The History of Social Work
The British influence
The Elizabethan Poor Laws of the 1600s tend to be cited as the benchmark of structured social work practices. This legislation imposed taxes on people in each parish or town to pay for their own poor. It also established apprentice programs for poor children, developed workhouses for dependent people and dealt harshly and punitively with able-bodied poor people. These punishments included the public whipping of orphan boys or vagabonds who stole or begged for money, and incarceration of adult men in workhouses. These laws set the standard for dealing with the poor and disadvantaged for over 200 years. The Plymouth colonists transplanted these poor laws from England to America, and went a step further, dividing the poor into two groups, the deserving sick and the undeserving offenders. The former group included widows, the disabled, orphans and thrifty old people. The latter were unmarried mothers, vagrants, the unemployed and the old without savings.
British almshouses or poorhouses began as early as the 10th century as an attempt at social welfare. These houses were set up to provide minimal care to the deserving sick and were mostly paid for by taxes from individual parishes or towns, not municipal dollars. People requested help from the community "Overseer of the Poor," an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long term, a person was sent to the poorhouse instead of being given immediate relief, such as money or food. Sometimes people were sent there even if they had not requested help from the Overseer of the Poor, usually when they were found guilty of begging in public or some other offense.
The industrial revolution
The late 1700s through the late 1800s, the time period between the beginning of the industrial revolution and the ending of the Civil War, marked the beginning of modern social work in the United States. As factories and mass production of goods multiplied, and agrarian-based jobs dried up, workers flocked to cities, which led to overcrowding, unemployment and poverty. Once in these newly industrialized cities, families quickly found out that survival, even at the lowest standards of poverty, required that every member of the family work, including children as young as six. It was not uncommon for children to work in factories 12 to14 hours per day with only a one-hour break, earning low to nonexistent wages.
As Americans began moving around the country and congregating where there were jobs, issues of culture and race emerged. Once the sparsely inhabited lands of the West were conquered, native peoples were moved onto reservations, their cultures and traditions altered due to their lack of connection with their transplanted homes and lands. When reconstruction began, freed black slaves faced discrimination in both Northern and Southern states, where they attempted to find work.
Charity begins in the home
As the industrial revolution continued, cities became more overcrowded, wages remained low, sanitation and general living conditions declined and immigration increased. Out of these circumstances grew an increased awareness of individual and community needs. In 1877, the first American Charity Organization Society (COS) of the United States was founded in Buffalo, New York. COS administered charitable programs and organized volunteer labor to help the needy, with the goal of restoring as much self-sufficiency and responsibility as an individual could manage. This society believed that simply offering aid in the form of money to the poor was not sufficient to alleviating the root causes of poverty. Instead they used techniques such as job skills training and taught budgeting skills to give the poor the tools they needed to elevate themselves. To this end, COS introduced the first formal training for social workers, who were called friendly visitors. For the most part, these visitors were young, wealthy, educated women, whose philosophy of "betterment of individuals and families, one by one" was met through teaching the poor and disadvantaged improved manners, health and hygiene. Visitors could also be found in schools, hospitals and other places the lower class depended on for assistance. The practices of these individuals became the basis of the social casework that is taught and practiced today.
The settlement movement began in London around 1884, growing out of the Victorian concern about rising poverty. The idea was to have students and others connected with universities and/or wealth move into slum areas to live and work amongst neighborhood inhabitants. Shortly thereafter, Stanton Coit founded America's first settlement house, the Neighborhood Guild (later renamed University Settlement) on New York City's Lower East Side. In 1889, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, perhaps the most famous settlement house in the United States.
Settlement houses were not characterized by the services they provided, but rather by their philosophy, that the initiative to correct social ills should come from indigenous neighborhood leaders or organizations. Settlement workers, mostly college students and educated women, did not see themselves as dispensing charity in the form of money or services, but as working toward the general welfare of the community. With this strategy in mind, settlement houses moved issues of poverty from case to cause, meaning they used the problems of the individuals and families (case) in those neighborhoods to inform and improve social policies (cause). To do this, advocates studied the environmental causes of poverty as well as working, sanitation and sweatshop conditions, and explored ways to expand working opportunities for the poor. This research helped establish the juvenile court system, created widows' pension programs and promoted legislation prohibiting child labor. It introduced public health reforms like workplace safety standards for those working with arsenic, lead and noxious gases, and personal hygiene standards to reduce infections. Activism aided in the creation of health clinics, convalescent homes, playgrounds, nursing services and milk stations, which provided pure, sanitary milk to mothers with young children.
