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Previous article version titled “Social Work Profession: Overview.” New sections added to focus on the social, political and economic context of the social work profession. Bibliography expanded and updated.

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date: 18 January 2019

Social Work Profession: Political Context

Abstract and Keywords

The profession addressed a panoply of social problems that grew larger in an ever-expanding geopolitical environment, where social equity or justice was often a remedial value. Social welfare institutions and programs, initially private and later both public and private, filled the societal void, bringing social care to the disadvantaged. Lay caregivers formed the foundation for a nascent, but now over 100 year old, profession. Growth was sustained for over 50 years from the 1930s to 1980s, when progressive thought was challenged with conservative ideology. The challenge for contemporary social welfare and a maturing social work profession is how to navigate a changing milieu, highlighted by complex human conditions, in the face of real and contrived shortages, increasing class stratification, political polarization, and heighten judicial scrutiny. Workforce realities—education, technology, and integration of new diverse practitioners throughout the practice continuum—which can address demanding fields (that is, aging, health, child welfare), focused on evidence to move the human condition forward.

Keywords: social welfare, professional social work, history, development, workforce, employment trends

The Profession

This 20th-century profession recently celebrated its first centennial. Social work was established to address a panoply of social concerns associated with industrial growth and turmoil, poverty, child welfare, family relations, malnutrition and health care, infant mortality, waves of new immigrants and internal migration and other maladies associated with terrible slums in rapidly expanding cities and urban areas (Austin, 2000; Glicken, 2007). Before the American Revolution, help for children, the poor, and mentally ill had been available, based on the ideology embodied in the historical legacies of the English Elizabethan Poor Laws.

By the 1800s, aid was provided at local levels through town and county offices. Recognizing limitations of these efforts, benevolent and faith-based societies, and business leaders, supplemented the early, often limited, public initiatives. The revivalist movement ushered in the age of enlightenment that undergirded a belief in the values of justice, rational thinking in approaches to human suffering, and the capacity of people to proceed with work for the “improvability” of men, women, and society (Karger & Stoesz, 2002; Katz, 1986).

In the last half of the 19th century, economic crisis, racism and social subordination, and immigration prompted the need for even stronger social programs and led to the organizing paradigm of scientific charity (Glicken, 2007). The profession grew largely in response to northern industrial growth; however, the South was also challenged by the depth and magnitude of human suffering (Lowe & Hopps, 2007; Wisner, 1970).

The slave question dominated thought in the South and later, a large segment of national society, as the Union became more divided over the immensely varied, complex dynamic of individual and collective white control and black slave resistance (Lowe, 2006; Wood, 1978). The level of care for this population, however, was shockingly divergent, not necessarily based on human standards available to men and whites but, rather, sub-human ideals owing to beliefs in scientific sexism and racism, respectively, that held sway, and the insidious discrimination generated by social scientists (Abramovitz, 1998; Byrd & Clayton, 2000).

Friendly visitors, settlement house workers, muckrakers, social activists, and union organizers generated the enthusiasm and energy of this nascent profession, which was largely an informal, fragmented, and volunteer-led initiative to organize and distribute charitable acts, goods, and services. These leaders envisioned a more structured, systemic approach to unfathomable social ills, ignorance, poverty, disease, and human suffering that were endemic to the new industrial nation, based on welfare capitalism (Austin, 2000) that was emerging at the end of the 1800s and the dawn of the 20th century. Even then, with modest ideals, but unbridled hope, this emerging profession envisioned that society’s worst conditions could be relieved if individuals could be helped to move up and eventually out of the engulfing vortex of personal maladies and slum conditions through improvement of their own moral and physical capacities, with the aid of helpers.

At the same time, other volunteers worked along with the poor to teach and help empower them relative to how to take matters in their own hands to improve personal and neighborhood circumstances through groups and collective actions. Although different in conception and organizational ideas, these parallel efforts (that is, the former micro-change, the latter macro-change) were largely mutually supportive (Morris, 2000), but there were times of struggle and contest (Abramovitz, 1998; Drew, 1983, as cited by Figueira-McDonough, 2007). Both approaches incorporated concepts of care and social control (Day, 2003; Figueira-McDonough, 2007; Piven & Cloward, 1971) though the latter is not often acknowledged.

