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date: 29 October 2020

Social Work Profession: Historyfree

  • Paul H. StuartPaul H. StuartFlorida International University


The social work profession originated in volunteer efforts to address the social question, the paradox of increasing poverty in an increasingly productive and prosperous economy, in Europe and North America during the late 19th century. By 1900, working for social betterment had become an occupation, and social work achieved professional status by 1930. By 1920, social workers could be found in hospitals and public schools, as well as in child welfare agencies, family agencies, and settlement hoses. During the next decade, social workers focused on the problems of children and families. As a result of efforts to conceptualize social work method, expand social work education programs, and develop a stable funding base for voluntary social service programs, social work achieved professional status by the 1930s. The Great Depression and World War II refocused professional concerns, as the crises of depression and war demanded the attention of social workers. After the war, mental health concerns became important as programs for veterans and the general public emphasized the provision of inpatient and outpatient mental health services. In the 1960s, social workers again confronted the problem of poverty. Since then, the number of social workers has grown even as the profession's influence on social welfare policy has waned.


  • Occupations, Professions, and Work

Updated in this version

Bibliography updated to reflect recent research.

Originating in volunteer efforts for social betterment in the late 19th century in Europe and North America, social work became an occupation in the early 20th century and achieved professional status by the 1920s. The 1930 census classified social work as a profession for the first time. Social work began as one of several attempts to address the social question, the paradox of increasing poverty in an increasingly productive and prosperous economy. Social workers initially focused on poverty, but were increasingly concerned with the problems of children and families in the 1920s. By the 1930s, the new occupation had achieved professional status as a personal service profession, as a result of the growth of professional organizations, educational programs, and publications (Walker, 1933). But depression and war refocused professional concerns on poverty, as the crises of the Great Depression and World War II demanded the attention of social workers. After the war, mental health concerns became important as programs for veterans and the general public emphasized the provision of inpatient and outpatient mental health services. In the 1960s, social workers again confronted the problem of poverty and continued to grow as a profession, so that by the 21st century, social work was licensed in all 50 states. Since then, the number of social workers has grown even as the profession's influence on social welfare policy has waned.

The Emergence of the Social Question

During the late 19th century, industrialization created an urban society in a globalizing economy. Steam power fueled an expansion of industrial production and revolutionized transportation, resulting in expedited communication and the worldwide movement of capital, manufactured goods, and people. Cities in the industrializing societies of Europe and North America grew larger and social problems seemed to reach a critical level, as industrial economies produced new problems—unemployment, neglected and abandoned children, chronic disability, and poverty in the midst of unprecedented wealth. While the United States remained a predominantly rural society, big cities seemed to portend the future, and many reacted with horror to the apparent misery of the urban poor—and to their potential for disruption (Bremner, 1956; Rodgers, 1998).

In the United States, interest in the social question, as concern with urban problems and the consequences of industrialization came to be known, had both religious and rationalistic roots. The sentimental reformism that had informed antislavery efforts before the Civil War turned to the problems of the poor, particularly children. In charity organization, child saving, and the settlements, religious people campaigned for reforms in assistance to the poor. Protestant ministers professed a Social Gospel, proclaiming that Christians had a duty to campaign for social reform. Roman Catholic reformers heeded Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which called for justice in the relations between capital and labor. Jews in Germany and the United States embraced a reform movement that emphasized social justice. But the development of big business and its increasing reliance on technology and new models of formal organization also suggested directions for reform: modern charity work would be scientific and would borrow organizational structures from the emerging corporate world.

Boards of Charity, composed of prominent citizens who served without pay, attempted to rationalize state residential institutions created before the Civil War. Rational administration meant careful budgeting, civil service rules, and the collection of data on the performance of state institutions. Board members visited and inspected state institutions—mental hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and schools for persons with a variety of disabilities—and made recommendations for more efficient management. Beginning with Massachusetts in 1862, most states established boards of charities during the last third of the 19th century. Most boards had an advisory function, while others (usually called Boards of Control) had administrative oversight over state institutions.

