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date: 08 March 2021

Social Work Profession: Political Contextfree

  • June Gary HoppsJune Gary HoppsSchool of Social Work, University of Georgia
  •  and Tony B. LoweTony B. LoweUniversity of Georgia


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.

Updated in this version

Article updated to reflect recent research and new scholarship.

The Profession

This 20th century profession celebrated it first centennial over a decade ago. 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 the mentally ill had been available based on 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 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, 2018).

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). 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 (Bowles, Hopps, & Clayton, 2016). 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 as well as the insidious discrimination generated by social scientists (Abramowitz, 1998).

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, some like Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells-Barnett recognized that social change required political action to influence meaningful human change. These 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 action.

Although different in conception and organizational ideas, these parallel efforts (i.e., the former micro-change, the latter macro-change) were largely mutually supportive (Morris, 2000), but there were times of struggle and contest (Drew, 1983 as cited by Figueira-McDonough, 2007). Both approaches incorporated concepts of care and social control (Day & Schiele, 2013; Piven & Cloward, 1971; Reisch & Andrews, 2002) though the latter is not often acknowledged. These humble ideals became the basis for a profession that advanced a political notion: that the nation was responsible for addressing the impact that a fast changing and evolving industrial world had on human lives and a systems-wide response, via agencies, would be needed to achieve a cohesive safety net to minimize suffering. The targeted population included the northern poor and new immigrants from Europe: African American emigrants from the South were not usually targeted beneficiaries.

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 (i.e., missionaries) that created fragmented networks for different immigrant, racial, and special population groups. 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; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990). As a benefit society, for example, Philadelphia Free African Society was organized to provide insurance benefits for widows and children, and later established branches in Charleston, South Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; and New York, New York.

In the meantime, many churches, synagogues, and other groups mobilized to organize orphanages and hospitals. As relief to the poor, in conjunction with blacks and members of the Abolition Society, the Society of Friends in 1822 established the Shelter for Colored Orphans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 auspices of the Catholic Church (Anderson, 2000; Dolgoff & Feldstein, 2013). Missions, churches, schools, hospitals, convents, and missionaries provided some social services. Catholic priests and nuns provided social services; however, it was reported that similar to attitudes of early Protestant benefactors, there were traces of altruism, egalitarianism, racism, and class-based condescension (Trevino, 2003).

The Freedmen’s Bureau: War Relief Versus Social Welfare

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, raveningly 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 the 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 Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands Act of 1865 that established America’s first federal welfare agency, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau (Colby, 1985), but it was located in the U.S. War Department. This fact alone has led some to only frame these developments as temporary war relief.

Despite this, the Freedmen’s Bureau, as a source of federal relief to the South, provided a broad range of food, social, child welfare, medical, educational, banking, and contract services at the individual and community levels (Olds, 1963), which first established the federal governmental responsibility in social welfare, employment, and land management (Cimbala & Miller, 1999). For example, the agency supervised labor contracts between newly freed slaves and the southern elite (i.e., the planter’s 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). 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 (Carlton-LeNay & Hodges, 1994; Eggleston, 1929).

Of particular significance would be the development of black educational institutions known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that provided critical thinking and a venue for expression of ideas on how to address problems of the offspring of former slaves and a black urban class (Bowles, Hopps, & Clayton, 2016). During this period, ideas and actions were generated by the Populist Movement in an effort to raise awareness among poor agrarian cotton farmers in the South and wheat farmers in the Midwest via focusing particularly on their economic improvements. There was also an effort to help poor blacks and whites see the benefit of shared political and economic collaboration. Theoretically, a collaborative approach for change was logical; however, implementation did not prove successful. Race was a factor in thwarting the collaboration (Gaither, 2005).

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/industrial world. Based on social Darwinism, these ideals were also intended to facilitate principles of social stratification and the maintenance of social control (Day & Schiele, 2013).

Although the thrust toward professionalization grew out of the reorganization of COS in the context of scientific charity (Larson, 1979), 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” (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, and one of the first programs in the Deep South, Atlanta University School of Social Work, was started in 1920. 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 difficult to achieve (Hopps & Lowe, 2008).

Progressives and the Settlement Movement

Settlements and the Progressive reform movement joined together to tackle and improve the neglected urban infrastructure; 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. 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. 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, 2012).

