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Social Work Profession

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rofessional social workers assist individuals, groups, or communities to restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning, while creating societal conditions favorable to their goals. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior, of social, economic and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all these factors.

  • According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. The profession is expected to grow by 30% by 2010; currently, nearly 600,000 people hold social work degrees.
  • Social workers are highly trained and experienced professionals. Only those who have earned social work degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral levels, and completed a minimum number of hours in supervised fieldwork, are “professional social workers.”
  • According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 22,163 junior and senior students were enrolled in baccalaureate social work programs in 2000; there were also 20,369 full-time and 13,446 part-time students enrolled in master’s degree programs. In the same year, 15,007 individuals graduated with MSW degrees and 11,773 graduated with BSW degrees. In addition, 229 doctoral degrees in social work were awarded in 2000. Currently there are over 8,000 social work professors teaching in the United States.
  • Social workers help people overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges: poverty, discrimination, abuse, addiction, physical illness, divorce, loss, unemployment, educational problems, disability, and mental illness. They help prevent crises and counsel individuals, families, and communities to cope more effectively with the stresses of everyday life.
  • Professional social workers are found in every facet of community life—in schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, elected office, private practices, prisons, military, corporations, and in numerous public and private agencies that serve individuals and families in need. They often specialize in one or more of the following practice areas:

Mental Health Therapy
Disaster Relief
Military Social Work
Rural Social Work
Adoption & Foster Care
Child Welfare Services
Family Preservation Services
Homeless Family Assistance
Eating Disorders
Hospital Social Work
Crisis Intervention
School Violence
Hospice and Palliative Care
Institutional Care
Chronic Pain
Outpatient Treatment
Development Disabilities
International Social Work
Advocacy, Consulting and Planning

Community Mental Health
Employee Assistance
Private Practice
Veterans Services
Child Abuse & Neglect
Domestic Violence
Political Development
Parent Education
Family Planning
School Alternative Programs
Difficulties in School
Gerontology Services
Community-Based Services
In-Home Services
Senile Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Addictions Prevention/Treatment
Criminal Justice
Housing Assistance
Public Welfare
Employment Services

  • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), professional social workers are the nation’s largest group of mental health services providers. There are more clinically trained social workers—over 190,000 in 1998—than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined. Federal law and the National Institutes of Health recognize social work as one of five core mental health professions.
  • Over 40% of all disaster mental health volunteers trained by the American Red Cross are professional social workers.
  • There are over 170 social workers in national, state and local elected office, including two U.S. Senators and four U.S. Representatives. These include: Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-TX), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY), and Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA).
  • Today, 48 special interest social work organizations contribute to the vitality and credibility of the social work profession.

Web: For additional information about social workers, search the 2002 Occupational Outlook Handbook on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website: Also visit for more information about the profession.

Video: “Social Work: The Profession that Makes a Difference” produced in partnership with Tina Pederson and Documentary USA by the NASW California Chapter.

Social Work History

  • Since the first social work class was offered in the summer of 1898 at Columbia University, social workers have led the way developing private and charitable organizations to serve people in need. Social workers continue to address the needs of society and bring our nation’s social problems to the public’s attention.
  • Today, Americans enjoy many privileges because early social workers saw miseries and injustices and took action, inspiring others along the way. Many of the benefits we take for granted came about because social workers—working with families and institutions—spoke out against abuse and neglect.
    • The civil rights of all people regardless of gender, race, faith, or sexual orientation are protected.
    • Workers enjoy unemployment insurance, disability pay, worker’s compensation and Social Security.
    • People with mental illness and developmental disabilities are now afforded humane treatment.
    • Medicaid and Medicare give poor, disabled and elderly people access to health care.
    • Society seeks to prevent child abuse and neglect.
    • Treatment for mental illness and substance abuse is gradually losing its stigma.
  • The social work profession celebrated its Centennial in 1998. That year, several important artifacts from across the country were donated to the Smithsonian Institution to commemorate 100 years of professional social work in the United States.
  • Social work pioneer Jane Addams was one of the first women to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded in 1931. Known best for establishing settlement houses in Chicago for immigrants in the early 1900s, Addams was a dedicated community organizer and peace activist.
  • • Frances Perkins, a social worker, was the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet of a U.S. President. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Perkins drafted much of the New Deal legislation in the 1940s.
  • Social worker and civil rights trailblazer Whitney M. Young, Jr. became the executive director of the National Urban League while serving as dean for the Atlanta School of Social Work. He also served as president of NASW in the late 1960s. A noted expert in American race relations, Time Magazine acknowledged Young as a key inspiration for President Johnson’s War on Poverty.
  • Other famous social workers include Harry Hopkins (Works Progress
    Administration), Dorothy Height (National Council of Negro Women), and Jeanette Rankin (the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress).

