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date: 29 November 2022

Social Work Professionfree

Social Work Professionfree

  • June Gary HoppsJune Gary HoppsUniversity of Georgia
  •  and Tony B. LoweTony B. LoweUniversity of Georgia


The social work 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 heightened judicial scrutiny.


  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Profession

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

A Historical Overview

This article presents an overview of the profession in a political context commencing with origins to the 21st century. Specific areas include early volunteer and mutual aid societies, the Freedmen’s Bureau and war relief, the progressive and settlement movements, the first professional century, national organization, and the contemporary context and new political realities. Observations on the role of 21st-century social work are proffered.

This 20th-century profession celebrated it first centennial two decades 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 healthcare, 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: the Elizabethan Poor Laws. By the 1800s, aid was provided at local levels through town and county offices. Recognizing the 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 (i.e., the impact on an economic and political system based on chattel slavery) 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 et al., 2016). The level of care for this population, however, was shockingly divergent. It was not necessarily based on human standards available to men and whites but rather subhuman 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, which were endemic to the new industrial nation that was emerging at the end of the 1800s and was based on welfare capitalism (Austin, 2000). 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. 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 (Day & Schiele, 2013).

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 in 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. The targeted population included the Northern poor and new immigrants from Europe. First Nations people and internally displaced African Americans from the South were not usually targeted beneficiaries. Social work had not engaged in sufficient strategic planning dedicated to provision of services to a rapidly growing number of Blacks migrating from the South and forming a new Black urban class. Additionally, many agencies were unable to help because of their poor financial condition (Bowles et al., 2016).

The Origins of the Profession

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 Philadelphia Free African Society (1787), New York Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1798), and the Children’s Aid Society (1853; Curry, 1981; Frazier, 1932; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990). As a benefit society, for example, the 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 City.

In the meantime, many members of churches, synagogues, and other groups mobilized to organize orphanages and hospitals. As relief to the poor, the Society of Friends, in conjunction with Blacks and members of the Abolition Society, established the Shelter for Colored Orphans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1822. 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).

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, ravaged by poverty, unlearned and unlettered, though 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, healthcare, 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, which established America’s first federal welfare agency, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau (Colby, 1985). The bureau was located in the U.S. War Department, which has led some to frame these developments as temporary war relief.

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) and 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, which provided critical thinking and a venue for expression of ideas on how to address problems of the offspring of former slaves and a Back urban class (Bowles et al., 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 by focusing particularly on their economic improvements. There was also an effort to help poor Blacks and whites to see the benefit of 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) because white supremacy and resentment were deeply embedded in the region.

Tragically, these ill beliefs of racial inferiority manifested themselves in the form of racially motivated personal and political attacks in the form of threats, assaults, and lynching across the region in an attempt to oppress and deny African Americans basic human rights into the post-Reconstruction era (Logan, 1954/1997). The 1896 Supreme Court’s Plessey v. Ferguson ruling established the racial doctrine of “separate but equal” as law of the nation. In response, two early Black self-help advocacy organizations emerged in the 1890s to organize a national strategy: the Afro American League and the National Afro American Council. These organizations were precursors of the nation’s current oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Alexander, 2012).

Charity Organization Societies: Emergence of Scientific Philanthropy

In the late 1800s, the Charity Organization Societies (COS) 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 systematic, organized approach to identifying and determining needs (case evaluation) and to delivering services effectively. Their ideas about efficiency and functional specialization were based on those of the business 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. Mary Richmond was a major, undisputed leader in this movement. 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 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 its 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).

The Progressive and the Settlement Movements

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, or resource limitations. Women reformers who became settlement leaders were usually well-heeled financially and came from a variety of disciplines. They 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 (Karger & Stoesz, 2018). By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, there were more than 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 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 et al., 2016; Carlton-LeNay & Hodges, 1994). This separate system was severely underresourced 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 are tainted because of early unwillingness to serve all Americans and most particularly African Americans and other people of color (Duster, 1970). By 1920, African Americans and Mexicans were offered services. In essence, a system of separate services based on de jure and de facto racial policies was established in the social service.

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 Neighborhood Union Settlement in urban Atlanta, Georgia (Rouse, 1989). Mary McLeod Bethune founded the Dayton Educational and Industrial Training School in 1904 (which is now Bethune Cookman University) on property that had formerly been a dump. Bethune also founded the National Council of Negro Women and was the public voice as director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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 (Morris, 2000). 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 basis (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—that is, structural change (e.g., The Neighborhood Guild in New York, c. 1886, Jane Addams and Ellen Star, Hull House in Chicago, c. 1889, and Lugenia Burns Hope, Atlanta Neighborhood Union in Atlanta, c. 1908).