An important challenge to the Progressives’ 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, particularly the new black urban class, which eventually forced the creation of a parallel system of aid for African Americans by African Americans, among others (Bowles, Hopps, & Clayton, 2016; Carlton-LeNay & Hodges, 1994). This separate system was severely under-resourced even when eventually given ideological support and encouragement by social reformer and leader Jane Addams. For all of its fame and historical contributions, Hull House, and its leadership, is tainted because of its early unwillingness to serve all Americans and most particularly African Americans and other people of color (Duster, 1970). By 1920, African American and Mexicans were offered services. In essence, a system of service apartheid (apartness) based on race was established in the social service delivery system. What was clear is that prevailing attitudes and vestiges of the 19th-century impacted services and policies advocated by the field into the 20th century (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 Tuskegee Institute’s founder and a leading American political figure, organized settlement efforts in the rural community of Tuskegee, Alabama. In the meantime, Lugenia Hope, wife of John Hope, the first African American President of Morehouse College, established the Wheat Street Settlement in urban Atlanta, Georgia (Rouse, 1989).

The First Professional Century

It has been argued that there were many opportunities for the profession to continue and build upon the convictions that social work would develop expertise in understanding the behavior of individuals in their social, political, and economic context. In order 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 (i.e., 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—structural change (e.g., The Neighborhood Guild in New York, c. 1886 and Jane Addams and Ellen Star, Hull House in Chicago, c. 1889).

In the 20th century, two periods had particular impact on the profession: one, the New Deal and the Social Security legislation enacted in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt that was designed to help move the country out of the Great Depression and two, the social welfare legislation during the era of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, which included expansion of the Social Security Act (1935) with the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid (1965) and also the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), Older Americans Act (1965), Economic Opportunity Act (1964), and the Fair Housing Act (1968). Major civil rights legislation was also enacted, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Both periods, the 1930s and 1960s, resulted in expansion of social welfare programs and professional social work with impact on growth and professionalism of the workforce.

Over the past 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 had bearing on the status of the profession in the early 21st century. Morris (2000) summarized the profession, noting that it was part of a wider interest in social change and human need that became a part of the later Progressive Movement; had multidisciplinary leadership that moved from a vocational stance to professionalism with a focus on the twin aims of individualized care and changing social conditions; and was greatly impacted by the Depression, World War II, mental health perspectives, and psychological theory. Work for social change became largely rhetorical as the profession became identified with counseling to individuals or adjunct staff as distinct from becoming “the profession” associated with a single service system.

Later, an organization established in 2009, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, presented a statement entitled “The Grand Challenges,” which offered a list of twelve problems that were identified for the profession to focus on for the purpose of transforming society. These problems included the need to ensure healthy development for all youth, close the health gap, stop family violence, eradicate social isolation, end homelessness, create social responses to a changing environment, harness technology for social good, promote smart de-carceration, reduce extreme economic inequality, build financial capability for all, and achieve equal opportunity and justice. This organization referred to itself as an honor society, although it does not have sanction from an organization with resources (or sway) to engage in the desired preventive initiative that would transform society (Fong, Lubben, & Barth, 2018). Another important challenge confronting the profession is the long-standing imbalance between micro and macro practice. Efforts to address the issue of macro included recommendations generated by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) covering recruitment of students, hiring of macro faculty, expansion of course content, greater coverage in National Association of Social Workers (NASW) publications, and implementation of ACOSA-generated macro competencies. The overarching goal is a greater presence of macro in the profession, and ACOSA, the National Network of Social Work Management, and a Special Commission to advance Macro Practice in Social Work are major advocates for improvement (Rothman & Mazrahi, 2014).

The Profession and Its Boundaries

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 (Bowles & Hopps, 2014). The social work profession has long been acknowledged for its breath of practice, while concurrently criticized for its lack of sufficient depth, fragmentation and inadequate conceptual framework (Hopps & Lowe, 2008).

With that 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; 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. Several decades ago questions were asked: What is common to the activities of social work? What then is the field’s “problematic” (Tucker, 2000)? A problematic 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 impact on human functioning. Solomon’s argument (2002) that the profession prefers to discuss “individual variables” over “system variables” holds currency; however, the Curriculum Policy Statements have given more thought and emphasis to this area of concern vis-à-vis the Council on Social Work Education’s stance on social justice (Council on Social Work Education, 2015).

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 interventionist strategies that both invite and enhance tendencies toward eclecticism. However, it is argued that eclecticism is not a “free good” (Tucker, 2000), but rather, one that 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; in the degree of power and autonomy it has amassed; and in the capacity for collaborative study and research.

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. These include Bartlett’s definition (1961) and Gordon’s critical assessment of it (1962) along with contributions from others working for a unified, common base (Boehm, 1959) and acknowledging practice at various system levels and sizes (Pincus & Minahan, 1977; Siporin, 1975). Certainly, practitioners recognize that vague constructs make goal setting and measurement complicated. Others helped move the profession to broader views leading to 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), Afro-centric perspective (Schiele, 2000), policy practice in a reluctant welfare state (Jansson, 2012), and political advocacy (Haynes & Mickelson, 2010) and structural social work. Still, recent research now suggests that the early ideas on the strengths perspective occurred in the 1900s at Atlanta University in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Bowles, Hopps, & Clayton, 2016).

