Social work is built into American society as we know it, providing resources that help disadvantaged communities receive what they need to live safe, healthy lives and pursue the American dream with dignity. In current times, social workers work directly with some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations to address a wide range of issues. In doing so, they are able to provide practical, empathetic, and complex insights into their needs that translate into policy proposals and expanded social support for people in need.
So how did social work begin? And how did social work become a profession?
In fact, the evolution of social work tracks with many major historical developments in the United States.
Social services have consistently expanded and transformed to better address civic issues and support Americans who are dealing with hardship all over the country.
Key Issues in the History of Social Work
Some of the key issues that social workers have historically devoted their efforts to include the following:
- Food inequality
- Racial injustice
- Gender discrimination
- Disability rights
- LGBTQ causes
- Domestic and sexual violence
- Child abuse and neglect
In short, for more than a hundred and fifty years, social workers have organized to take on the problems that plague our society.
To learn more about the historical development of social work in the U.S. including a social work history timeline, read on.
Turning Points in the History of Social Work: A Timeline
Below is a social work history timeline delineating its inciting causes and its gradual evolution. As you will see, many of the most significant developments in the history of social work in the U.S.A. have emerged out of other significant historical events, including war, economic downturn, and social justice movements. In some eras, these incidents led to expansions in social services, especially during times of such widespread hardship that the need for government support was all but unavoidable. At other times, conservative movements led to the weakening of federally supported social services.
Whether they have been strongly supported by the U.S. government or not, the history of social work tracks with the evolution of American political events, painting an illuminating picture of social services as they exist in our lives today and an education in what still could be done to improve the lives of underprivileged Americans.
1840 – 1880: The Origins of Social Work
The history of social work in America begins with the development of public programs during the 1840s and 1850s to address the issues of poverty that had arisen in big cities, largely due to their rapid growth and the large influx of immigrant populations that were steadily arriving in the United States. These organizations were focused primarily on housing and child welfare, which were seen at the time as the most dire issues facing Americans in poverty.
The need for more welfare programs intensified during the Civil War, leading to the creation of several new organizations including the American Red Cross to help Americans through the state of emergency that surrounded them. These were still independent organizations that were not supported on the federal level, but they created an understanding of the need to help those who were disadvantaged and a structure for how to do so. This impulse to help those in need has become a defining part of American identity that carries forward across the social work history timeline into the present day.
1880 – 1910: The Rise of Social Work Programs and Education
Social welfare continued to expand throughout the nineteenth century, under a variety of names that sometimes included “scientific charity.” These initiatives included public education programs, the creation of settlement houses, and pension programs. In fact, many of these services grew into full fledged institutions that still exist today, and they are credited with the arrival of the concept of social insurance in the U.S.
By the turn of the century, the earliest forms of social work education programs had been founded, laying the groundwork for social services to expand greatly in the century to come. These included Hull House, a Chicago-based settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, and the Boston School for Social Workers, founded at Simmons College in Boston in collaboration with Harvard University.
1914 – 1928: World War I and the Expansion of Social Work
The role of social workers evolved yet again after World War I broke out, as the US Army called for assistance from Red Cross workers to help soldiers deal with the post-traumatic stress caused by their time in the battlefield. This ushered in a new set of expectations for the field of social work, expanding its focus from being exclusively on those impacted by poverty to include those affected by other hardships. That U.S. soldiers had sustained their traumas while fighting for their country made a sympathetic public eager to support their recovery.
1929 – 1939: Social Work During the Great Depression
While many social work programs began during the mid-nineteenth century, in their time they were regarded as charitable or philanthropic activities rather than the government’s responsibility to its people. This shifted after the stock market crash of 1929, when the needs of Americans were so great and so widespread that the need for government support became an undeniable reality.
Over the following decade, the U.S. Government under F.D.R. initiated numerous social welfare programs under the New Deal, which is to this day the largest-scale social service initiative in American history. The sweep of the New Deal was expansive, with programs addressing issues including child welfare, poverty and housing, educational inequality, cultural vitality, and more. Among the most famous of these was the Works Progress Administration, an initiative that employed jobless individuals to complete public works projects across the country, including building major pieces of infrastructure still used today. When we look at the landscape of social services in the United States and what we expect from them, it’s impossible not to see the long-term impact of the New Deal.
