A concern for social justice has always been an essential part of social services and social work. What are the historical origins of these values and how have they shaped the modern profession?
The social work profession is built on the concern for social justice. Social workers and social service workers play a pivotal role in opening access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need. How did this come about? Why is a strong desire for social justice such an important part of a social work career?
The Social Justice Origins of Social Work
The origins of social work in the U.S. can be traced back to the work of social work pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams. A peace activist, she is also known for establishing housing for immigrants in Chicago during the early 21st century.
During the 1930s and 40s, social worker Frances Perkins helped draft much of the New Deal legislation, which included a raft of social programs that helped end the Great Depression. These included the Social Security Act and programs to support children and the disabled.
Both of these women serve as powerful examples of how social workers can improve the well-being of entire communities and the nation as a whole.
Helping the Disadvantaged
Social workers aren’t the only people who tackle social problems like poverty, inequality, substance abuse and discrimination. However, they are often the only professionals working directly with the individuals who are most affected.
This gives them a special perspective when helping these individuals access resources for healthier and more stable lives. Often, the clients of social workers feel powerless and underserved. As they often lack the family or financial support most people take for granted, they must instead rely on a public welfare system that can feel daunting or demoralizing.
This is where the social justice aspect of social work is strongest. Examples can include making sure that homeless clients have access to food stamps and shelter, helping disabled clients access adequate healthcare, and ensuring the elderly are protected from financial abuse and theft.
Regardless of the client’s gender, race, faith or sexual orientation, it is the social worker’s duty to help protect them from abuse and neglect, and preserve their human rights.
New technologies also enable social workers to serve clients more effectively. Find out how technology is shaping social work.
Becoming an Agent for Change
Individual clients’ problems may offer a glimpse of problems that affect whole communities. For example, a client who is homeless after escaping a domestic violence situation could shine a light on a lack of affordable housing. Communities affected by drug-related crime may suffer a lack of funding for substance abuse prevention programs.
In such cases, social workers can lobby for structural changes to reduce injustice and equalize opportunities. Each client’s story can become a case study that strengthens the mission of other social justice advocates, such as legal aid attorneys and community organizers.
As the population grows and becomes increasingly diverse, demand for qualified social work professionals could grow by 10 percent or more over the next decade. By actively engaging in advocacy, public debate and policy formation, social workers can be a powerful force for social change.
A social work career is the ideal path for people who believe empowerment and equal opportunity are essential to a healthy social fabric. Invest in your own education and keep up-to-date with an advanced degree.