In the nation's large cities, child saving movements sought to improve the lives of orphans and poor children. Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace founded the New York Children's Aid Society (CAS) in 1853. Over the next half century, the CAS initiated a variety of child saving measures, notably the orphan trains, which placed poor New York children with Christian farm families in the Midwest. The orphan train movement stimulated the development of Jewish and Catholic orphanages, and the child saving movement soon outgrew its origins. Orphanage care of children increased during the late 19th century as states attempted to end the practice of placing children in poorhouses. By the turn of the century, reformers contemplated a mixed system of care for dependent children, involving both public and private institutions, community placement as well as institutional care, and preventive legislation, including laws regulating or prohibiting child labor and requiring school attendance.

In the 1880s, two new institutions were created that would be formative in creating a new occupation to provide assistance to the poor. Most large American cities, beginning with Buffalo in 1877, established charity organization societies (COS), modeled on the London Charity Organisation Society. Charity organization emphasized a controlled form of love extended to the poor. An organization of voluntary charities, rather than a provider of direct material assistance, the COS organized a city's voluntary relief associations on a rational basis. District agents, paid COS employees, interviewed applicants for relief, determined appropriate assistance, and arranged for friendly visits by volunteers. The visitors provided good advice and an example of caring, while the district agents curbed potential abuse. During the 1880s, most COS work was done by volunteers called friendly visitors. By the 1890s, however, paid employees had supplanted volunteers (Lubove, 1965). COS also became increasingly active in environmental work. In 1898, the New York COS established the Summer School of Applied Philanthropy, which later became the New York School of Philanthropy (1904). The school was renamed the New York School of Social Work in 1919 and became part of Columbia University in 1940, becoming the Columbia University School of Social Work in 1963.

Settlement houses, also based on an English model, were established in large cities in the United States during the 1880s. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Chicago’s Hull House, the most famous settlement in the United States, in 1889, after a visit to London's Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house. Settlement workers were middle-class and affluent volunteers who “settled” in the immigrant districts of large cities. The settlements provided a vital service, Addams believed, both for the volunteer residents, who needed a purpose in life, and for the society at large, by building needed bridges between the classes in an increasingly stratified and fragmented society (Addams, 1893).

Members of the existing state boards of charities began to meet in 1874 as a section of the American Social Science Association. In 1879, the group formed its own organization, the Conference of Boards of Public Charities, which became the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1880 and the National Conference of Social Work in 1917. Although the conference was initially an annual gathering of the members of state boards, child savers, COS workers, settlement house residents, and many others interested in the social question became active in the organization. For much of the 20th century, the National Conference was the major meeting place for social workers (Bruno, 1957).

Social Work as an Occupation

By the first decade of the 20th century, a separate occupational status for charity workers had emerged. Schools of charity or philanthropy in five cities provided training to members of the new occupation. COS visitors, child care workers, and settlement house residents were joined by social workers in new settings—big city general hospitals, public schools, psychiatric clinics, and juvenile courts. Although the methods to be used by the new occupation were hardly defined, the emerging methods and techniques were applied to new populations in these new settings. The decade also saw the beginnings of investment in the new occupation, with the founding of the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907. For its first 40 years, the foundation supported the development of a profession of social work.

Career COS administrator Mary Richmond joined the new Russell Sage Foundation in 1908 as director of its Charity Organization Department. During the next 20 years, she and fellow staff member Francis McLean transformed charity organization. They worked on two fronts—the organizational and the conceptual. McLean worked with COS organizations to form a new national organization, the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity, in 1911. Richmond worked to develop the conceptual base for social case work, which would become the primary method for social work practice with individuals and families. The foundation published Richmond's Social Diagnosis (1917), which quickly became an authoritative text. In 1919, the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity changed its name to the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work and in 1930 to the Family Welfare Association of America.

In addition to its efforts in charity organization, the Russell Sage Foundation supported the developing field of child welfare. A Child Welfare Department, headed by Hastings Hart, consulted with states on legislation and services for children. Campaigns for the Children's Code energized child savers on the state level, as states codified the laws on children, adding or strengthening provisions regulating child labor, requiring school attendance, establishing juvenile courts, and providing payments for children in single parent households. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt called the first White House Conference on Dependent Children. The conference called for the creation of a Children's Bureau in the federal government “to investigate and report,. . . upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children.” Congress established the Children's Bureau in 1912. Eight years later, in 1920, child welfare agency executives founded the Child Welfare League of America.