These humble ideals became the basis for a profession that advanced the notion that national society was responsible for addressing the impact that a fast changing and evolving industrial world had on human lives; a systems wide response, via agencies, would be needed to achieve the national purpose; a part-time, lay persons’ responsibility would have to be replaced by professional responsibility, and an emerging profession would need to direct attention to the intersection of psychological development and educational growth of individuals and the socio-political-economic world in which they lived and were hopefully nurtured (Morris, 2000).

The Origins

Early Voluntary and Mutual Aid Societies Efforts

As a natural response to local needs, voluntary–mutual aid organizations spotted the nation’s landscape including benefit and burial societies, relief associations and faith-based groups (that is, missionaries) that created collective networks for different immigrant and racial group and communities (Katz, 1986; Sabbath, 1994). Among early self-help and relief organizations were the Scot Charitable Society of New York (1744), African Masonic Lodge of Boston (1784), Philadelphia Free African Society (1787), New York Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1798), Samaritan Society of New York (1805), and the Children’s Aid Society (1853) to name a few (Curry, 1981; Frazier, 1932; Katz, 1986; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990). As a benefit society, Philadelphia Society was organized to provide insurance benefits for widows and children, and later established branches in Charleston, SC, Boston, MA, and New York, NY.

In the meantime, many churches, synagogues, and other groups mobilized to organize orphanages and hospitals. In 1822, as relief to the poor, in conjunction with blacks and members of the Abolition Society, the Society of Friends established the Shelter for Colored Orphans in Philadelphia, PA (Dolgoff & Feltstein, 2007). Despite these, and many other notable efforts, more organized efforts were necessary to address access and funding limitations, and to reduce service fragmentation. Similarly, in the Southwest, early Latinos provided social welfare services through the auspices of the Catholic Church (Dolgoff & Feltstein, 2007). Missions, churches, schools, hospitals, convents, and missionaries provided some social services. Although Catholic priests and nuns provided social services, however, it has been reported that similar to the attitudes of early protestant benefactors, there were traces of altruism, egalitarians, racism, and class-based condescension (Anderson, 2000; Trevino, 2003).

The Freedmen’s Bureau: The First Federal Social Welfare Agency

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, some four million formerly enslaved African Americans, never the recipients of basic human and civil rights, extremely poor, unlearned and unlettered, through skilled and with a demonstrated work ethic, were granted freedom. What meaning did freedom have in the face of abject poverty and a lack of voting rights, property ownership, housing, health care, and education? What was life like for whites accustomed to a structure supported largely by slave labor? What was the nation’s responsibility? The national response was the passage of the Freedmen Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandon Land Act of 1865 that established America’s first federal welfare agency, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, a source of federal relief and the nation’s first federal social welfare agency, provided a broad range of food, social, child welfare, medical, educational, banking, and contract services at the individual and community levels (Olds, 1963). For example, the agency supervised labor contracts between newly freed slaves and the southern elite (that is, the planters’ class) in an effort to prevent further exploitation and enforce provisions of contracts. One significant empowerment act accomplished with the aid of newly elected blacks and northern philanthropists during Reconstruction was the establishment of universal, free education for both blacks and whites in the South (Anderson, 1988; Hopps, 2006). Early leadership for emerging black self-help, church, and social service initiatives that paralleled primarily Euro-American settlements and social service organizations were aided by educational and other initiatives of the Bureau (Burwell, 1994; Carlton-LeNay & Hodges, 1994; Lerner, 1974; Pollard, 1978).

Charity Organization Societies: Emergence of Scientific Philanthropy

The Charity Organization Societies (COS), in the late 1800s, facilitated both the professionalization and bureaucratization of social work by advancing the concept of scientific charity. Philanthropists combined prudence with dedication to helping and fueled the reorganization of COS. They adopted a systemic, organized approach to identify and determine needs (case evaluation), and to deliver services effectively. Their ideas about efficiency and functional specialization were based on those of the business or industrial world (Lubove, 1965). Based on social Darwinism, these ideals were also intended to facilitate principles of social stratification and the maintenance of social control (Day, 2003).

