand the devastating effects of racism, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and violence on individuals, families, and communities. The history of social work is marked by turmoil, struggle, and, above all, perseverance.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Regis College Online Master of Social Work program.

How social work has grown in the United States since the late 19th century.

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The Early History of Social Work

Social work began with the emergence of the social question: The paradox of increasing poverty in the increasingly productive and prosperous economy of the late 19th century in Europe and North America. Concerned individuals noticed that the industrial economies posed new problems to society, such as unemployment, neglected and abandoned children, chronic disability, and poverty.

The Emergence and Growth of the Social work Profession

Social work’s roots were planted in the 1880s, when charity organization societies (COS) were created to organize municipal voluntary relief associations and settlement houses were established. It was recognized as a profession in the 1900s; by the 1920s, social workers were working in hospitals, public schools, and family agencies. The also provided aid during the Great Depression and World War II and helped address the mental health concerns of veterans and the public after the war. The profession stagnated in the 1970s, and social work organizations lobbied for legal regulation in the 1980s. This led to the establishment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in the 1990s. In the 2000s, social work organizations came together to discuss ways to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners.

The Results

The efforts of social workers have led to a wide range of vital socioeconomic improvements. These include the protection of civil rights for all, the establishment of financial safety nets like unemployment insurance, humane treatment of people with mental illness, and prevention of child abuse and neglect.

3 Key Figures and the Challenges They Faced

Women in social work have played a critical role in identifying challenges faced by vulnerable individuals and presenting and implementing solutions. Women like Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, and Dorothy Height are widely recognized for their extensive work in advocacy and policymaking.

Jane Addams (1860 to 1935)

A visit to London’s Toynbee Hall, a facility built to serve the poor, inspired her and friend Ellen Gates Starr to open Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Hull House was one of the first American settlements to provide services for immigrants and the poor. By 1919, she had served as the first female president of what’s now known as the National Conference on Social Welfare, established the National Federation of Settlements, and served as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She became the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Frances Perkins (1880 to 1965)

In 1909, seven years after beginning her pursuit into social work, Perkins launched an investigation on childhood malnutrition among school children in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The next year, as executive secretary of the National Consumers League, Perkins focused on issues designed to protect various workers, including female and child factory workers. This focus was intensified in 1911, when she witnessed nearly 50 factory workers jump eight to nine stories to escape a factory fire. She spent the rest of her career advocating for worker’s rights. She became the first woman to hold a presidential cabinet position and drafted the blueprint for the Social Security Act and parts of FDR’s New Deal legislation.

Dorothy Height (1912 to 2010)

Height became socially and politically active in high school in the 1920s. Her passion for advocacy led her to become the president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957. This enabled her to work with leading figures of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Height helped organize the seminal March on Washington protest in 1963, established the YWCA Center for Racial Justice in 1965, and helped launch the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush for her efforts.

The State of Social Work Today

Social work has expanded to address the needs of vulnerable individuals and communities across a variety of settings.

Some of these settings include health care, which can include offering aid for those seeking wellness resources and helping those find treatments for mental health conditions and substance abuse issues. Another avenue of help involves child welfare over a host of concerns pertaining to home life and educational needs. The modern social worker also advocates for developmentally disabled individuals and their families. They also assist military and veterans in a wide scope of ways such as behavioral health therapy, social services, and housing. Other forms of social work advocacy include community organization, justice-related services, legislation proposal, services for the elderly, and international social work.

Over 100 Years of Critical Help

For over a century, social workers have advanced many worthy causes, from homeliness and poverty to worker safety and child welfare. Today, they continue to be the voice of the unheard, speaking up for the vulnerable and advocating for critical services. The future of social work will continue building on the field’s foundation of passion, commitment, and perseverance.