Anyone involved in civic causes knows that one can’t overstate social workers’ role in social justice issues. Beyond boots on the ground work with individuals, families, and communities in need, social workers have a long history as champions for macro-scale efforts like policy reform, labor organizing, and public education initiatives.
This article shows some of the many ways social workers have acted as advocates for important causes, moving the needle on critical issues like discrimination and assistance for the working poor.
If you are seeking a career that allows you to fight for causes you care about, social work could be the perfect area to focus your efforts. Read the descriptions below to learn more about the different fields of social work and the way they contribute to social change.
Social workers are involved on the ground level in many of the causes that ail our society, helping individuals and families access material, psychological, and educational resources. But social workers’ role in social justice goes far beyond just face to face work. Because of their practical know-how and the deep relationships they foster with the populations they serve, social workers have insights that are invaluable in shaping a larger fight for civil rights. Their knowledge of which systems are most efficient in addressing urgent needs, which amenities are most needed, and which demographics are most impacted is a vital resource for policymakers who are not up close to the issues.
Indeed, social workers have understood a commitment to civil rights advocacy and the betterment of society as an intrinsic part of the work that they do, orienting their localized efforts within a much larger civil and human rights framework.
In fact, part of why social workers have been such important champions of social justice causes is because their own day to day work is dramatically impacted by policy. In this way, one can see that social workers, in engaging in politics, are changing the conditions of their own jobs and in turn, the objectives of the organizations where they work.
The Legacy of Social Workers in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
Social workers working today can feel pride in belonging to a professional community that made critical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Social workers have been credited with helping to define the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, made discrimination illegal. In the words of author Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, social workers “used their knowledge of social work practice and their professional ethical code as mechanisms for change.”
Labor – Worker Rights
Social workers also have a long history of participation in workers’ advocacy, fighting for the rights of the working poor to ensure more work opportunities, higher labor standards, better pay, and more.
Below are a few of the most important labor-related causes that social workers have taken up.
Fighting Employment Discrimination
One of the key ways that social workers have helped workers is in fighting discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status, both in hiring as well as in the workplace. Recent actions have included supporting federal bans on workplace discrimination due on the basis of sexual orientation. They have also fought on behalf of people with disabilities who have been impacted by the Supreme Court’s recent cuts to their protections in the workplace.
Fighting for Benefits for the Unemployed
In a large variety of settings, social workers assist individuals who are unemployed. Long-term unemployment can be caused by a variety of factors, and social workers who are intimately acquainted with these causes have used their voices to help improve benefits for the unemployed. These efforts include promoting higher-paying, longer-term income support as well as ending employer-based health care so that everyone receives coverage regardless of their employment status.
How Social Policy Affects Workers’ Rights
Beyond advocating for the working poor in the workplace, social workers have also done important work to show how other kinds of social policy impact labor conditions and work opportunities for disadvantaged people.
One good example of this is child support payments. If a worker who relies upon child support from the government receives less than what they need, they are likely to take on a second job, which will impact their ability to succeed and level up in their first job. Social workers witness such experiences and therefore direct efforts at bringing workers’ interests into the discussion when advocating for child care related causes.
Social workers’ role in social justice is directly tied to the issue of poverty. The preamble to The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics explains that social workers’ objectives are first and foremost concerned with “the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”
According to the US 2021 Census, the rate of poverty in the U.S. is 11.6%, meaning a staggering 37.9 million people living in poverty. This does not represent a dramatic shift from the previous survey, taken in 2020. This illustrates the tremendous need for social services as well as new approaches to poverty reduction that will truly help families in need and lower national rates of poverty.
Because they deal directly with people impacted by poverty, social workers are deeply empathetic advocates for the rights and needs of those without the means to support themselves. They are also highly knowledgeable resources on the issue of poverty, gaining both an academic and firsthand understanding of how poverty works, who is most affected, and what can be done on a legal level to help those who are impacted.
Levels of Poverty
In their field experience, social workers gain an understanding of the different ways that people can be impacted by poverty. The International Federation of Social Workers identifies three levels of poverty that determine the assistance they need from social workers:
- Extreme poverty: When families cannot meet their basic survival needs.
- Moderate poverty: When families only barely are able to meet their basic survival needs.