Although the thrust toward professionalization grew out of the reorganization of COS in the context of scientific charity (Larson, 1977), the professionalization movement was aided and accelerated by caseworkers who asserted that they had the “beginning of a scientific knowledge base, as well as specialized skill, technique and function that differentiated them from the layman or volunteer” (Larson, 1977, p. 182).

In the push for professionalization, the leadership of caseworkers led to their subsequent dominance in the profession. Specializations were developed in social casework, child welfare, medical, and psychiatric work, and others facilitating the establishment of a program of study offered by the New York Charity Organization and Columbia University in 1897; several other schools followed in rather rapid succession. These specialties developed their individual associations and each operated with their own unique organizational culture. This phenomenon, compounded by religious and secular orientations, would make later negotiation and development of a unified profession more difficult to achieve (Hopps & Lowe, 2008).

Progressives and the Settlement Movement

Progressives and the settlement movement joined together to tackle and improve the neglected urban infrastructure and poor sanitary conditions; deplorable, unsafe housing; exploitative employment; ignorance; poor educational opportunities; restrictive, if available recreation; police brutality and malpractice, as well as other quality of life concerns for immigrants and other poor people in cities, who were often isolated owing to language, cultural and/or resource limitations. Women reformers, usually well-heeled financially, who became settlement leaders, came from a number of disciplines and believed that opportunities for informal pedagogy could be instrumental in helping individuals improve their own human capital and competencies as well as the social capital of their environment via the group approach. They implemented this vision through their work, which was heavily influenced by thinker, philosopher, and activist John Dewey (Garvin, 1981). By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, there were over 400 settlements. Important work was accomplished: The seeds for the founding of the Children’s Bureau (1912) germinated at Hull House. Women’s suffrage, labor, civil rights, and peace were among the movements that were led and/or assisted by settlement activists (Tannenbaum & Reisch, 2001, as cited in Glicken, 2011). These effective initiatives led to the development of many national, social welfare and social change-oriented organizations. In contrast to the COS, relief was not the focus of settlements—reform was the goal. Progressives advocated social insurance instead of charitable aid, which was eventually enacted following the Depression (DiNitto, 2007).

An important challenge to the Progressive’s record was the lack of demonstrated concern about the plight of African Americans. Parenthetically, the conditions of white tenant farmers and their families in the southern states were also not targeted (Austin, 2000). There is evidence also of “social negligence” as the young social work profession did not show early support and commitment to service for people of color, which eventually forced the creation of a parallel system of aid for African Americans by African Americans, among others (Austin; Carlton-LeNay & Hodges, 2004; Hopps & Lowe, 2008; Pollard, 1978). This separate system was severely under-resourced, even when eventually given ideological support and encouragement by social reformer and iconoclast Jane Addams.

For all of its fame and historical contributions, Hull House and its leadership are tainted because of the unwillingness to serve all Americans and most particularly African Americans and other people of color (Duster, 1970). In essence, a system of service apartheid (apartness) based on race was established in the social service delivery system. Vestiges of these 19th- and early 20th-century policies and services continue to challenge the field (Lowe, 2006).

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African American, spearheaded the establishment of a settlement house for her people in Chicago under the auspices of the Negro Fellowship League. In the South, Margaret Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute’s founder and a leading American political figure, organized settlement efforts in the rural community of Tuskegee, Alabama. In the meantime, Eugenia Hope, wife of John Hope, the first African American President of Morehouse College, established the Wheat Street Settlement in urban Atlanta, Georgia (Rouse, 1996).

