Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America


Social Work

Social Work

 In the United States, the profession of social work originated in volunteer experiments in social betterment during the late nineteenth century.  By the turn of the century, charity was rapidly becoming an occupation devoted to individual service and social action.  Social work, as the new profession came to be called, promoted the development of social welfare measures at the state and federal levels during the Progressive Era.  Ironically, social work prospered as social welfare became an accepted part of government during and after the 1930s, but the profession's influence on the evolving American welfare state waned.

Movements for reforming the poor, rescuing children, restoring community in large cities and restructuring state charitable and correctional agencies resulted in the creation of the profession of social work.  The State Boards of Charities and Correction, child saving organizations, charity organization societies, and settlement houses of the late nineteenth century provided formative experiences for the first generation of social workers.  Initially conceived as philanthropic associations, created, directed, and staffed by volunteers, these organizations attempted to replace presumably haphazard methods of administering assistance to the poor with systematic and organized, but humane, methods.  The early leaders called this rationalized approach scientific philanthropy and consciously imitated the forms and methods of the emerging business corporations.

By the 1890s, many of these organizations began to add paid staff members, reflecting the increasingly technical nature of their work.  As reformers learned more about the problems of the poor, they began to view environmental influences as significant causes of poverty.  Influencing industrial and state policy in the increasingly urban and industrial nation became an important focus of the emerging profession.  The Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism, which emphasized the Christian's duty to improve the world, combined with the rise of social science and labor and agrarian movements, contributed to this increasing emphasis on the environments of the poor. 

During the 1890s, charity organization leaders Anna Dawes and Mary Richmond called for the creation of training schools for philanthropic workers; such schools were established in Chicago and New York by the end of the decade.  Additional schools of social work, as the new profession was called, were created in Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis during the first decade of the twentieth century. Charity organization societies established most of the early schools, but training was open to all workers in the diverse charities field.  Aided by philanthropic foundations, such as the Russell Sage Foundation and later the Commonwealth Fund and the Rockefeller philanthropies, and affiliated with the emerging academic social sciences, the schools promoted a scientific, critical approach to social problems.  Research, social action, and individual service provided the focus for the new professional schools.

Along with individual service, social workers in training learned how to analyze social policies and frame social legislation, how to work with community groups, how to conduct social research, and how to establish community services such as savings banks.  Individual service remained at the core of the new profession, however, and new social work specializations of medical, psychiatric and school social work incorporated the methods of individual service being used in the charity organization and child saving fields.

Social workers promoted new services, such as juvenile courts and mother's pensions, at the state level and new agencies, such as the Children's and Women's Bureaus, at the federal level.  Social workers like Jeanette Rankin were active in campaigns for women suffrage and other electoral reforms during the Progressive Era.  Social workers also attempted to influence industrial organizations, by attempting to mediate labor disputes and by promulgating standards for the treatment of workers.

During the 1910s and 1920s, the emerging social case work method began to dominate social work education as well as practice.  Fueled by the publication of Mary Richmond's Social Diagnosis (1917) and wartime experiments with psychiatric social work and family case work, by the 1920s case work, increasingly devoted to the resolution of personal problems, was at the core of the emerging social work profession.  Work with groups, the drafting of legislation, and the building of community organizations became marginalized as social work, in Porter Lee's words, "once a cause" became "a function of a well-regulated community." 

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to an expansion of public social services and employment in public agencies.  Social work, once mostly practiced in voluntary agencies, increasingly became a government service.  The Social Security Act (1935) established a national Old Age Insurance Program and federally assisted state programs of Unemployment Insurance, public assistance, and social services.  At the same time, voluntary social service agencies began to focus on problems of personal adjustment, leaving work with the very poor to the public agencies.  The American Association of Social Workers made professional education the minimum qualification for membership early in the decade; by 1939, the American Association of Schools of Social Work (AASSW) made graduate education the criterion for recognition.  Educators at state universities in the South and Midwest created the National Association of Schools of Social Administration (NASSA) to promote undergraduate education for social work.  Social workers had always practiced with community groups and organizations; the new practice methods of group work and community organization were first officially identified and defined in sessions of the National Conference of Social Work in 1935 and 1940-41. 