Video: Legacies of Social Change: 100 Years of Professional Social Work in the United States available from NASW Press at

Barker, Robert L. (1998) Milestones in the Development of Social Work and Social Welfare Washington, DC NASW Press. Edwards, Richard L. (Ed.-in-Chief) (1995) Encyclopedia of Social Work, 19th Edition
Washington, DC NASW Press.


Diversity & Cultural Competence

Two recent events have made the need for “cultural competence”— understanding the specific cultural, language, social and economic nuances of particular people and families—more important than ever. One is the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s, in which African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities and other minority groups alerted the country to their distinct identities and long histories of oppression. The other is the growing number of new immigrants to this country, who bring with them unique cultural, language, religious, and political backgrounds. Histories of internal displacement within their own countries, torture, political oppression, and extreme poverty abound among immigrant communities. Melding these backgrounds with the history, experiences, and expectations of U.S. born ethnic and diverse populations creates both challenges and opportunities for social workers.

It is fair to say that both helping professionals and society at large have a long way to go to gain cultural competence. Fortunately, social workers represent a group of service providers with a longstanding history of understanding both people’s differences and the impact of social injustices on their well being. Today, many social workers are adding cultural competence to these already existing strengths and values, making them particularly well-equipped to deliver culturally competent care. Many schools of social work now include curricula on cultural competence, and the National Association of Social Workers recently developed standards that require social workers to strive to deliver culturally competent services to their increasingly diverse clientele.

It is no exaggeration to say that a culturally competent provider can mean the difference between a person “making it” or “falling through the cracks.” Here is an extreme example. Latina social worker Josie has a brother with schizophrenia who speaks only Spanish. When her brother failed to receive culturally competent care over a 20-year period, he was hospitalized 162 times. When he finally did receive culturally competent care, he was hospitalized only once in 15 years.

Language differences affect both majority and minority populations. For example, a refugee from war-torn Bosnia doesn’t understand English, and he lacks both material and financial resources. If he doesn’t get help, he faces many potential dangers that result from poverty and an inability to access the system. A social worker trained in culturally competent care connects him with a range of social services—the traditional assistance provided by social workers. In addition, she introduces him to a group of other Bosnians who have undergone similar experiences thus, providing an added support that she’s aware of because of her extra training.

Another example of how a culturally competent social worker can have an impact on people’s lives is in the area of international adoptions. Social workers trained in cultural competence can help adoptive parents understand their adopted child’s cultural heritage and create activities to keep the child’s culture alive. Adding this dimension to the child’s assimilation can foster the youngster’s sense of identity and make the adoption experience a smoother and happier one for both parents and child.
For Asian Americans, families are their primary source of support; thusly, they tend to keep problems inside the family rather than sharing them with others. A social worker who is culturally competent will therefore provide brief, task-oriented therapy that respects their privacy and helps them achieve concrete goals, instead of providing traditional Western-style therapy that is more individualistic and analytical. Similarly, African Americans often come from backgrounds that include extended-family bonds and a strong, community-oriented spiritual life. Trained social workers will make sure these cultural realities become an integral part of therapy by often times including other family members in therapy.

Culturally competent services are needed beyond race and ethnicity. Culturally competent social workers are also better able to address issues of gender and help persons with disabilities, older adults, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. A working knowledge of these groups’ cultures and values helps social workers tailor care so it is effective and appropriate for their clients’ needs.