The First Professional Century

It has been argued that there were many opportunities for the profession to continue and build on the convictions that social work would develop expertise in understanding the behavior of individuals in their social, political, and economic context. To develop this mission well, there was expectation that contributions from cognate disciplines including economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and later, science and technology, would be sought out and integrated into the profession. This ambitious ideal was undercut by the need to provide services to individuals often within the context of medical and mental health protocols (Morris, 2000). The emphasis on studying, understanding, and helping individuals on a case-by-case approach (Mary Richmond, Social Diagnosis, 1917), minimized the view that indigent and victimized people suffered from social and economic circumstances that could be changed by joint organizational and collective efforts and structural change (for example, the neighborhood Guild in New York, c. 1886, and Jane Addams and Ellen Star, Hull House in Chicago, c. 1889).

Over the 20th century, these initial positions were modified through choices relative to how the profession would simultaneously address the goal of improving the lives of individuals and family, and change societal conditions (Morris, 2000). Regardless of the reasons, at particular times in history, the profession made choices that limited its capacity to address structural change and to improve major societal problems and conditions. These decisions resulted in consequences that have a bearing on the status of the profession at the dawn of the 21st century.

Morris summarized the profession thusly:

  • The tradition was initially a part of a much wider interest in social change and human needs that had been expressed since 1860 through the National Conference of Charities and Corrections and the American Social Science Association.

  • The movement became a part of the later Progressive movement.

  • The early participants were multi-disciplined, drawn from sociologists, nascent economists, other social scientists, lay community leaders, clergy, and workers in agencies.

  • Social work as a distinctive vocation soon concentrated on developing its position as a profession, with the apparatus of a social science: academic training to combine learning and practical experience and professional associations with accrediting authority.

  • The twin aims of providing individual care and changing social conditions have been retained in the expressed aims of the field, but after 1935, the Great Depression and World War II forced the field to reconsider its future.

  • A series of choices, some taken almost unwittingly, were reinforced by the popularity of new mental health thinking and the compatibility of psychological theory with social casework, along with the great social and economic changes following the Depression.

  • By 1990, the field was primarily involved in interpersonal and mental health careers, while work to change conditions remained at the rhetorical level rather than providing jobs and institutional opportunities to work for change.

  • At the same time, social work as a profession was identified mainly with counseling help to individuals or as adjunct staff for organizations, rather than becoming “the profession” associated with any one service system (2000, p. 44–45).

Scope of the Profession

The scope of social work over the latter part of the 19th and 20th centuries has evolved as a result of many ensuing internal and external forces that gave rise to this contextual profession. External forces, both positive and negative, have played a stronger hand in defining the field than the former, since practice is defined by the profession’s position in the geo-socio-eco-political environment at a particular period of time (Gibelman, 1997; Hopps & Lowe, 2008). The social work profession has long been acknowledged for its breadth of practice, while concurrently criticized for its lack of sufficient depth, fragmentation, and inadequate conceptual framework (Hopps & Collin, 1995; Hopps & Lowe, 2008). Relevant are the words of noted social work educator, the late Carol H. Meyer: “Whereas other professional specialists become expert by narrowing their knowledge parameters, social workers have had to increase theirs” (Meyer, 1976, p. 21).

The Boundary Conundrum

With knowledge created by the profession, from its own expanding and maturing research enterprise and theory testing, practice interventions and monitoring for effectiveness, or “best practices” to meet expanding human needs and, stronger interest and expectations from universities for improved scholarship, the question becomes: What knowledge is most relevant and verifiable, and what can be categorized and organized into a taxonomy that is useful for the profession and practice (Hopps & Lowe, 2008)? Acknowledging challenges regarding ever-expanding boundaries, the core issue can be narrowed to one of focus.

Does the lack of a cohesive organizing framework and the reality of fragmented approaches to both knowledge development and knowledge application cast a shadow over the profession (Gambrill, 2003; Hopps & Lowe, 2008; Tucker, 2000)? If this is the case, it seems imperative that the profession might wish to continue to address inquiry relevant to its purpose and identity, as well as a unifying, coherent conceptual framework and supporting theories. Two decades ago Scott Briar (1977) asked: What is common to the activities of social work (Brieland & Korr, 2000)? What then is the field’s “problematic” (Tucker, 2000)? That is an “integrated framework of concepts, propositions, and practices that together define the central intellectual problems of a field” (p. 239).