World War I, the United States’ first European war, resulted in an expansion of the social work profession both in numbers and in scope. The Red Cross Home Service provided linkage between soldiers and their families. Mary Richmond trained Red Cross home service workers, who provided social case work services to rural and small town families for the first time. Other war-related charities also expanded, as did the Army Medical Corps. Faced with a variety of psychological and neurological problems, the army used social workers, many of whom were Red Cross personnel detailed to army units in the field. Smith College established its School for Social Work in 1918 as a wartime measure. Graduates provided services to soldiers and veterans suffering from shell shock and other psychiatric disabilities. The war also resulted in an increase in social planning. Social worker Mary van Kleeck temporarily left the Russell Sage Foundation to help set up the Women in Industry Service in the U.S. Department of Labor.

From Occupation to Profession

Social work education programs expanded during the years 1913–1919, and even more rapidly during the next decade, as a result of changes in charity organization and the expansion of hospital social work, school social work, and child welfare. Educator Abraham Flexner's conclusion, in a paper read at the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1915, that social work was not a profession because it lacked original jurisdiction and an educationally transmissible technique stimulated the development of social work theory. During the 15 years following the delivery of the paper, professional education flourished. Schools of social work were established in the South and the West as well as in the Northeast and Midwest. Professional organizations and national federations of agencies were established and engaged in explorations of social work practice theory. In 1917, the National Conference of Charities and Correction changed its name to the National Conference of Social Work and adopted a constitution and by-laws (National Conference of Social Work, 1917).

Perhaps the most important development of the 1920s was the expansion of federated fundraising. Before World War I, most social work agencies had survived by soliciting subscriptions and contributions from wealthy donors. Such financing was often unreliable, and fluctuations in agency budgets were not unusual. During World War I, a War Chest raised money for war-related charities in many American cities. After the war, these war chests were converted to “Community Chests,” local agencies that raised money for the community’s social work agencies, usually through an annual campaign that solicited funds from middle-class and working people as well as the wealthy. With its annual campaign targeted on a broad base of potential donors, incremental budgeting, and generally successful fund drives, community chest provided voluntary agencies with financial stability during the 1920s. Although some social workers objected to the “stereotyped social work” that resulted from the budgeting process, most cities had adopted the Community Chest idea by the end of the decade.

Public social services had expanded enough by 1923 that a prominent social welfare administrator could write about a transformation “from charities and correction to public welfare” (Kelso, 1923, p. 21). Most professional social work, however, was practiced in voluntary agencies. Social workers did practice in some correctional agencies, particularly in juvenile corrections, and in law enforcement during the 1920s. State hospitals and outpatient programs employed social workers as well. The Commonwealth Fund supported child guidance clinics, new children's mental health clinics staffed by social workers and other professionals, and school social work demonstration projects. The federal Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 established a program of grants to the states to support maternal and child health programs administered by social workers in the Children's Bureau. State children's code campaigns resulted in the creation of statewide child welfare and public assistance programs in many states during the decade.

By the end of the decade, voluntary social work had a stable financial base, social workers had created a number of professional organizations, and public social services had expanded. In his 1929 presidential address to the National Conference of Social Work, social work educator Porter R. Lee could say that social work—once a cause—had become “a function of a well-ordered society.” The project of professionalization now seemed complete, although Lee worried about how to maintain zeal in an increasingly routinized profession. The 1930 census, which classified social work as a profession for the first time, enumerated over 30,000 social workers in the United States, but only 5,600 of them were members of the American Association of Social Workers, the largest professional organization of social workers (Walker, 1933).

The Great Depression: A Crisis for the New Profession

The worldwide economic contraction that began in 1929 resulted in economic and social crises as the demand for products slackened, workers lost their jobs, and political unrest toppled established governments around the world. In Europe, a fascist takeover of the German government led to the emigration of many, including leading social workers like Alice Solomon, to the United States and elsewhere. Ultimately, the worldwide depression of the 1930s resulted in World War II, which began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland.