Ongoing questions relative to the major micro-macro paradigm often used to delineate a practice domain exist. Does the dichotomy force practice silos? Recently, a paradigm was proffered by Abramowitz and Sherraden (2016) where four theories were identified as foundational for bridging the macro-micro dichotomy, namely, ecological, financial capabilities, trauma, and oppression. The theories will no doubt be debated; however, attention to bridging is needed and that is not likely to be debated. Another question in the practice domain relates to the use of evidence although it is not a new issue. Thought and discussion date back to the early 20th century, when “The Problem of Measuring Social Treatment” was discussed in Social Service Review (1927) and Kate Holladay Claghorn stated:

This is perhaps the most important job before the social work profession at the present time: to undertake the measurement of effectiveness of social treatment and the study of causes of success and failure. . . . But this is no easy job. Its difficulties are enormous. The object of study is not easily analyzed.

The translation of evidence-based research into practice has been pushed since the 1990s, underscoring the need to use the most current research in intervention. However, the translation, as well as the research, has not been an easy path. Evidence based is actually a prompt to remind practitioners to think “evidence” in both micro and macro practice (Gambrill, 2006, 2008; Hoefer & Jordan, 2008; Thyer, 2008; Briggs, Briggs, & Briggs, 2016). Although the profession is moving to accept evidence-based practice, it has not been embraced, and some of the push is driven by forces external to the profession, such as state and county legislation (i.e., third-party funding sources) that require use of evidence-based programs as a prerequisite for reimbursement (Greenwood, 2013; Van Herck, Annemans, Sermeus, & Ramaekers, 2013).

National Organizations

In an effort to enhance professionalization and status, major restructuring and consolidation of professional organizations took place in the 1950s with the formation of the Council on Social Work Education (1952) and the National Association of Social Workers (1956) (Austin, 2000). The former spearheaded needed oversight of the enterprise that educated and socialized members, while the latter provided the structure for organizational unity to a former, fragmented set of methods/program-based associations. Developing unity was hard to achieve initially and hard to sustain over time, as several specific interest groups formed separate associations (i.e., National Association of Black Social Workers and the North American Association of Christian Social Workers). There are also three national organizations that formed since the 1980s that focus on the macro end of social work—the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration, Influencing Social Policy (ISP), and the Network of Social Work Management (NSWM)—each with their own journals to enhance the macro knowledge and skill of the profession. One committee supported by NASW is Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE), which encourages social workers to help elect individuals who support social justice, a theme that was given greater emphasis in the 2003 NASW Policy Statement and has recently been updated and revised (National Association of Social Workers, 2018).

Contemporary Context of Social Welfare

Sociopolitical Environment

Several major events had 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 and providing food, shelter, and services to large areas of the country (Day & Schiele, 2013); President Roosevelt’s response to the 1929 economic crisis and financial depression, which held sway for over half a century, during which the welfare state, social services, and the profession grew; the Kennedy-Johnson 1960s era of civil rights, war on poverty, and build-up in domestic policies when social welfare and social security surpassed national defense in federal spending (DiNitto, 2012); and the conservative revolt, which attempted to move government responsibility back to pre-Depression, 1929 ideology known as Reaganomics (after former California governor Ronald Reagan who became president).

Reagan successfully galvanized the elites, corporate America, and Middle-America with an antigovernment, 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 services and a return to reliance on the private sector, severe attacks and reversals on civil rights gains, massive buildup of the federal deficit (some $925 billion), 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 George H. W. Bush, who served as Reagan’s vice president but lost after one term as president because of problems related to economic disarray, a heavy federal deficit, and a tax increase he pledged not to support during his campaign that he reversed position on and signed into law (Day & Schiele, 2013).

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 and a Stimulus Program and reduced the deficit (Figueira-McDonough, 2007). But the administration’s big push for universal healthcare led by then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton failed after attack by Republicans, although the majority of Americans favored the plan (Figueira-McDonough, 2007; Gorin & Mizrahi, 2013). Most of all, there was the regeneration of a vibrant economy, which created about 22.5 million new jobs, 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 the length of time recipients could receive financial (or welfare) benefits (Karger & Stoesz, 2018). 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 (Gilens, 1999 as reported in Figueira-McDonough, 2007). When Clinton became president, he inherited a deficit from the first Bush presidency, but he left a surplus.

