Where Do Social Workers Work?
The role of policy change
It is worth mentioning that opportunities in social work can expand or contract based on society's current concerns, which can fluctuate as quickly as fashion trends. The past decade has seen increasingly conservative government policies in relation to spending on social welfare programs and education, and an emphasis on the concept of morally correct government. The poor, uneducated, low-skilled, immigrant and young people of America have been negatively affected by some of these policies, which limit their access to necessary services. Social workers, too, find themselves affected by changes in policy, as funding may limit the number of jobs available and government ideas about the type of programming necessary for these populations may be contradictory to what social workers believe is effective and necessary.
Local, state and federal governments offer many opportunities for social workers to engage directly with clients as well as indirectly though policy work, research and program administration. Government programs cover a wide range of issues, including public health, child and family services, homelessness, mental health, poverty and the law. For the most part, these programs focus on meeting the basic needs of people such as food, shelter, safety and medical care by administering public welfare benefits (food stamps and cash assistance), coordinating entrance to homeless shelters and determining eligibility for Medicaid or Medicare health insurance.
Public health social workers strive to improve the health of individuals, families and communities through a holistic approach to illness. They perform this work as part of teams involving doctors, epidemiologists, dentists and others who focus on the health of populations. Hospitals, county health departments, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are a few of the more well-known public health-related government agencies that employ social workers.
In these positions, social workers provide teens, adults, children, infants, the elderly and entire vulnerable populations the psychosocial support needed to cope with chronic, acute or terminal illnesses, such as Alzheimer's and HIV/AIDS. They also work with people who abuse drugs or have mental illness and around social issues such as teen pregnancy and obesity. Services include educating and advising individuals and caregivers about the particular illness or condition they are experiencing so they may make more informed decisions about their care and be better able to protect themselves and the community if they suffer from a communicable illness. Social workers may work with entire communities to evaluate the quality of services that are already in place and recommend changes or improvements. When outbreaks of unusual or particularly harmful diseases occur, social workers are called upon to gather background information on those afflicted as well as provide counseling and education to the community to prevent further infections.
Not-for-profit, sometimes shortened to nonprofit, refers to an organization established for purposes other than profit making. Most social service agencies that are not government-administered are nonprofits. The funding for these agencies may come from government grants (but are not directed by government), private donations and foundations established to alleviate a particular health condition or social ill. Nonprofit agencies offer a wealth of job opportunities for social workers in many different fields, and this is only expected to increase.
Social workers in public policy work in local, state or federal government and in the nonprofit and private sectors. Social workers in this field address problems such as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, violence, unemployment and racism, working to improve systems to better conditions for the people affected. Social workers analyze policies, programs and regulations to determine what solutions are most effective for a given problem. They identify social problems, study needs and related issues, conduct research, propose legislation and suggest alternative approaches or new programs. They may foster coalitions of groups with similar interests and develop interorganizational networks. On a daily basis, this often means analyzing census data and legislation, drafting position papers, testifying at public hearings, working with the media, talking with policymakers, and lobbying elected and appointed officials. Their tasks may also involve raising funds, writing grants or conducting demonstration projects. Often, social workers are the directors of organizations that do this work.
Work on one issue may take many months or years, and change is often incremental. But work in the policy and planning field earns social workers the satisfaction of knowing they are pressing our society to improve the quality of life for all of its members.
Increasingly, corporate consulting companies are winning contracts from government and nonprofit organizations for technical assistance in improving the delivery of social services, through team-development, training and administration. These companies look to hire master's level social workers to develop and deliver this training because of social workers' specialized educational and experiential training in terms of the staff, clients and issues nonprofits face. Social workers give these companies a unique edge in this type of setting, which increases the effectiveness of the training. Such training includes topics like organizational development, conflict resolution, help with technology solutions, policies and procedures tailored to the agencies' specific needs, and clinical guidance to other social workers.
The National Organization of Forensic Social Work defines this practice as the application of social work to questions and issues relating to the law and legal systems. Those who specialize in this field perform duties such as evaluation of people and events for criminal and civil litigation. These social workers talk to children who are victims of sexual abuse to evaluate their stories and make recommendations that the courts use in determining the depth of trauma to the child and the punishment for the offender. These evaluations are written in language easily understood by the court system and not necessarily by traditionally trained social workers. Testifying in court as expert witnesses in abuse cases, determining the ability of a child victim to testify, evaluating and treating law enforcement personnel for workforce suitability, and training criminal justice personnel in working with juvenile offenders are a few of the duties of this field.