In the United States, voluntary and state-supported social welfare services contracted in response to reductions in funding. Community Chest donations declined in the early years of the Great Depression, and over one third of the nation's voluntary social service agencies closed. Some of the agencies that survived contracted with local governments to provide relief to the swelling ranks of the unemployed. The slowing economy resulted in declining tax receipts for property and sales taxes, making it difficult for state and local governments to meet increasing demands for unemployment relief. Cities that had resisted the Community Chest movement, notably Boston, Chicago, and New York, turned to federated fund raising to broaden the pool of potential donors. The federal government began to support state and local relief efforts, first with loans to the states beginning in 1932, during the Hoover administration, and then with grants for unemployment relief during the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover, who served as President in the early years of the depression (1929–1933), increased the federal budget but wanted states and the voluntary sector to take the lead in relief. In contrast, the Roosevelt administration, while it enlisted state governments, favored a strong federal role. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, promising a “New Deal” for the American people—a more vigorous federal government and renewed experimentation in recovery efforts. Roosevelt's Federal Emergency Relief administrator, Harry Hopkins, a social worker with a background in the administration of both public and voluntary agencies, required that states receiving federal grants for unemployment relief establish public agencies to administer the relief program, ending the practice of contracting with voluntary agencies (Trattner, 1999). In response, the general director of the Family Welfare Association of America charted a new course for private social work. Public agencies should provide relief to the unemployed, while voluntary family agencies should concentrate on casework services for “disorganized families” (Swift, 1934).

The Social Security Act (1935) established a federal old age insurance program and state programs, supervised and partially funded by the federal government, of unemployment insurance, public assistance, and social services. States pressed new employees, most of them without social work experience, into service in the rapidly expanding state welfare systems. States established training programs and many state universities introduced undergraduate social work education programs. The established schools of social work, concentrated in urban areas and often in private universities, increasingly emphasized graduate education. Two social work education organizations, the American Association of Schools of Social Work (AASSW) and the National Association of Schools of Social Administration (NASSA), representing the two movements in social work education, attempted to represent education for the new profession.

While NASSA supported undergraduate education, the AASSW emphasized graduate education; in 1939, AASSW restricted membership to graduate programs. During the next few years, the master of social work (MSW) became the standard professional degree. To some in social work education, it appeared that two social work professions were emerging, a graduate profession based on the MSW degree and a baccalaureate profession based on the acquisition of an undergraduate degree. While many MSWs continued to work in the voluntary social service sector, opportunities for public employment increased during the 1930s, as states implemented the services titles of the Social Security Act.

Social workers developed new conceptualizations of social work practice methods during the 1930s. Different branches of psychoanalytic casework, influenced by psychiatrists Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud, contested for dominance in social case work. Group workers and community organizers attempted to conceptualize their methods by sponsoring special sessions at the National Conference of Social Work in 1935 and 1939. The 1935 group work sessions resulted in the creation of a new group work organization, the Association for the Study of Group Work, and the 1939 session on community organization eventually led to another new organization, the Association for the Study of Community Organization.


The United States entered the World War II in December 1941, after an attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, by the Japanese Navy. By then the war was already being fought worldwide and some refugees from Hitler's Europe found sanctuary in the United States. Some, like Alice Salomon, had been leaders in the social work profession in Europe, while others, like Werner Boehm, had not been social workers in Europe but would become leaders in social work practice and education after the war. The growth of army camps and war-related industries ended the depression and disrupted community life even before the United States entered the war. Congress passed the Lanham Act (1940) to provide assistance for war-impacted communities. Veteran social workers like Bertha Reynolds, who worked for the Personal Service Department of the National Maritime Union, devoted themselves to war work even as she challenged the direction of the profession. New social workers were recruited to war-related social work services.

Wars bring about psychological crises for service members, whether they are called shell shock (World War I), battlefield neurosis (World War II), or posttraumatic stress disorder (Vietnam and Afghanistan/Iraq wars). During World War II, the Army Medical Corps deployed psychiatric social workers to treat service men and women suffering from war-related psychological trauma. In 1944, Congress enacted the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill, which provided health care, home and business loans, and postsecondary education grants for veterans of World War II. The Act, which some hailed as “completing the New Deal,” created the postwar middle class by making home ownership and college education available to veterans. The G.I. Bill also resulted in an expansion of the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital system. Social work became an important part of the VA health care system, which planners hoped would model an efficient public health system for the nation.