The Great Depression also raised Americans’ awareness of the need for stronger protections and support for working people. Social workers have participated in workers’ advocacy throughout history, campaigning on behalf of the rights of the working poor to ensure more work opportunities, higher labor standards, better pay, and more. This was especially true during the Great Depression, when the need for social workers was vast.
1940 – 1950: Social Workers During and After WWII
While World War I introduced social workers into the landscape of American society, World War II greatly expanded the services they provided to members of the military. These included psychological support for those suffering from PTSD as well as counseling and additional resources to help them get their lives back on track after returning from battle, especially in cases when individuals had sustained long-term injuries that impacted their livelihoods and day to day lives.
Social workers also recognized the need to support families of soldiers, who were also impacted economically and faced with other care-related hardships when loved ones returned from fighting the war. In this way, the field of social work helped identify some of the biggest needs of Americans and how they were related to large-scale national actions.
World War II is considered to be a turning point in the development of the history of social work, as it led to efforts to help professionalize social work, creating systems and organizations that in turn strengthened the field, embedding social services more deeply into American life than they had ever been before.
1960s: The Legacy of Social Workers and the Civil Rights Movement
Among the most inspiring events on an American social work history timeline is the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, one of social workers’ most meaningful contributions to American policy was their role in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aimed to promote equity by making segregation of public spaces and employment-based discrimination illegal as well as protecting the voting rights of Black Americans. Social workers were vital to shaping this policy, having developed an intimate understanding of the needs of disadvantaged populations.
Indeed, social workers were central players in civil rights activism in the late 1950s and 1960s, with notable figures including the civil rights advocate Dorothy Height, known reverently as “the godmother of the civil rights movement,” and the activist Lester Blackwell Granger, who alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. met with President Eisenhower to make recommendations for new civil rights policy.
Beyond anti-discrimination efforts, social workers contributed to civil rights causes throughout the 1960s, with support from President Lyndon B. Johnson. This included the war on poverty, a series of government programs designed to combat economic inequality at multiple levels. Acts passed by Johnson included the Economic Opportunity Act and the Older American Act, while several other key programs were founded that still live on today, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Food Stamps program.
1970s, 1980s, and 1990s: The Decline in Federally Supported Social Work Programs
After the great expansion of social work programs throughout the first half of the 20th century, the arrival of President Richard Nixon in office marked a new era of cutbacks to the social services that had gradually been implemented. The arrival of President Ronald Reagan in office in the 1980s extended these cuts to social services, despite the rise of several new crises in the United States, including the crack cocaine epidemic, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, homelessness, and domestic violence.
With government-subsidized social services so dramatically reduced, social work continued primarily in private and nonprofit organizations designed to account for the sudden gaps in support for underserved populations. This remained true even as the Republican leadership passed over to Democratic leadership with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, whose policies also undercut existing social services. Indeed, even into the present day, the field of social work has never returned to its prominence in American government programs as it had during the middle of the 20th century.
Social Work Today
Despite the fact that there are fewer government-supported social work programs and less federal funding allocated to social work causes altogether, the field of social work has continued to grow in the private and nonprofit sectors. National and international crises have also led to some emergency decisions to expand social supports, with some key recent examples including public relief after national disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, the 2008 recession, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the need for large-scale support was so great that the American government was compelled to provide assistance to those who were impacted.
Today, the Department of Health and Human Services oversees numerous programs that provide social services to vulnerable and at-risk populations. These include the following:
- Unaccompanied Children, supporting refugees who are without their families
- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Head Start, supporting low-income children under five years old
- Foster care and adoption services
- Disability services
- Senior services
- Homelessness services
- Military family support
As you can see, many of the services offered today by the DHHS emerge out of social programs that were first developed earlier in American history. While it is lamentable that so many of these problems have endured, social workers practicing today can take pride in participating in this country’s rich history of social work.
Resources for Prospective Social Workers
If you are inspired by the social work history timeline outlined above, there are wonderful paths for you to pursue a profession in the field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a strong predicted job growth rate of 9% by 2031, meaning there will only be more professional opportunities for social workers in the future. Now is an excellent time to take up a social work career.
Those who are looking to take the next steps in their social work careers should visit the following resources to inform their plans: our Guide to Social Work Programs, Frequently Asked Questions for Social Workers, and our homepage.
To learn even more about this fascinating legacy beyond our social work history timeline, please take a look at our Guide to Important Historical Figures in Social Work.