For social work, the unit of analysis is the interaction of person and environment. The goal is to have as strong, robust, and positive an interaction as possible between these two systems. A weakness, however, is the proclivity of the profession to minimize or become overwhelmed by conditions that emanate from the geo-political-economic environment, which most assuredly has an impact on human functioning (Morris, 2000; Pinderhughes, 1995; Tucker, 2000). Solomon’s (2002) argument that the profession prefers to discuss “individual variables” over “system variables” holds currency; however, the Curriculum Policy Statement has given more thought and emphasis to this area of concern vis-à-vis its stance on social justice (CSWE, n.d.).

Without a consensus-driven working definition, conceptual clarity, and/or a cohesive element, the profession must continue to struggle with the tendency of generating many theories, technologies, methodologies, and intervention strategies that both invite and enhance tendencies toward eclecticism (Hopps & Lowe, 2008). However, it is argued that eclecticism is not a “free good” (Tucker, 2000), but rather one which extracts a premium that relegates social work to a comparative disadvantage in relation to disciplines where there is evidence of higher paradigm development. Consequently, social work is less proficient in grasping and holding on to resources and assets; in the pace at which knowledge is developed and disseminated; the degree of power and autonomy it has amassed; and in the capacity for collaborative study and research (Hopps & Lowe, 2008; Tucker, 2000). New questions regarding intellectual property may well compound this phenomenon. Although the profession has not yet developed as strong a “problematic” and a more cohesive conceptual framework as it might desire, it would be an enormous oversight if the contributions of many scholars, and the profession’s own initiatives toward a common base and working definition to advance social work conceptually, were not acknowledged. Bartlett’s (1958) definition and Gordon’s (1962) critical assessment of it, along with contributions from others working for a unified, common base (Bartlett, 1970; Boehm, 1959) and acknowledging practice at various system levels and size (Pincus & Minahan, 1977; Schwartz, 1961; Siporin, 1975). Briar’s (1977) challenge, that “it is not good when the profession cannot clearly and simply articulate what is common to the activities of all social workers” is still relevant (Brieland & Korr, 2000, p. 130). Certainly, practitioners recognize that vague constructs make goal setting and measurement complicated (Hopps & Lowe). Others helped move the profession to broader views, leading to the use of the generic term “social work practice.” Several new perspectives were developed including the generalist perspective (Baer & Federico, 1979), strength based (Saleeby, 2002), ethnic sensitive (Devore & Schlesinger, 1999; Schiele, 2000), policy practice (Jansson, 1990), and political advocacy (Haynes & Mickelson, 2003).

Contemporary Context of Social Welfare

Socio-political Environment

Several major events had a seismic influence on the country’s approach to social welfare: The aftermath of the Civil War when the Union government took on major responsibilities for restoring order, providing food, shelter, and services to large areas of the country (Day, 2003); President Roosevelt’s response to the 1929 economic crisis and financial depression, which held sway for over half a century where the welfare state, social services, and the profession grew; the Kennedy-Johnson 1960s civil rights, war on poverty, and build-up in domestic policies where social welfare and social security surpassed national defense in federal spending (DiNitto, 2007); and, the conservative revolt, which attempted to move government responsibility back to pre-depression, 1929 ideology known as Reagonomics (after former California governor Ronald Reagan who became president).

Reagan successfully galvanized the elites, corporate America, and middle America with an anti-government, anti-welfare theme resulting in Republican control, based on supply-side economics. Tax policy favoring wealthy and affluent Americans and business, deregulation of industry, massive reductions and cuts in government support for social service and return to reliance on the private sector, severe attacks and reversals on civil rights gains and massive build-up of the federal deficit (some $925 billion) (Day, 2003; DiNitto, 2007; Figueira-McDonough, 2007), and the appointment of conservative minds to the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, were outcomes of the dominant party and its leadership. The Reagan agenda was continued by President George H. W. Bush, who served as his Vice President, but lost after one term because of problems related to economic disarray, a heavy federal deficit, and a tax increase he pledged not to support during his campaign, but reversed his position and signed it into law (Day; DiNitto; Figueira-McDonough).