Congress enacted new social legislation after World War II. The National Mental Health Act (1946) created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Opportunities for social workers in health and mental health expanded as a result of the Hill-Burton Hospital Construction Act of 1946, the creation of NIMH, and the expansion of the VA Hospital System. The United States signed the charter of the United Nations in 1945, creating an international body that provided an arena for international exchange. Social workers in the United States were eager to share their expertise with development programs in war-ravaged Europe and Asia and later with developing nations in an era of decolonization. Unfortunately, the models were sometimes based on what was effective in the United States, with little effort to adapt practices to local conditions (Midgley, 2006). Social work in the late 1940s was a fragmented profession. Practitioner organizations representing different fields of practice emphasized the special skills and knowledge needed by specialists, so that graduate education emphasized specialized rather than generic content. Separate education organizations accredited undergraduate and graduate programs. Many believed that the social work profession needed to speak with one voice. A movement for generic casework practice, initiated at the University of Chicago by Charlotte Towle, appeared to have promise for unifying social work practice with individuals and families. Social work practice organizations and social work education organizations amalgamated. In 1947, NASSA and AASSW formed the National Council on Social Work Education to explore professional unification. A study of social work education was commissioned, conducted by adult educator Ernest W. Hollis and social work educator Alice Taylor. The Hollis–Taylor Report, as the study was called, appeared in 1951; the following year, NASSA and AASSW merged to form the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE moved quickly to require graduate status and university affiliation for institutional membership—social work would be a graduate profession.

Social work practitioner organizations presented a more complex picture. The American Association of Social Workers (AASW), organized in 1921, attempted to represent all social workers, but specialized practitioner organizations existed for medical social workers (organized in 1918), school social workers (1919), psychiatric social workers (1926), group workers (1936), community organizers (1946), and researchers (1949). Several inter-organizational committees met during the early 1950s to develop an agreement for a single social work practitioner organization. Although the early committees included the AASSW as a nonvoting member, consolidation of the education and practitioner organizations was not pursued. In 1955, the seven practitioner and researcher organizations joined to form the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which had 22,000 members after the merger.

In 1958, an NASW Commission on Social Work Practice issued a Working Definition of Social Work Practice to provide a generic definition of social work practice (Bartlett, 1958). CSWE commissioned a comprehensive study of the social work curriculum, directed by Werner Boehm. Published in 1959, the 13 volume Curriculum Study included volumes on undergraduate education, specialized practice methods (administration, community organization, group work, and casework), fields of practice (corrections, public social services, and rehabilitation), and curriculum areas (human growth and behavior, research, social welfare policy and services, and values and ethics) (Boehm, 1959). The intent of both efforts was to unify social work by providing a common set of concepts and educational experiences.

The Profession Broadens

In 1955, the Mental Health Study Act (PL 84–182) created the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health. The commission issued Action for Mental Health (1961), a report that called for renewed investment in mental health. The new liberal Kennedy administration, in 1961, proposed an expansion in community mental health programs, based on the report and on California's experience with community mental health centers. The Community Mental Health Centers Act (PL 88–164), enacted by Congress, in 1963, provided grants-in-aid, administered by NIMH, to the states for local Community Mental Health Centers that would serve mentally ill persons outside of state facilities. By the end of the decade, social workers provided the majority of mental health care in the United States.

The Kennedy administration initiated other projects, notably in public welfare and delinquency prevention. After Kennedy delivered a special message on public welfare, Congress enacted the 1963 Public Welfare Amendments to the Social Security Act (PL 87–543), which provided federal funds for state social service programs and for educating social workers to work in state public welfare programs. The act increased opportunities for public welfare personnel to enter MSW programs and resulted in expanded opportunities in public welfare programs for professional social workers. Two years later, a federal task force projected an increased need for social work personnel and called for additional investment in social work education, including the development of undergraduate education for social work (U. S. Task Force on Social Work Education and Manpower, 1965).