In the 20th century, two periods had particular impact on the profession because of liberal ideology that supports an affirmative role for the government: The New Deal and the Social Security legislation enacted in 1935 under President Roosevelt was designed to help move the country out of the Great Depression, and the social welfare legislation of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, included expansion of the Social Security Act (1935) with the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid (1965) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), Older Americans Act (1965), Economic Opportunity Act (1964), and the Fair Housing Act (1968; NASW’s Social Work, 2020). Major civil rights legislation was also enacted, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The 1930s was a historically important decade because of union activity. Social workers showed interest in the rank-and-file movement as a strategy to protect workers’ interests during the expansion of relief work (Fisher, 1939). 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 families and change societal conditions. 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 symbolic as the profession became identified with counseling to individuals or adjunct staff as distinct from becoming “the profession” associated with a single service system.

From the Late 20th Century to the 21st in Social Work

During the late 20th century, there was a shift from the liberal ideology of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter to more conservative views. The elections of presidents Reagan and Bush crystallized a shift to the right in social welfare and tax policies. However, the elections of Clinton and Obama signaled renewed interest and effort in the affirmative role of government in social policy, such as healthcare (Karger & Stoesz, 2018).

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, established in 2009, presented a statement entitled “The Grand Challenges,” which offered a list of 12 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. A 13th challenge, ending racism, was announced in January 2020. 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 et al., 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 Action (ACOSA; formerly social administration) 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 & Mizrahi, 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 point in time (Bowles & Hopps, 2014). The social work profession has long been acknowledged for its breadth of practice, while concurrently criticized for its lack of sufficient depth, its fragmentation, and an inadequate conceptual framework (Hopps & Lowe, 2008).

The profession has created knowledge through an 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. But 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.

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 (2002) argument that the profession usually discusses “individual variables” over “system variables” holds currency; however, the Curriculum Policy Statements emphasize this area of concern vis-à-vis the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE’s) stance on social justice (CSWE, 2015).

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 noted efforts include Bartlett’s (1961) definition and Gordon’s (1962) critical assessment, along with Boehm’s (1959) contributions toward a unified. Moreover, the recognition of various practice system levels and sizes (Pincus & Minahan, 1977; Siporin, 1975), and work on refining the definition of social work (Holosko, 2003). 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); Afrocentric (Schiele, 2000); policy practice in a reluctant welfare state (Jansson, 2012); political advocacy (Haynes & Mickelson, 2010); and structural social work and social justice (Gent-Goodly & Hopps, 2017). Still, recent research 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 et al., 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. Thought and discussion date back to the early 20th century. “The Problem of Measuring Social Treatment” was discussed in Social Service Review when Kate Holladay Claghorn (1927) emphasized that measurement in social treatment was a challenge that had be confronted.

The translation of evidence-based research into practice has been pushed since the 1990s, underscoring the need to use the most current research to refine interventions. 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 (Briggs et al., 2016; Gambrill, 2006, 2008; Hoefer & Jordan, 2008; Nair & Guerrero, 2013; Thyer, 2008). 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 et al., 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 CSWE in 1952 and the NASW in 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 and 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, and the Network of Social Work Management—each with their own journals to enhance the macro knowledge and skill of the profession. One outgrowth of NASW is its Political Action for Candidate Election, 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, which has been updated and revised (NASW, 2018).

Contemporary Sociopolitical Environment

Reagan successfully galvanized the cultural conservatives, corporate America, and middle America around an antigovernment and antiwelfare theme resulting in Republican control based on supply-side economics, which is also called neo-conservativism. Tax policies favoring wealthy and affluent Americans and businesses, 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 chose 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 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton failed after it was attacked 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 (Gingrich, 1994). 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 recipients of Aid to Families and Dependent Children (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’s philosophy, including 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 a tax cut, the 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 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 nondefense policies and programs. The 2006 election was not a clarion call or mandate for a return to a more expansive social welfare philosophy; however, it did throw cold water on the 30-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: First American President of African Decent

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; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and volatility in financial markets abroad. On the night of his inauguration, powerful Republican leaders 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 2 years in pushing ahead with a progressive agenda in contrast to conservative supply-side ideology thanks 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 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 and “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) largely along party lines. It aimed to insure some 37 million of the roughly 46 million uninsured Americans, 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 coverage (Part D), and expansion of Medicaid (DiNitto, 2012; Rizzo, 2008). The law included an “individual mandate,” under which all would have to purchase insurance, a requirement that set off a storm of protest regarding government invasion of individual freedom. National healthcare legislation had been a bedeviling social welfare issue for over 100 years, since President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration at the start 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 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. The 2012 election was significant because of a new dynamic in campaign financing due to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which permitted unlimited contributions from corporations. State and federal election 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, including a successful initiative to block his appointment of a Supreme Court justice, an honor that fell to the 45th President. Obama moved some of his agenda forward through extensive use of executive orders.