Still enamored by supply-side economics, the country nonetheless voted in a more centrist, in contrast to liberal, ideology with the election of William Jefferson Clinton in 1992. The new president and his team tried to pull away from supply-side economics. Emphasizing the economy and infrastructure improvement, Clinton pushed through a cut in taxation, a Stimulus Program, and reduced the deficit (Figueira-McDonough, 2007). But the administration’s big push for universal health care, led by then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, failed after attack by the Republicans, although the majority of Americans favored the plan (Figueira-McDonough). Most of all, there was the regeneration of a vibrant economy, which created many new jobs, about 22.5 million, mostly in the private sector.

During Clinton’s first term, the Democrats lost control of Congress to the Republicans who started building a “conservative opportunity society” under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. A conservative manifesto, Contract with America, became an influential document, with a major focus on reducing welfare and strengthening some families while at the same time punishing other families economically. This document influenced conservative thought and had a role in ending “welfare as we knew it.” Facing an election, President Clinton finally supported the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which focused on stiffer work requirements and limitations on time recipients could receive financial (or welfare) benefits (Day, 2003; DiNitto, 2007; Karger & Stoesz, 2002). The passage of the new law was not unrelated to public perceptions relative to racial stereotypes about AFDC (Aid to Families and Dependent Children) recipients (Gillens, 1999, as reported in Figueira-McDonough, 2007). When Clinton became president, he inherited a deficit from the first Bush presidency, but left a surplus.

George W. Bush narrowly won the election in 2000 over former Vice-President Al Gore in a contested election where the Supreme Court played an unusual role by calling off recounting of ballots in Florida (Di Nitto, 2012). What this election meant was a return to Reagan philosophy, including but not limited to, supply-side economics (cut in taxes that benefited the highest income earners and corporations, at the expense of the middle class); an expanded inclusion of the faith community into social service delivery via the signing of the Faith and Community-Based Act (the new president’s first executive action); expanded privatization of social service and continued devolution of government responsibility to the states; appointment of conservative federal judges and most especially to the Supreme Court. The 2000 and 2004 elections represented a stronger coalescing of big business and corporations, the religious right, and the elite classes than the country had seen since Reagan. Although President Bush inherited a budget surplus from President Clinton, he created a $317 billon deficit by 2005, owing to the tax cut, cost of the Iraq War, and natural disasters (that is, hurricanes Katrina and Rita), among other expenditures. To offset revenue downfall from the tax cuts and major additional spending, the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) was enacted and social welfare programs were targeted for cuts (Di Nitto, 2007). However, the political scene changed.

The 2006 Congressional election resulted in a victory for Democrats, a defeat for the Republicans, and a strong rebuke of the Bush Agenda, largely because of the unpopular Iraq War and the response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Correlative to the war question per se and loss of American lives (Hopps & Lowe, 2008; See, 2001) is the escalating cost of the conflict contributing to the national debt and stagnation in domestic and nondefense policies and programs.

It was not clear that the 2006 election was a clarion call or mandate for the return to a more expansive social welfare philosophy; however, it did throw cold water on the thirty-year spell of conservatism (Kilpatrick & De Parle, 2006). Within the 110th Congress, many new leaders have demonstrated a strong history of support for public aid, particularly the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the first woman to hold this position.

Changing Political Milieu

At the end of the Bush Administration, there was a negative scenario. The country’s deficit-ridden national budget; collapse of the housing market bubble coupled with the equity market in the United States; and worldwide stress in markets, owing to such factors as de-regulation of financial markets and use of new, complicated instruments such as derivatives and inadequate oversight by the Cabinet offices and other high-level regulatory bodies was a severe and harsh predicament. An inauguration widely hailed around the world and witnessed by joyous crowds of over a million people on a bitter cold January 9, 2009, as Barack Obama, the first U.S. President of African descent, took the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court and brought new expectations of change. Major, domestic, and international problems were pressing: The greatest Recession since the Great Depression with over 10% unemployment at home and two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and financial volatility in financial markets abroad. One of the events that took place on Inaugural Night was a gathering of powerful Republican leaders who met to develop a strategy to block the progressive agenda of the new president (Draper, 2012).