- Relative poverty: When a family’s income falls below the national average income.
Understanding these distinctions helps social workers direct policy with the nuance needed to make a true impact in the lives of those who are struggling.
Demographics Facing Poverty
Poverty disproportionately affects certain demographics in the U.S., which means that policy must be geared first and foremost toward meeting the needs of the populations most dramatically impacted by poverty.
Women in Poverty
A disheartening study by American Progress reports that there are more women living in poverty in the U.S. than men, with nearly 10 million women living at the level deemed deep poverty. Women across ethnic and racial backgrounds experience higher rates of poverty than men, but among those living in poverty, women of color are also disproportionately represented.
There are many social and economic factors that lead to these troubling numbers, and advocates for women in poverty must understand that addressing these causes at the root is the only way to end the cycle of impoverishment in the long term.
One such example is the gender wage gap. A recent report by the U.S. Census Department found that in the third quarter of 2020, women earned nearly 30% less than men, and 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Further, that pay gap was found to increase with age, meaning older women on average make even less than that.
Issues like the gender gap reveal the complex factors social workers must consider as they push for social change. Here we can find a clear example of an answer to the question, “Why are social workers important in society?”
Sadly, poverty rates in the U.S. have always been determined along racial lines, with a history that has involved discrimination in hiring, lending, and educational opportunities.
These inequities have continued into the present day, and by some metrics are only getting worse. A recent report by the U.S. Department of the Treasury observes, “disparities are evident in the persistent over-representation of Black and Hispanic Americans among the population in poverty in the United States and in the widening of the racial wealth gap in recent decades.”
Beyond addressing the immediate needs of those living in poverty, much of social workers’ role in social justice reform lies in efforts to end the racial wealth gap altogether. This means focusing on causes that will lead to systemic reform, including improving educational opportunities for children of color and continuing to fight against workplace discrimination.
Those with disabilities also face significantly higher rates of poverty. Oftentimes this is the result of reduced work opportunities as well as the high cost of care, which frequently involves high routine fees. People with disabilities can also frequently struggle to find work due to issues of accessibility. Social workers are huge players in the campaign to end workplace discrimination based on disability and to guarantee accessible workplaces so that those with disabilities are able to find equal opportunities.
Child Neglect and Abuse
Many social workers work directly with children who have been neglected and abused, providing counseling and connecting them with the immediate and long-term resources they need to stay safe. Beyond the one-on-one support that social workers can offer individual children who have been impacted by violence, there are also opportunities at the policy level for child advocate social workers to contribute to social change.
Child advocates have long participated in efforts to advance policy that would expand programs to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and provide treatment in instances of child abuse or neglect. They have been involved in efforts to amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).
Social workers can also contribute to educational initiatives to help teachers and other school faculty to help spot signs of abuse and neglect so that children suffering from abuse can be identified and treated immediately.
Social workers play a huge role in addiction treatment, working in rehabilitation centers and other therapeutic settings to help those struggling with substance abuse problems. They also contribute to larger-scale social causes related to addiction, including public education campaigns to destigmatize substance abuse and initiatives to expand support for those in recovery from addiction through resources like therapy.
One of the most important factors in helping addicts recover from substance abuse problems is that they have a long-term support system to ensure that they will not relapse into drug use or drinking again. Social workers have an intimate understanding of the psychology behind addiction and the behaviors that can accompany it, meaning they can inform policy decisions that will truly make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling.
Mental Health / Illness
Social workers’ role in social justice also extends to their advocacy for expanded mental health services. This means creating educational campaigns to help individuals not only understand the signs of mental health problems but find the appropriate resources to help themselves or loved ones get the help that they need.
During 2020, social workers who acted as advocates for those with mental health struggles played an important role in making sure that their needs were continuing to be met by federal support programs.
More Information on Social Work
You now should be able to provide many answers to the question, “Why are social workers important?” In fact, all of the reasons listed above have evolved out of a long history of social work in the United States, which has mapped our nation’s inequities and injustices. To learn more about the rise of social work in America, take a look at our article “The History of Social Work.”
If you are inspired by learning about social workers’ role in social justice and want to join the fight, take a look at our guide to becoming a social worker, which includes information about what social workers do, what personal qualities are suited to social work, and social worker education requirements.