History shows importance of social work

Jane Addams

Jane Addams, known as “The Mother of Social Work,” founded the U.S. Settlement House Movement in Chicago in the late 1800s. Addams and other social workers after her have led the way in developing social safety net programs.

Today, social workers are part of the fabric of our nation, leading the march toward social justice, bringing our nation’s social problems to the public’s attention and serving in nearly every sector.

Yet it was not long ago that many of the freedoms and rights Americans have today did not exist—and they would not exist—without the help of social workers advocating for them.

Civil rights, unemployment insurance, disability pay, worker’s compensation and Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are just a few of the more recent initiatives social workers have pushed forward.

Without these social work pioneers dedicating their lives to taking action against injustice and oppression, the landscape today could look very different.

March is National Professional Social Work Month. As the nation faces new challenges in 2017 that many social workers see as unprecedented and perhaps insurmountable, this month can serve as an opportunity to take a step back, remember the challenges of the past and recognize the important contributions social workers have made to society.

In reflecting in this way, new perspectives and insights can be gained that can help social workers continue to move forward.

The 19th century was a time of innovation in technology and science. While today we marvel at new technology, such as virtual reality headsets, robotic surgical instruments and drones, in a similar fashion, people of the 19th century watched in amazement as the world around them rapidly transformed with inventions like the sewing machine, the steam engine and the railway system. Almost every aspect of their daily lives changed in some way.

While the changes brought about an improved quality of life for some, the migrations of millions from rural to urban areas also led to increased social problems—poverty, disease, increased child labor, prostitution, mental illness, and more—which eventually spurred social activism, such as Rescue Societies, which helped women get out of prostitution.

By the late 1800s, new social work approaches were emerging, and leading the way was Jane Addams, known as the “Mother of Social Work,” who founded the U.S. Settlement House Movement in Chicago.

Whitney M. Young Jr., and LBJ

Whitney M. Young Jr., left, a social worker and civil rights leader, meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 60s. Young was president of NASW from 1969 to 1971.

At these residential community centers located in urban industrial districts, middle-class social work volunteers lived and worked to help their low-income neighbors, oftentimes immigrants.

The same support social workers offer to immigrants today—standing up for their rights, helping them adjust to a new culture, find employment and more—was also what these early social work volunteers offered, and the immigrants in need were often Irish.

By 1898, the first school of social work was established at Columbia University. Yet some scholars questioned whether social work really could be considered a profession.

The social work community soldiered on, and by 1918, the American Association of Hospital Social Workers was established with the mandate to boost formal education opportunities available in social work.

By 1929, university programs in social work had increased to 10, and as World War II ended, a renewed interest in social work began, as more were needed to serve the needs of military veterans returning home.

While the battlefields of today may look different than they did in World War II, the resulting impact of being on the front lines or witnessing the atrocities of battle and other horrors of war firsthand is not influenced by time or geography—wherever and whenever it occurs, it is devastating.

Like social workers today, these social workers in the 1940s and 1950s offered compassionate care to these returning soldiers, helping them adjust and assimilate as best they could back into society.

By 1955, NASW formed to promote professional development, advance social policies, enhance educational opportunities in the field, and maintain professional standards of practice.

From this point, each decade had its defining moments:

In the 1960s, social workers participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to draw attention to the political and social challenges African-Americans faced. The march, which became a historic moment in the growing struggle for civil rights and a rallying cry for social workers everywhere, culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Among the leaders of the civil rights movement was social worker Whitney M. Young Jr., who was executive director of the National Urban League, and also was president of NASW from 1969 to1971.

Young was involved in fighting for civil rights throughout his career, and is one of the most well-known social workers in the profession. He pushed for federal aid to cities, proposing a domestic “Marshall Plan,” which called for $145 billion in spending over 10 years. The plan was partially incorporated into President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Young worked with presidents John F. Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, advising them on programs and issues that affected society.

Young described his proposals for integration, social programs, and affirmative action in his two books, To Be Equal (1964) and Beyond Racism (1969).

Jack Hansan

NASW Social Work Pioneer © Jack Hansan points to a poster in the NASW national office in Washington, D.C., about the 1963 March on Washington. Hansan served on a local committee where he lived in Ohio to help plan and attend the march.

Another important civil rights activist of this time was social worker Dorothy Height, who fought for equal rights for African-Americans and women. She was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, from 1957 to 1997, and is an NASW Social Work Pioneer©.

Height, who passed away in 2010, participated in virtually all major civil- and human-rights efforts in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

More recently, the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr., Social Work Reinvestment Act (S. 789, H.R. 1378), was reintroduced in the 114th Congress by then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., both of whom are social workers.

By addressing the profession’s workforce challenges, the Social Work Reinvestment Act creates the foundation to ensure that millions of individuals and families throughout the nation can continue to receive high-quality social work services.

A key provision of the legislation establishes a Social Work Reinvestment Commission to provide a comprehensive analysis of issues facing the social work profession, including workforce trends, high educational debt, low salaries, cultural diversity, and the connection between research and practice.