Big Achievement and Big Angst

The President and the Democrats were successful in the first 2 years in pushing ahead with a progressive agenda in contrast to conservative supply-side ideology owing to a majority in both branches of Congress. Team Obama focused on the economy early in an attempt to slow a massive downward spiral where nearly 800,000 jobs were lost monthly. The American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 (ARRA), a 787 billion dollar stimulus bill, was passed and included resources for all levels of government, unemployment assistance, infrastructure improvement, and payments for insurance premiums for those out of work. Other initiatives included actions to rescue the auto industry (loans were made to Chrysler and General Motors) and to save the financial system through re-regulation of banks and insurance companies (DiNitto, 2012). The first bill signed by the President, however, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which expanded the window for discrimination claims related to pay. Two appointments to the Supreme Court were women. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was phased out by the Department of Defense.

After extensive partisan debate, President Obama and the Democrats passed and signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (PL—111-148) in March, 2010, along largely party lines. The law will insure some 37 million of the roughly 46 million uninsured, which included the removal of the pre-existing conditions regulation; expansion of coverage for children on parents’ insurance until age 26; closing of the Medicare “doughnut hole” in Medicare Part D; and expansion of Medicaid (DiNitto, 2012). The Law includes an Individual Mandate where all would have to purchase insurance, a requirement that set off a hail storm of protest regarding government invasion of individual freedom. Attorneys general from some 26 States filed against the law, which was argued before the Supreme Court. The Individual Mandate was upheld in a stunning five to four victory for the Obama Administration and Democrats, with Chief Justice Roberts casting the tie-breaker and siding with liberal justices. National healthcare legislation had been a be-deviling social welfare issue for over 100 years, since President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, at the top of the 20th century. Passage of The Affordable Health Care Act enflamed major bitter and vicious controversy over the role and size of government and civil discourse in America was decidedly uncivil, especially during the summer of 2010.

Angst was channeled into the Tea Party, a new right movement that surfaced in January, 2009, after the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was passed under President Bush, which held sway in the 2010 election purging Democrats and moderate Republicans. Gridlock prevailed in a polarized Congress. One fatality involved the recommendations by the Simpson–Bowles Commission, suggested by the President, for purpose of addressing the national debt. Similarly, Immigration reform simulative jobs legislation, and services for Veterans were stalled. Domestically, the reading on the economic picture is mixed: underscored by unemployment over 8% (despite an Unemployment Stimulus Bill) until October, 2012, when it dropped to 7.8%; solid gains in the stock market (which doubled) inflation in-check; income moving upward; housing in recovery (after a long slump); and consumer spending and confidence higher. Despite this better news, the wealth effect is not widespread (Sommer, 2012).

The 2012 election was significant because of a new dynamic in campaign financing due to the Supreme Court ruling. Citizens United, which permitted unlimited contributions from corporations, changed the fundraising strategy of campaigns (Citizen United vs. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 310 of 2010). Even so, funds raised by the democratic party were greater than that of the republican party. The incumbent president Barak Obama won the election with the plurality of the popular vote and the majority of the electoral college. The democrats maintained control of the Senate and, likewise, the republicans the House of Representatives. The expectation was that partisan opposition and gridlock would continue.

The 21st-Century Social Worker

Although poised to make a significant impact in response to cultural transformation and a fast growing population, with much greater racial and ethnic diversity due in part to immigration reforms since 1960, there are concerns relative to the social work profession’s workforce in the 21st century. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) commissioned a national survey of over 4,500 licensed social workers in 2004 through its Center for Workforce Health Studies (CWHS). The findings of the report, Assuring the Sufficiency of Frontline Workforce: A National Study of Licensed Social Workers, reflected ongoing practice and demographic trends and the emergence of new trends (NASW, 2006; Stoesen & Moss, 2006). Caution is warranted largely because this national sample of over 240,000 licensed professional social workers represented only 63% of the 460,000 social workers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2000). Still, this sample represents an important profile of professional social workers as follows.