President Kennedy's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency provided demonstration grants for antidelinquency programs. The example of the President's Committee led the new Johnson administration to propose a War on Poverty in 1964. A vigorous antipoverty program would be directed by quasi-public entities, local Community Action Programs. Some social workers were involved in the design of the program, while others looked askance at its nonprofessional, some thought antiprofessional, approach to solving the problem of poverty. Voluntary social service agencies found new opportunities for contracting to provide services to the poor, from community organization to family counseling. In 1965, a federal health insurance program for the elderly, Medicare, and a state-administered health assistance program for the poor, Medicaid, were enacted by Congress as Titles XVIII and XIX of the Social Security Act, along with the Older Americans Act (PL 89–73).

The effect of the expansion of government social welfare services during the Great Depression and after World War II was to shift the most important source of funding and practice for social work from the voluntary, nonprofit sector to the public sector, and to emphasize health and mental health programs. Other sectors, such as corrections and child welfare, medicalized their approaches, as talk of treatment for offenders and dependent children began to dominate professional discourse in these areas.

The increasing complexity of the emerging welfare state resulted in an increasing emphasis on policy, planning, and administration in social work curricula and in practice. Many programs in the Kennedy–Johnson era, from the antidelinquency programs of the Kennedy years to the community action, older Americans, and Model Cities programs of the Johnson administration, relied on increasingly complex federal relationships with state and local governments managed by community planners, many with social work credentials. If the decade was contentious, the social work profession seemed vibrant during the 1960s. In 1966, the membership of NASW reached nearly 46,000, doubling its membership in its first decade.

Social Work in a Conservative Era

In 1969, NASW, which had previously required the MSW for full membership, opened full membership to individuals with a baccalaureate degree from programs approved by CSWE. In doing so, NASW endorsed the conclusion of the Task Force on Social Work Education and Manpower that baccalaureate social workers were needed to fill the many social work positions created by the expansion of social welfare programs in the 1960s. CSWE subsequently developed standards and accreditation procedures for undergraduate social work programs. It seemed that the goal of NASSA for recognition of the undergraduate degree had been achieved. However, some believed that recognition of the BSW had deprofessionalized social work.

Federal spending for social welfare increased during the 1970s, but employment for social workers stagnated as a result of several related trends (Patterson, 2000). Congress and the Nixon administration favored “hard” services, such as material provisions, over such “soft” services as counseling. Hard services could be provided by anyone, many believed, resulting in reduced demand for MSWs and even BSWs. State public welfare departments separated social services from public assistance payments, reversing the logic of the 1963 Public Welfare Amendments. State and local public social service agencies reclassified jobs to require a BSW rather than an MSW—and sometimes any or no baccalaureate degree rather than a BSW. Often justified as cost-saving measures, these changes, which were particularly important in public child welfare services, limited employment opportunities for professional social workers even as they reduced the quality of services for clients. By the late 1970s, many social services were provided by private or quasi-public agencies or by private practitioners under contract to public authorities rather than by public agency employees.

These trends were exacerbated during the 1980s, as the Reagan administration used the block grant mechanism to “return power to the states” while reducing federal commitments for social service spending. Many conservatives around Reagan were suspicious of social workers, whom they viewed as misguided philanthropists, harming poor people even as they attempted to assist them. In response, social work practitioner organizations lobbied for legal regulation. Licensing by the state, accomplished in varying degrees in all of the states by the 1990s, would assure the public of quality social services while increasing the demand for licensed social workers, advocates believed. Licensing also facilitated the growth of private practice, as many states included an independent practice license for experienced MSWs. In 1988, the Director of NIMH appointed a Task Force on Social Work Research to study the status of research and research training in social work. The Task Force Report, published in 1991, recommended the creation of an Institute for the Advancement of Social Work (IASWR) and increased attention to social work research by NIMH, CSWE, and NASW (Task Force on Social Work Research, 1991).

Despite a new democratic administration in Washington, the trends of the 1980s continued during the Clinton administration—growth in government contracting with nonprofit and for profit organizations, increasing reliance on third-party payments, and privatization of social services. In spite of the creation of IASWR in 1993 and of a new national organization for social work researchers, the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) in 1994, social work was largely ignored when Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PL 104–193). The act eliminated a 40-year-old public assistance program for poor families, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replacing it with a block grant program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which imposed work requirements and time limits for the receipt of public assistance.