The 2016 presidential campaign was contentious. A driving force was the push by both major national parties toward 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 George W. Bush. A surprising new contender, U.S. 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.

New Political Realities

The election of Donald J. Trump signaled the continuing strength of the conservative, right-wing forces in the country, 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. Radical forces including White Nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazis became more energized as well as various unfounded ideologies that drive their causes, including antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia. 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 both Republicans and Democrats. Relative to social workers, many of Trump’s policies were counter to the Council of Social Work Education’s Educational and Policy Standards and the NASW Code of Ethics (CSWE, 2015; NASW, 2017). 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 40 years, some 40 seats. Although Republicans maintained control of the Senate and even gained seats for a 53–47 majority. Democrats gained seven governorships for a total of 23 seats; Republicans hold the majority of the 50 states. For the future, Democrats expect to become more active at the state level (Brooks, 2018).

Social Work in a Pandemic: 2020 and Beyond

In 2020 the country faced the emergence the Covid-19 pandemic, which called for shelter in place and other mandates across the country. This led to near Depression level unemployment (circa 11.1%), heightened social unrest owing to long-standing and lingering injustice, and major divisiveness precipitated by police brutality toward African Americans.

The Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in millions of Americans becoming infected and hundreds of thousands dying in what has been characterized as an inadequate response to a national crisis. The virus surfaced racial inequities as Blacks and Latinx communities were disproportionately affected and suffered more deaths. Instead of a demonstrated universal, comprehensive, coordinated attack, a fragmented approach ensued with states and cities in charge. The stock market had one of its biggest falls in March 2020 as the economy was being closed and then recorded its best quarter. Many Americans were furloughed, terminated, or assigned part-time employment; others were allowed to work remotely. Productivity did not suffer in the so-called Zoom economy (American stock market, 2020). With the exception of highly educated and skilled workers (e.g., medical professionals and managers), most were from the ranks of the low skilled and low paid where there is an overrepresentation of people of color, including African Americans, Latinos, and Southeast Asians, and women (Robertson & Gebeloff, 2020).

The pandemic put a spotlight on the wages and working conditions of those referred to as essential workers, who hold jobs with little protection from Covid-19 or other maladies (e.g., meatpackers and poultry plant workers). For those in the workforce with children, there are concerns around available, healthy, safe, and affordable childcare that can be arranged in configurations that meet the needs of parents who must go out to work or work remotely at home. It is argued that only those who are well resourced are able to work and have children (Perelman, 2020). Questions have surfaced about the impact on the workforce partition rate of women who will be expected to carry the burden of childcare and face career challenges and maybe even setbacks (Gogoi, 2020; Reopening schools, 2020). The pandemic called attention to the country’s safety net. Other areas of interest to social workers include recent Supreme Court rulings. On June 18, 2020, the Court ruled in favor of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, begun in June 2012 under President Barack Obama and was threatened by the Trump administration.

Another decision handed down on July 8, 2020, related to the Affordable Care Act, allowed employers to eliminate coverage for contraceptive healthcare for women on religious grounds. The decision will impact hundreds of thousands of women (Gresko, 2020). And in another decision related to employment rights for same-sex and transgender employees, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of these workers concluding that they could not be discriminated against (Barnes, 2020).

Impact of Technology and Social Media

The infusion of the latest information and communication technologies 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 and online training, virtual treatment, and other form of emerging, advanced technology to improve efficacy and enhance accessibility of services (Cauble & Dinkel, 1999; Fange et al., 2014).

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 heightening awareness, political organizing, and engaging geographic and nongeographic constituents, it is likely that the process of developing tailored media campaigns to access vulnerable populations and their allies will become more important (Rodriguez & Shelton, 2019).

21st-Century Social Work

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. workforce 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 up the pace required to recruit, prepare, and develop a highly qualified social workforce 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 being addressed through protests and political demands.

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 for social workers to be 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, and 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. Social workers must take more seriously the need to actively engage in the push or fight for the profession’s growth, strength, and relevance in a continuing conservative milieu that has been antithetical to some of the profession’s values.

Advancements in macro practice, administration, advocacy, and research aimed to influence policy makers 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 arenas. 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 policy makers and the public (CSWE, 2018).

Finally, the country elected President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with a record turnout of voters (about 160 million) during the national election in 2020 on a theme of Build Back Better. History was made with selection of not only a woman and person of color to the vice presidency. Groups that should benefit include African Americans, new immigrants, and working-class whites. The former group is credited with resurrecting the Biden campaign in the South Carolina primary. Democrats held the House and the Senate with the election of two Georgia Democrats, an African American and a Jewish American. Prospects for gaining political offices are promising for progressives and greater equality and social justice seem within reach as social workers are invited to be “at the policy table.” The future for social work seems brighter.

Links to Digital Materials

Brookings Institution. A Washington, DC–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.

Further Reading

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