With 2020 more than halfway over, there are countless challenges that social workers are currently facing. For many, it might feel like there are still more concerns to come. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a historic economic downturn leaving millions unemployed, and Black Lives Matter protests have reignited discussions about systemic racism, inequality as well as police reform. In addition to the topics that dominate the headlines, long-term issues such as food insecurity and climate justice are still ongoing. The list of social issues in the U.S. and around the globe in 2020 can seem overwhelming.
At Yeshiva University, we understand that pulling together nine emerging and pressing issues can’t just be about recognizing the challenges individuals struggle with. It’s the responsibility of social workers to understand how big picture issues impact our clients and take action to support the communities we serve.
For more updated issues, read the list for 2023.
1. Voting rights
Exercising the right to vote is one of the social justice issues prioritized by the National Association of Social Workers. NASW’s goal is twofold: encourage those who can vote to exercise their right and work to eliminate barriers to participation. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, NASW is hosting webinars on engaging millennials to vote and on understanding the barriers that can hold back low-income individuals, college students, senior citizens, minorities and many others.1 These obstacles can include difficult voter registration, shortened early voting windows and stricter identification requirements.2
2. Climate justice
On the list of social work’s Great Challenges, it might be surprising to see “strengthen social responses to environmental changes.” The effects of climate change can be seen all over the news from wildfires in Australia to record-breaking temps in the Arctic (one recent paper found that polar bears could be nearly extinct by the end of this century)3. This might seem like a problem for scientists, not social workers, but climate change can put a strain on resources and impact the wellbeing of entire communities. In reality, addressing climate justice can positively affect many of the other issues on this list, and social workers have the network and skills to mobilize and educate others on its impact4.
Social work and healthcare are intrinsically tied together. There are a number of challenges when it comes to receiving quality healthcare, particularly in the U.S. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, gaps in coverage remain, particularly with mental health resources. The U.S. spends more on healthcare for individuals than any other country, but that increase in expenditure has not translated to higher life expectancies for Americans.5 Social workers offer support to individuals, groups and entire communities, so it matters whether one person is struggling or whether an entire community is struggling to find the care they need.6 This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how vital access to healthcare really is as many communities struggle to access tests, treatment and mental health professionals.
4. Refugee crisis
It dominated headlines in 2019, and it still remains a critical issue for those directly impacted. According to the United Nations, more people than ever before live in a different country than the one where they were born. Roughly 70.8 million people have been forced from their homes. Nearly 30 million of them are refugees, and more than half of the globe’s refugees are under 18 years old. This displaced population faces the challenges of accessing education, healthcare, job opportunities and other resources. Whether it’s escaping conflict in their home country or a natural disaster, refugees need additional support dealing with the logistical, mental and emotional burdens of their situation—support that social workers are uniquely adept at providing.7
5. Racial Injustice
Racism has a long history in the United States, and its impact can be found in every facet of education, business, media and day-to-day life. After the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and several other high-profile police shootings, Black Lives Matter protests took place across the country and have continued as activists demand substantial change. Many social workers are all too aware of the devastating and long-term consequences of racial injustice on the mental and physical health of individuals, and more recently, the NASW has vocalized its support for federal legislation that would enact police reform and address systemic racism within the criminal justice system.8
6. Income Gap
A recent federal report found that in 2018, America’s income gap was the largest it’s ever been in 50 years.9 Following the COVID-19 pandemic, that divide will most likely be much bigger. Social workers play a critical role in assisting those struggling. Also, pay disparities can be a factor at play, based on both race, gender and sexuality. Even in the field of social work, the gender pay gap exists, where there is a significant difference in how men and women are compensated for the same work.10
7. Gun Violence
Many medical professionals consider gun violence to be a public health crisis, but its impact can be felt across health and human services fields. From homicides to mass shootings to suicides, gun violence is a particularly troubling problem in the U.S., where homicides tied to firearms is the highest among developed nations.11 However, the impact of gun violence goes beyond those who have been killed. Those who have been injured, witnessed gun violence or lost someone also suffer long-term effects, both mentally and physically.
8. Hunger and food insecurity
Even before the pandemic, Feeding America found that 37 million regularly face hunger in the U.S., and 38 million live in poverty12. Food insecurity remains a stubborn issue to solve, so as unemployment rises and many schools remain closed, accessing food through food banks and free school lunches will become more difficult. It’s also one that will continue to gain attention as more Gen Zers become old enough to vote. One notable survey found that Gen Z believes poverty and hunger are essential matters to address, while older generations rate it lower on a social issues list.13
It’s something stated in NASW’s Code of Ethics, but ensuring equality is an essential part of a social worker’s role. It’s an issue that pervades nearly all of the issues already presented—whether it’s related to finances or access to resources. It’s also become painfully more relevant as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts marginalized communities at higher rates both economically and medically Obtaining equality in America is a big picture issue that social workers have been and will continue to be dedicated to addressing.
At Yeshiva University, we know the importance of training social workers with the skills to address and advocate for the big and small issues impacting their communities and others.At Yeshiva University, we know the importance of training social workers with the skills and insights to work alongside any community. Our online Master of Social Work is CSWE accredited, and our innovative virtual learning environment, The Heights, provides students with real-world scenarios to help them gain experience in a number of different environments. Apply today and learn how you can make a greater impact.
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from socialworkers.org/Advocacy/Social-Justice/Increasing-Voter-Participation
- Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from aclu.org/issues/voting-rights
- Molnár, P.K., Bitz, C.M., Holland, M.M. et al. Fasting season length sets temporal limits for global polar bear persistence. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020). doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0818-9
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from aaswsw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Social-Work-and-Global-Environmental-Change-3.24.15.pdf
- Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from businessinsider.com/cost-of-healthcare-countries-ranked-2019-3
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from socialworktoday.com/news/pp_091119.shtml
- Retrieved on February 12, 2020 from un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/refugees/index.html
- Retrieved on July 22, 2020 from socialworkers.org/News/News-Releases/ID/2205/NASW-Seeks-to-Dismantle-Racist-Policing
- Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from npr.org/2019/09/26/764654623/u-s-income-inequality-worsens-widening-to-a-new-gap
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=5_8UM6PD82Y%3D&portalid=0
- Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41488081
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/facts
- Retrieved on February 13, 2020 from conecomm.com/news-blog/2017/9/12/gen-z-sees-social-media-activity-as-more-effective-than-community-involvement-according-to-new-research-by-cone-communications