While old intractable social problems will remain, new and emerging problems related to advancing technologies, scientific discoveries, and ethical dilemmas, yet unseen, will make it essential that social workers are prepared to engage with others in the relevant debates to protect the most vulnerable among us. To achieve this, social workers will need to value, participate, or become engaged with local, state, and national professional organizations that represent not only their own interest, but also the vulnerable clients, groups, and communities that we serve. The point is that the professionals must take more seriously the need to join in the push or fight for the profession’s growth and strength in a growing conservative milieu. So, advancements in practice, administration, advocacy, and research training through new inquiries will remain the touchstone for a responsive profession that maintains the public’s trust. Projected demands for practitioners are likely to grow, as the profession is able to demonstrate its effectiveness and cost efficiency.

Going Forward

The profession will not only continue to address issues it faced in its first century, but will also be challenged with new ones. Paramount among the influences will be the geo-political-economic context. Although the geo-political context may be more subject to immediate change than the latter, both turbulence and hope are anticipated.

Nonetheless, the 2005 Social Work Congress, which included key social work associations and stakeholders, developed 12 “imperatives” (Stoesen, 2006) that speak to: Excellence in services for the aging; participate in politics and policy; guarantee quality services to children; demonstrate leadership in advocacy for universal health care; enhance the public’s understanding of efficiency and cost-effectiveness of social work in health care; deal with racism, oppression, and social injustice and human rights violations; strengthen the profession’s capacity to influence the political and corporate landscape; improve the quality of social work education; mobilize the profession for participation in politics, policy, and social action; confront racism at all levels; use cultural competence social work interventions and research methodology; and develop research and practice partnerships.

The authors grant that there has been positive movement in some of the twelve areas above while others have not seen as much change for a number of reasons including the geo-political environment. The push for excellence and quality care for the aging and children, for example, has been impacted by major funding shortfalls owing to political questions, i.e., debates relative to the deficit and debt and the sequester. In fact, the gap between wealth and inequality is a growing issue with the country unfocused on ending poverty or inequality. A Pew Research Center Poll reported that since the beginning of the Recession, fewer than 8% of respondents believe the poor have benefitted from policies and fewer, some 6%, the middle class and small businesses. At the same time, over five times more think that the wealth, financial institutions and corporations, and big banks are benefiting and receiving assistance (Blow, 2013). There is resentment about the distribution of wealth and gains accruing to the top 1% (Krugman, Feb. 14, 2014, p. A25). Forces that helped mediate the income gap in the past, for example, unions, are experiencing declining membership; only 11% of the workforce and 5% of the private sector (Greenhouse, 2013). One in five children are poor. Those in poor, single parent homes are facing hard times.

The profession must also give concerted thought to the significance of new demographics. By 2013, the majority of those under eighteen will be a diverse People of Color population. How will services be delivered to this population and who will constitute the social work workforce? Will this population group and the 11 million new immigrants be integrated into the societal fabric? The protection of rights must not be taken for granted, for diverse people of color, women, oppressed groups or any group. The Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2013 in a 5-4 vote that the 1996 law in California which denied federal benefits to same sex couples was unconstitutional and also allowed gay marriage. However, victory for GLBT advocates was not afforded to those who worked for voting rights as the High Court declared unconstitutional Sec. 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act one day prior to the California decision. It was left to a polarized Congress to redefine criteria for determining what states will need preclearance for electoral changes by the U.S. Justice Department (Bowles & Hopps, 2014, in press). Arguably, there has been positive change in the health care domain with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. Some 4 million have signed up on the federal market place exchange. Although many wish to participate through Medicaid, some states are refusing to expand the program thereby denying coverage to poor people. Unfortunately, the public's stance and attitude re guns and individualism and the 2nd Amendment is a pressing area where social workers will need to enter into discourse and action. Social work started out to address panoply of problems. There will be work for social workers in this practice domain in the years ahead.


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We wish to thank Jana Pruet, MSW, for her research assistances at the University of Georgia; and Drs. Ollie Christian, Professor, Southern University, and Lee See, Professor Emerita, University of Georgia, for their consultation.