  • In the 1970s, many Americans protested the war in Vietnam and social workers fought against funding cuts to safety net programs and mental health support systems. This decade also marked the advancement of women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • When the 1980s arrived, so did HIV/AIDS. The virus hit mostly minority populations, including black, Hispanic and Asian as well as gay or bisexual men. This caused social workers to act to ensure these populations would not be ostracized, but cared for compassionately while coping with the devastating disease.
  • Nearing the beginning of the 1990s, the Berlin Wall collapsed, which meant citizens in Communist East Berlin were free to cross the country’s borders. But it also symbolized the freeing of many oppressed people.
  • On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. About 3,000 people died as a result of the attacks.

Social workers across the nation came together to help during the crisis, which changed the nation and the world.

From 2010 to today, many new and ongoing issues have been brought to the forefront, such as those related to same-sex marriage, racial equality, human trafficking, immigration and more. Some will improve. Some may worsen before they get better. And tomorrow new issues will arise.

But if social workers continue to join forces as they have done in the past to form societies, university programs, professional associations and so much more, they will continue to make progress and the challenges of today will be met, just like they have been in the past.


Reflections from two NASW Social Work Pioneers©

Two social work pioneers who became involved with NASW from its earliest beginnings are Robert H. Cohen and Jack Hansan.

Both have witnessed firsthand—and contributed to—the evolution of social work in their lifetimes. NASW News asked them to share some historical perspectives in celebration of Social Work Month.

Robert H. Cohen, MSW, JD

Cohen earned a Juris Doctorate degree from New York Law School in 1963 and a Master’s in Social Work in 1956 from Boston University School of Social Work. He was a licensed social worker in the state of Maryland. Cohen was a member of the New York State and District of Columbia Bar associations and was admitted to the United States Supreme Court in 1988.

In 1973, Cohen joined the NASW staff, became general counsel for NASW in 1987, and served as interim executive director for a year prior to his retirement in 1996.

Before joining NASW staff, Cohen served as Chief Human Services, Model Cities Service Center of the National League of Cities/U.S. Conference of Mayors; Senior Staff Attorney/Deputy Director Federal Programs Division, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

He also served as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was a social worker at the Jewish Family Services in New York City. He taught the first course in “law and social work” offered by the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

When asked what were some of the greatest accomplishments within social work that happened during the years he was active in social work, Cohen said:

“During the years that I was active in social work, the growth of the field and its ultimate recognition as a profession was of singular importance. Growth was manifested by the vast numbers and diversity of young people who chose social work as a career.

Across the country scores of colleges and universities established BSW and MSW degree programs for the first time. Social workers moved into new and often novel fields of practice. And close working relationships with other disciplines, e.g. law, psychiatry, became common. Dual degree programs between law schools and schools of social work were no longer a novelty.

Professional recognition was marked by enactment in every state of social work

licensing and other forms of legal regulation. Prior to the 1970s, only Puerto Rico and a handful of states had adopted such legislation.

At the same time, third-party payment for clinical social work services became normative. In the legal realm, privileged communication, which provided legal protection against access to records and communications between social workers and clients, increasingly became a standard provision in state law and was ultimately recognized at the federal level as well.”

John E. “Jack” Hansan, Ph.D.

Hansan is a career social group worker with a doctorate in social welfare policy from Brandeis University. He worked for 45 years in human service programs at the local, state and national levels.

His early career was staffing and directing neighborhood centers and settlement houses in Kansas City, Mo., Philadelphia, Pa., Peoria, Ill., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the tradition of the historic settlement house movement, Hansan’s professional experiences were primarily developed while working in poor communities.

His responsibilities required him to respond to and find ways to help individuals, families and communities cope with poverty, racial discrimination, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, substandard housing and other issues.

The fruits of some of these efforts resulted in developing successful early childhood education programs, tutoring sessions, after-school playground activities, block clubs, mothers clubs, sheltered workshops for those with mental and physical disabilities, camping trips, teen centers, athletic teams, senior center clubs and neighborhood associations to name a few.

In 1964, Hansan was selected to be one of the nation’s first directors of a community action program, the Community Action Commission of the Cincinnati Area.

In 1971, Hansan was appointed by Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan to be director of the Ohio Department of Public Welfare, and, two years later, he was appointed chief of staff to Gov. Gilligan.

On the national level, Hansan served as director of government affairs for the American Public Welfare Association, executive director of the National Conference on Social Welfare, and interim director of NASW.

When asked what experiences in his career were profoundly rewarding, he offered:

“In 1963, when I was the executive director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and the chairman of the Ohio Valley Chapter of NASW, I volunteered to serve on a local committee to help plan and attend the 1963 ‘March on Washington, D.C., for Jobs and Freedom.’

My active participation with a delegation of 500 from Cincinnati, Ohio, provided me the opportunity to enter more fully into the public sphere. The exposure and contacts gained from that experience proved to be a significant stepping-stone, enriching my career and opening significant opportunities to influence and shape social policy in both governmental and social agencies.”