It can be persuasively argued that effective care is impossible without a working knowledge and understanding of a person’s or group’s culture and background. As we move into an ever more pluralistic and multicultural society, social workers are among those best-equipped to deliver that care and to empower people from all backgrounds to lead connected, healthy lives.


Balgopal, P.R. (1995). Asian Americans Overview. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 216-225). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Leashore, B.R. (1995). African Americans Overview. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 101-115). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Lewis, R.G. (1995). American Indians. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 231-237). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Schlesinger, E.G., Devore, W. (1995). Ethnic-Sensitive Practice.

In R.L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 902-908). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Wax, T.M. (1995). Deaf Community. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 679-684). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Lavins, L. Language, culture, poverty, insurance:

The Latino Healthcare Maze. (2002, Sept. 2).
Social Work Today, pp. 22-23.

NASW (2001) Standards for Cultural Competenece in Social Work Practice.

Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Public Health Service (2001). Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethinicity. A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General.

Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.


“The graying of America” has been a popular phrase in recent years as the number of older people continues to grow. Statistics project that by 2030, Americans 65 and older will actually outnumber their younger counterparts.

With the aging of the "baby boomer" generation and the lengthening of life spans, both the number and proportion of older people are rapidly increasing. Many of the health related problems that contributed to decreased life span have been combated. Yet, this same achievement presents new challenges in meeting the social, environmental, psychological, economic and health care needs of older adults.

These shifting demographics have created a greater demand for professionals with specialized knowledge and expertise in aging. Social work is unique among the health and mental health professions in that it considers the physical, mental, and social aspects of individuals—an approach that is critical to providing services to older adults and their families.

Gerontological social workers, who make up about 5% of the nation’s half a million social workers, can help older adults and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems and achieve maximum potential during later life. Social workers serve as “advocates” for older people, providing a vital link between older individuals and the services they need. Indeed, a key function of gerontological social workers is to promote independence, autonomy and dignity.

Social workers provide services in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, adult day health centers, independent and assisted living communities, public agencies and increasingly, in people’s homes.

Here is an example:
Mrs. Mott, lives in an unsafe neighborhood and feels depressed and isolated. She does not attend activities at a local senior center because she is afraid to leave her own home. Her family is concerned about Mrs. Mott’s isolation and tries to visit when they can, but they are busy with work and taking care of their own children. Her family would like help her relocate to a safer environment but cannot afford to do so.

A social worker from a local community agency is consulted. He meets with Mrs. Mott to help and conducts a thorough assessment. Together, they discuss her living arrangement, social supports and her perceived barriers to living independently in her community. With Mrs. Mott’s permission, the social worker also meets with her family to offer ways in which the family can assist with helping her become less isolated while providing options for housing and other concrete resources such as low-cost transportation and volunteer companions.

Here is another example:
Mrs. Tyson is a 78-year-old woman who is caring for her 81-year-old husband; he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Lately he is becoming more agitated and combative and the woman’s children suggest she place him in a nursing home. Although she eventually does, she feels guilt-ridden and depressed about her decision.

A social worker is consulted and visits Mrs. Tyson in her home to assess the situation. The social worker provides supportive counseling to help Mrs. Tyson with her feelings of guilt and her depressed mood. The social worker also refers Mrs. Tyson to concrete resources such as support groups in the community that are tailored for caregivers. In order to help Mrs. Tyson become a partner in her husband’s care, the social worker supports Mrs. Tyson in her efforts to become a patient advocate by encouraging her to become involved in her husband’s care plan meetings. The social worker also provides counseling to help the entire family cope with the responsibilities of caregiving for Mr. Tyson.

Gerontological social workers, therefore, serve as the vital link between older individuals and the services they may need. There is great diversity in the strengths and needs of older people and gerontological social workers have the training and skills that are required to address the unique needs of older individuals and their families.


Gibelman, M. (1995). What Social Workers Do (4th ed.).

Washington, DC. NASW Press.

Dunkle, R.E., Norgard, T. (1995). Aging Overview. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 142-153). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Zuniga, M.E. (1995). Aging: Social Work Practice. In R.L. Edwards

(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 173-183). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.



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