The end of settlement housing
The settlement house movement burgeoned until after WWI, when it seemed to lose its momentum. Some settlements disappeared as old residents left for the suburbs and new neighbors turned elsewhere to obtain services. On the whole, volunteerism declined. Professionally trained social workers and other human service workers took over the operation and administration of settlements and they functioned mainly as community centers where recreational and basic social services were offered.
Today, settlement houses focus on areas such as immigration, youth services and housing for the homeless, mentally ill and the elderly. Founded in 1911, the United Neighborhood Centers of America continues to provide oversight and membership to approximately 156 settlement houses. UNCA provides its member houses with a way to link to others around the country to exchange ideas, missions and trends in populations.
War, politics and money
During World War I, social workers applied casework skills to treating soldiers with "shell shock." For the first time, social workers' skills were considered useful outside of impoverished communities. Post-World War I saw the beginnings of a shift in the populations social workers served. From the late 1920s through the 1960s, the middle-class became the primary beneficiaries of social policies, voluntary and public agencies. Also during this period, social activism declined and openly anti-welfare attitudes emerged. However, practice with individuals and families continued to flourish. By 1927 there were over 100 child guidance centers where interdisciplinary teams of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers provided therapy to primarily middle-class clients on issues related to adjustment disorders, substance use and childhood trauma. The post-WWII period was also one of significant change in U.S. social welfare, highlighted by the establishment of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1953.
Social work continued to evolve through the difficult era of the 1970s, characterized by budget deficits and the stagnation of most social programs. As a result, there was a virtual freeze on aid to families with dependent children (AFDC) benefits or what is commonly called welfare, after 1973. Families relied on these benefits for assistance in purchasing nutritious foods and offsetting housing costs. The Carter administration then created a system called block grants, which provided the same amount of aid to states regardless of actual need, putting more populated states, such as New York, at a disadvantage to meet those needs with public dollars.
The 1980s bore the brunt of those 1970s policies and "Reaganomics" on America's disenfranchised. Fewer jobs led to soaring poverty and budget deficits meant not enough money to fund proper solutions. At the same time, new and more complex social problems were emerging, such as the crack cocaine epidemic, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and homelessness. Social work demanded increased attention on developing effective management skills to maximize limited resources, as well as increased advocacy activities to persuade the government to pay more attention and spend more money on solutions.
In the 1990s, major policy developments had serious implications for the social work profession and the clients it served. Temporary assistance to needy families (TANF) was possibly the largest reform policy of that decade. This legislation placed a cap of five years for the amount of time a family could be on public assistance. After that, they could no longer receive welfare, housing rental assistance or food stamps, even if they remained needy. By 2000, social workers and social work agencies knew they would have to create innovative solutions for the perpetually needy. Some programs coped by developing or expanding their free food distribution services, applying for government and private grants to allow them to offer rent assistance to families facing eviction, and expanding clients' access to social workers to provide psychosocial support through this unstable time.
Evolution of education
In 1898, a New York society of charitable organizations felt the need to become connected with a college to lend some professionalism to their image. They created the first philanthropy school, called the New York School of Philanthropy, which eventually became Columbia University School of Social Work. By 1901, other COS schools of philanthropy began operating across major U.S. cities and by 1919, there were 17 schools of social work affiliated as the Association of Training Schools of Professional Schools of Social Work, today's Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This council provides standards of practice and teaching to all accredited schools of social work.
By 1920, there were five fields of practice in social work: family services, child services, medical, psychiatric and school social work. In the decade after World War II, social workers made efforts to enhance the field's professional status through the development of interdisciplinary doctoral training programs and the creation of core MSW curricula. The formation of CSWE in 1952 and the establishment of the National Association of Social Workers in 1955 further strengthened the status of the profession.
In the 1970s, on par with the changing social climate, the profession witnessed an increase in multicultural and gender awareness programs in curricula, along with efforts to expand minority recruitment; the growth of multidisciplinary joint degree programs with schools of urban planning, public health, public policy, education and law; the recognition of the BSW as the entry-level professional degree; and the growth of private practice among social workers. And in the 1990s, due to the backlash on the poor and the need for creative solutions to poverty, NASW revised its code of ethics to make the pursuit of social justice an ethical imperative for those studying to become Social Workers, and CSWE required all schools to educate students about the skills necessary to work for economic and social justice.
Social work today
For over a century, the social work profession has matured and reinvented itself in response to economic and social changes, often in spite of society's inconsistent commitment to social welfare. Its primary mission continues to be advocating for the needs of the most vulnerable segments of society and improving their well-being. Social workers must develop a keen awareness of the impact of governmental policies, economic inequities and ideas related to culture, class, gender and race on individuals and communities, so that as society changes and needs arise, they will continue to play an integral role in enhancing the design and delivery of social services on every level, from community, to state and national to international.