As had the First World War, World War II expanded opportunities for social workers in the health and psychiatric fields.  Postwar public mental health programs at the state and federal levels, especially attempts to reduce public mental hospital populations, provided enhanced employment opportunities for therapeutically oriented social workers.  By the 1960s, social workers provided the bulk of public mental health services in the United States.  Federal public housing programs emphasized community participation, providing opportunities for community oriented social workers.  The merger of AASSW and NASSA in 1952 resulted in the creation of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE); seven professional social work organizations merged to form the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 1955.

By the 1960s, the social work profession seemed to be in a secure position.  The election of a sympathetic president, John F. Kennedy, portended changes in public welfare, mental health services, and community action.  Social workers embraced the new administration's initiatives, but had a more ambivalent response to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Programs, some of which seemed to be intended to replace professional expertise with grass-roots action.  While some social workers embraced the new initiatives, in particular the Community Action Program, others looked askance. As the federal government replaced private philanthropic foundations as a major source of external support, social workers again became interested in empirical research.  NASW promoted state regulation of social workers, advocating licensure as a consumer protection measure.

Hard times in the 1970s, combined with national administrations hostile to social work and "soft" services, resulted in retreats from community action and a turn to technical concerns and individually oriented social work.  NASW recognized the baccalaureate degree in 1969, followed by the promulgation of standards for baccalaureate education by CSWE in 1971.  Undergraduate education expanded during the 1970s.  Educators continued to emphasize research in social work education, although some were concerned that there seemed to be little use of research by practitioners. The doctorate in social work, offered at only a few institutions before the 1960s, became an increasingly popular degree. 

The unevenly distributed prosperity of the 1980s and '90s did little to change these trends, even as publicly supported social services deteriorated.   Many social workers worked as private practitioners or in proprietary agencies; others were in private agencies that contracted with government to provide specified services to an identified clientele.  By the 1980s, all states regulated social work practice, most by licensing social workers.  Social work education experienced another period of expansion during the 1990s as many baccalaureate programs added masters programs and some MSW programs offered the doctorate.  In spite of its growth, Congress and the administration ignored the social work profession in 1996 as they reformed the federal-state public assistance program by imposing work requirements and time limits.  By the end of the twentieth century, social work in the United States was secure, but uncertain about its mission and its relationship to the welfare state.


Primary sources on the social work profession include the records of the Council on Social Work Education and its predecessors, the National Association of Social Workers and its predecessors, and the National Conference of Social Welfare (formerly the National Conference of Social Work), all held by the Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.   The papers of Mary Richmond are in the Special Collections Department, Butler Library, Columbia University.  The Social Work Archives at Smith College Library, Northfield, Massachusetts, hold the papers of a number of leaders of individually oriented social work, including Bertha Reynolds. 

Current comment on the social work profession includes: Abraham Flexner, "Is Social Work a Profession?" Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, 42, 1915, pp. 576-590; Porter R. Lee, "Social Work as Cause and Function," Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 56, 1929, pp. 3-20; Herbert Bisno, "How Social Will Social Work Be?" Social Work, 1(2), pp. 12-18; Harry Specht and Mark Courtney, Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission (New York: Free Press, 1994).

For further reading: The basic history of the social work profession is presented in Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career, 1880-1930 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), Leslie Leighninger, Social Work: Search for Identity (Westport. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987), and Stanley Wenocur and Michael Reisch, From Charity to Enterprise: The Development of American Social Work in a Market Economy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

See also: Charity Organization Societies, Child Saving, Scientific Philanthropy, Settlement Houses, Social Gospel, Social Security Act, State Boards of Charities and Correction