George W. Bush narrowly won 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. What this election meant was a return to Reagan philosophy including, but not limited to, supply side economics (cuts 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 services delivery via the signing of the Faith and Community-Based Act (the new President’s first executive action); expanded privatization of social services and continued devolution of government responsibility to the states; and appointment of conservative federal judges and most especially justices 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 billion deficit by 2005, owing to the tax cut, cost of the Iraq War, and natural disasters (i.e., 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 (DiNitto, 2012). 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 was the escalating cost of the conflict contributing to the national debt and stagnation in domestic and non-defense policies and programs. The 2006 election was not 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. Within the 110th Congress, many new leaders 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 bad scenario. The country’s deficit-ridden national budget, the 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 deregulation of financial markets, the use of new, complicated instruments such as derivatives, and inadequate oversight by cabinet offices and other high-level regulatory bodies, created a harsh predicament. An inauguration hailed around the world and witnessed by joyous crowds of over a million people occurred on a bitter cold January 20, 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. President Obama began his historic presidency inheriting major domestic and international problems: the greatest Recession since the Great Depression with over 10% unemployment at home; two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan; and volatility in financial markets abroad. One of the events that took place on his 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

President Obama and the Democrats were successful in the first two 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 in which nearly 800,000 jobs were lost monthly. The American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009 (ARRA), a $787 billion 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 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 (March 2010) along largely party lines. It aimed to insure some 37 million of the roughly 46 million uninsured, which included the removal of the preexisting conditions regulation, expansion of coverage for children on parents’ insurance until age 26, closing of the Medicare “doughnut hole” in Prescription D, and expansion of Medicaid (DiNitto, 2012). The law included an “individual mandate,” under which all would have to purchase insurance, a requirement that set off a hail storm of protest regarding government invasion of individual freedom. What was lost in the debate was that the “individual mandate” was generated by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. Attorneys general from some 26 states filed against the law, which was argued before the Supreme Court, which upheld the Individual Mandate 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 bedeviling social welfare issue for over one hundred years, since President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, at the top of the 20th century. Passage of the Affordable Health Care Act enflamed 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 in late 2008; the Tea Party held sway in the 2010 election, purging both 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 the purpose of addressing the national debt. Similarly, immigration reform, job stimulation legislation, and services for veterans were stalled. Domestically, the reading on the economic picture was mixed. Underscored by unemployment over 8% (despite an Unemployment Stimulus Bill) until October 2012, when it dropped to 7.8%,there were 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 was 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 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010). State and federal elections results confirmed congressional victories for the Republicans, but Democrats maintained the presidency. Barack Obama pressed for legislation in a number of areas but found resistance from the Republican Congress. He moved some of his agenda forward through extensive use of executive orders.

The 2012 presidential election pales in contrast to the ugliness demonstrated during the 2016 election. A driving force was the push by both major national parties in identity politics. Republican candidates especially appealed to conservative, right-oriented, white voters, and the more conservative candidates defeated moderates including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, son of President George H. W. Bush and brother of President Georgia W. Bush. A surprising face, Senator Bernie Sanders, captured the attention and imagination of young liberal voters, although he was in his seventh decade. The democratic socialist from Vermont lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, however, who became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for president. Clinton, who had previously served as secretary of state, senator from New York, and first lady, lost the presidential election to New York billionaire businessman Donald Trump, although she won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. President Trump ran a populist campaign that promised to “make America great again” and also repeal and replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act); build a wall on the southwestern border to be paid for by Mexico, end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and revise immigration laws; protect Second Amendment rights; correct voting irregularities and fraud; and de-regulate business and industry. His agenda mostly centered on rolling back Obama policies.

New Political Realities

Trump’s election had not been predicted and stunned the Democratic opposition, the nation, and the world. The election signaled the continuing strength of the conservative, right wing forces in the country that had worked against the Obama administration, fostering gridlock. The 77,000 pivotal votes that led to Trump’s win via the Electoral College were mainly from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, three Rust Belt states that usually supported Democrats. White forces including White Nationalists, Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazis have become more energized as well as various discredited ideologies that drive their causes, including antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, eugenics, and imperialism. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the president’s populism attracted white male working-class disenfranchised voters who felt the impact of wage stagnation and the fear of a growing people of color population.

