The History of Social Work

The earliest origins of social work (dating back to the Middle Ages) were in church-based ministering to the poor, which evolved into the philanthropic and social justice movements of the 19th century. Today, social workers are still connected to these originating tenets of compassion, fairness and community progress.

The modern social work profession grew from three distinct strands: the social policies of poverty relief that grew from the English Poor Laws of the 17th century;the casework approach developed by the Charity Organisation Society (CSO) in Britain in the mid-19th century; and the notion of social and political action aimed at addressing social injustice that began with the settlement house movement.

The deepest roots of social work stem from a moral obligation to help society’s most vulnerable citizens. As most world religions teach that we each have a duty to help the poor, social work is intrinsically linked with charity work. For example, during the Middle Ages, when the Christian church had wide influence in Europe, charity was considered a social obligation and a sign of piety.

With the emergence of industrialization and urbanization, the work of the church in helping the poor began to be supplanted by more formal social welfare services.

In the mid-19th century, reform efforts began in response to social injustices, such as the neglect of people with mental illness, the conditions of homeless and poor people, and concern for child laborers in factories and sweatshops.

In the 20th century and now into the 21st, social workers are champions for those who are living in difficult circumstances and disenfranchised. Social workers continue to work for justice and compassion, as well as equality in civil rights; Social Security, unemployment, disability and worker’s compensation benefits; Medicaid and Medicare benefits; fairer treatment for those with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse disorders; and child welfare.

Social Work Founders & Pioneers

The first professional medical social workers in England were called hospital almoners, or “lady almoners,” and were based in medical institutions. In 1895, Mary Stewart became the first lady almoner in Britain. (It wasn’t until the 1960s that the profession was officially renamed “medical social work.”)

In America, a young medical student, Jane Addams, established the settlement movement in the U.S. This reformist social movement, spanning from the 1880s through to the 1920s in England and the U.S., had the goal of seeing rich and poor live together in a more integrated society. She co-founded America’s first settlement house, Hull-House, which opened its doors to recently arrived European immigrants in 1889 in Chicago’s West Side. On a related note, Addams’ observations about the effects of war on social progress also led her to become a world peace advocate, and in 1931, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership in this field.

Other early social work pioneers include sociologist and workers’ rights advocate Frances Perkins. As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Perkins was instrumental in drafting the New Deal legislation in the 1940s.

Whitney M. Young, Jr. was one of the nation’s early civil rights trailblazers. His commitment to social justice attracted him to social work and he became president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in the late 1960s. An expert in American race relations, Young was a key inspiration for President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Other influential early social workers include Dorothy Height (civil rights and women’s rights activist); Jeanette Rankin (the first woman elected to U.S. Congress and a lifelong pacifist); Harry Hopkins (Works Progress Administration); and Edward Thomas Devine (economist turned housing reform advocate)

100 Years of Professional Social Work in America

Social work celebrated its Social Work Centennial in 1998, commemorating 100 years of professional social work. This anniversary celebrates the first classes offered in social work, at Columbia University, in summer 1898.

Today, for those with a passion for social justice, there are more opportunities as a social worker than ever to do this important work.

Do your part to help those in need, and make your own mark in the history books, by investing in an advanced social work education.

Article Name
A Short History of Social Work: The Roots of Your Profession
Discover the historical roots of social work, including early milestones, and how the field has evolved into the modern professional social work sector we know today.