As the 21st century began, new organizations of practitioners, educators, and researchers arose to complement CSWE and NASW, creating a situation reminiscent of the 1940s. Research, increasingly emphasized by social work educators, did not seem to influence social work practice, signaling a potentially dangerous division between academics and practitioners. NASW held a Social Work Summit in 2002, which brought 43 different social work organizations together to discuss coalitions and collaborative undertakings, and a Social Work Congress in 2005 to identify common goals for the next 10 years.

Challenges and Trends

Although the social work profession seemed fragmented, a number of organizations of practitioners and educators were able to work together on interorganizational projects to promote social work research and focus the profession's political advocacy activities. The number of social work education programs at the BSW and MSW levels grew during the last decade of the 20th century and in the early 21st century. By 2017, there were 773 accredited social work education programs in the United States, including 518 baccalaureate programs and 255 masters programs (Council on Social Work Education, 2018), in addition to 84 doctoral programs (Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education, 2019). Over 800,000 people in the United States identified themselves as social workers. However, many of those employed as social workers were not professionally educated. Of over 400,000 licensed social workers, less than half belong to NASW. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the number of social work positions would increase more rapidly than the average for all occupations, particularly as the population aged. By the early 21st century, social workers were uncertain about the profession’s mission and its relationship to the welfare state. Fragmentation, together with privatization, deprofessionalization, and competition with other professions in a shrinking human service arena provided challenges for the profession.

Further Reading

  • Hansen, J. E. (n.d.). Social welfare history project.
  • Huff, D. (1998). Every picture tells a story. Social Work, 43(6), 576–583,
  • Leiby, J. (1978). A history of social welfare and social work in the United States. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Leighninger, L. (1988). Social work: Search for identity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Lubove, R. (1965). The professional altruist: The emergence of social work as a career, 1880–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Maas, H. S. (1951). Adventure in Mental Health: Psychiatric Social Work with the Armed Forces during World War II. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • National Conference on Social Welfare. (1874–1982). Proceedings. (Also called: Conference of Boards of Public Charities, 1874; Conference of Charities, 1875–1879; Conference of Charities and Correction, 1880–1881; National Conference of Charities and Correction, 1882–1916; National Conference of Social Work, 1917–1956; National Conference on Social Welfare, 1957–1982).
  • National Institutes of Health. (2005). NIH history
  • Odum, H. W. (1933). Public welfare activities. In Recent social trends in the United States: Report of the President’s research committee on social trends (Vol. 2, pp. 1224–1273). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Reynolds, B. C. (1971). Social work and social living: Explorations in philosophy and practice. NASW classics series. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Originally published in 1951.
  • Social Security Administration. (2007). Social security online: Social security history.
  • Trattner, W. I. (1999). From poor law to welfare state: A history of social welfare in America (6th ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Wencour, S., & Reisch, M. (1989). From charity to enterprise: The development of American social work in a market economy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.


  • Addams, J. (1893). Philanthropy and social progress. New York, NY: T. Y. Crowell.
  • Bartlett, H. M. (1958). Toward clarification and improvement of social work practice. Social Work, 3(2), 3–9.
  • Boehm, W. W. (Ed.). (1959). The curriculum study (Vols. 1–13). New York, NY: Council on Social Work Education.
  • Bremner, R. H. (1956). From the depths: The discovery of poverty in the United States. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Bruno, F. J. (1957). Trends in Social Work, 1874–1956 (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Council on Social Work Education. (2007). Statistics on social work education in the United States: 2004. Alexandria, VA: CSWE.
  • Council on Social Work Education. (2018). Accreditation.
  • Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education. (2019). Membership
  • Hollis, E. V., & Taylor, A. L. (1951). Social work education in the United States: The report of a study made for the National Council on Social Work Education. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health. (1961). Action for mental health: Final report. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  • Kelso, R. W. (1923). The transition from charities and correction to public welfare. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 105, 21–25.
  • Lee, P. R. (1929). Social work: Cause and function. National conference of social work, Proceedings, 56, 3–20.
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