The political climate under President Trump, with full Republican leadership, remained problematic for moderate Americans whether Republican or Democratic. Relative to social workers, many of Trump’s policies are counter to the Council of Social Work Education’s Educational and Policy Standards (EPAS) 2015 and the NASW Code of Ethics (Council on Social Work Education, 2015; National Association of Social Workers, 2017). However, there is a growing discontent in the country, although President Trump has a core of loyal supporters. Americans expressed their views or angst directly in the midterm elections on November 6, 2018. The Democratic Party was able to break the Republican monopoly in Congress by gaining control of the House of Representatives by the largest margin in forty years, some 40 seats. Republicans maintained control of the Senate and even gained seats for a 53 to 47 majority. Democrats gained seven governorships for a total of 23 seats; Republicans hold the majority of the fifty states. For the future, Democrats expect to become more active at the state level. Increasingly, political alignments are noted: one is urban/suburban and the other rural (Brooks, 2018, November 29).

Several issues drove the shift in voter behavior, including anger relative to the 2017 tax cut that largely benefited corporations and the wealthy; the rise in income inequality; the push to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, which was defeated at a time when Medicare and protection for people with preexisting health conditions had strong support; treatment of immigrants and refugee justice (separation of children from parents); jobs, especially in manufacturing and mining; roll back on environmental protections; voting rights and voter suppression; corruption in government; debt owed by college graduates; and how the country is being led (Krugman, 2018; Brooks, 2018, November 1; Leonhardt, 2018). It is not clear how social welfare policies and programs will fare under the 116th Congress (January 2019); however, the Congress will be more balanced, and, hopefully, there will be a better chance for positive change. A more likely scenario, however, will be the continuing shift to push the cost of social welfare from government responsibility to private citizens.

Impact of Technology and Social Media

The infusion of the latest information and communication technologies (ICT) are now gold standards of good stewardship across all professions. Alongside other helping disciplines, the social work profession is utilizing new communication devices, database management systems, multimedia/online training, virtual treatment, and other form of emerging, advanced technology to improve efficacy and enhance accessibility of services (Cauble & Dinkel, 1999; Fange, Mishna, Zhang, Van Wert, & Bogo, 2014). This reality will pose new questions not only regarding privacy and security concerns, as individual and institutional technologies become more diffused over time, but also regarding the utilization of such media in advancing social work’s interest (Boddy & Dominelli, 2016). Along with the increasingly more efficient, productive, and less expensive use of ICTs (Kim & Bonk, 2006; Perron, Taylor, Glass, & Margerum-Leys, 2010), there is new recognition that its impact is significant (Fromm, 2016).

Consideration of social media is also a reality moving forward, one fraught with ethical challenges and unintended consequences (Boddy & Dominelli, 2016). As the diffusion of social networking approaches and social media platforms (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, crowd funding) becomes more essential to heighten awareness, politically organize, and engage geographic and non-geographic constituents, it is likely that the process of developing tailored media campaigns to access vulnerable populations, and their allies, will become more important. Awareness of these new social networking strategies requires that the profession operate at the edge of new technology, and not behind. However, the cautionary focus should always be on getting the story and information correct, and not necessary first. Employing evidence-based social media campaigns that move people to engagement is a critical development that will only help advance the agenda of the profession.

The 21st-Century Social Worker

Although poised to make significant impact in response to cultural transformation and a fast-growing population, with much greater racial and ethnic diversity due in part to the immigration reforms since 1960, there are concerns relative to the social work profession’s work force in the 21st century. This concern is not unique to the social work profession, given that demographic projections suggest that the overall U.S. work force will reflect these growing racial and ethnic patterns. In such a changing environment, the question remains: Will the social work profession move swiftly enough to keep the pace required to recruit, prepare, and develop the highly qualified social work force to address the complex issues challenging society? Given recent developments in the sociopolitical environment, it is clear that population cohorts, values, and concerns central to the profession are under political threat.

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 professionals must take more seriously the need to actively engage in the push or fight for the profession’s growth and strength in a growing conservative milieu that appears more hostile to some of the profession’s values.

So, advancements in macro practice, administration, advocacy, and research aimed to influence policymakers with new and demonstrated effective data will remain the touchstone of a responsive profession that maintains the public’s trust. The Humphrey Institute of Political Social Work and other initiatives will stimulate social workers to become more engaged in both the political and policy arena. Mobilizing social workers to engage their clients and constituencies in voter education, registration, and actually getting them to the polls is the goal of the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign. Practitioners with skills and commitment to bridging micro and macro are clearly needed to promote the voice and vision of the social work profession as it also demonstrates its effectiveness and cost efficiency to policymakers and the public.

Further Reading

Brookings Institution. A Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit organization dedicated to public policy research focused on solving local, national, and global societal problems.

Cato Institute. A public policy organization focused on research that advances the principles of free markets, peace, and individual liberty for citizens.

The Heritage Foundation. A research and lobbying organization dedicated to public policy initiatives that promote the conservative principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

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