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8 Biggest Social Justice Issues of 2023

July 26, 2023

With 2023 already speeding by, there are many challenges that social workers and their clients have faced and will continue to face this year. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a historic economic downturn, leaving millions unemployed, and contentious legislation has reignited discussions about systemic racism, inequality and social justice policies. From gun violence to human rights, the list of social issues in America and around the globe can seem overwhelming.

At Yeshiva University, we understand that pulling together nine emerging and pressing issues can’t just be about recognizing the challenges with which individuals struggle. It’s also about the responsibility of social workers to understand how big picture issues impact our clients and take action to support the communities we serve.

To do that, we’re taking a closer look at these societal problems and how we can better equip social workers to deal with the effects they have on our people and communities.

1. Climate Change

On the list of social work’s Great Challenges, it might be surprising to see “strengthen social responses to environmental changes” as a top objective.1 Climate change tops most surveys as one of the most pressing social justice topics to address, if not the most. The effects can be seen all over the news, from flooding in Pakistan to wildfires in Canada.

It 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 impact.

2. Crime

Despite the overall decrease in murder rates in the U.S. so far in 2023, some cities have seen an increase, including Washington, D.C. (13.5%), Cleveland (33.8%), Dallas (5.5%), Kansas City (32.8%) and Nashville (5.8%).2 This has led to prolific tough-on-crime rhetoric in many local, state and federal elections, with political parties leaning into more policing and harsher sentences, or defunding the police and forming other mental health or social work task forces.

Many social workers deal with clients who are, have been, or are about to be in prison, so it’s important to keep in mind the broader societal problems that lead to crime: poverty, unemployment, inequality, housing issues, etc. Social work professionals are often at the heart of rehabilitation services, prison reform, and “re-entry” processes. Focusing on the entire individual, and the factors at play in their lives, will give them the best support moving forward.

3. LGBTQIA+ Rights

According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 300 anti-LGBTQIA2S+ bills have been introduced in 37 states this year. This includes legislation regarding gender-affirming health care for people who are transgender, sports participation based on gender identity, teachers or curriculums that discuss sex and gender, and books that feature same-sex, nonbinary, or transgender topics.3

The National Association of Social Workers is pushing back against that legislation in various ways, but the conversation continues to evolve almost every day.3 Thus, the ways in which social workers track and respond is ongoing, including the new mental, physical and emotional obstacles that arise.

4. Healthcare

There are a number of challenges when it comes to receiving quality healthcare, especially in the U.S. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, gaps in coverage remain. This is made abundantly clear with the lack of 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 healthcare system performance.4

One high-profile contemporary social issue is abortion. After the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade with its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in 2022, state governments and local and federal courts have been in a contentious back and forth. This has left many women with inadequate resources and care for contraceptives, menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriages and other reproductive health issues.5

Social work and healthcare are intrinsically tied together. Social workers offer support to individuals, groups and entire communities, so it matters whether one person is struggling or an entire community. One way that social workers can offer aid is by connecting clients to healthcare organizations and providers that fit their needs.

5. Refugee crisis

With massive crises in Ukraine, Russia, Haiti, and numerous other countries, the human cost is felt deeply around the world. According to the United Nations, forced displacement totaled 103 million people globally in mid-2022, an increase from 89.3 million at the end of 2021. That number is rising dramatically again in 2023, bringing the number of people in need to 339 million—more than the population of the United States. This means 1 in every 23 people on the planet will need emergency assistance just to survive.6

Closely tied to the refugee crises is the issue of immigration reform. As border policy is still hotly debated, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 204,561 total encounters along the Southwest border in May 2023 alone.7 Earlier in the year, southern U.S. cities started transporting thousands of migrants to other states, causing an even bigger disturbance among displaced individuals and those who are in charge of their care.

These displaced populations face 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.

6. Wealth Gap

You likely have heard the phrase “the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.” Indeed, America’s richest families have added to their net worth over the past 30 years, while those on the bottom have dipped into “negative wealth,” meaning the value of their debts exceeds the value of their assets.8 Between 1990 and 2020, U.S. billionaire wealth soared 1,130 percent in 2020 dollars. This is more than 200 times greater than the 5.37 percent growth of U.S. median wealth over this same period.9

The wealth gap follows many racial and socioeconomic divides; the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family. An estimated 28 percent of Black households and 26 percent of Latinx households had zero or negative wealth in 2019, which is twice the level of White people.8

Social workers play a critical role in assisting those struggling financially. Pay and employment disparities are certainly a factor at play, as well as generational wealth divides and unequal education opportunities. 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. Provisional CDC data from 2022 indicate that firearms continued to be the number one factor in child deaths for the third year in a row.11 And even just halfway through 2023, the U.S. surpassed the past five years in mass shootings. At the midway mark (June 28) mass shootings reached 332, 293 in 2022, 309 in 2021, 240 in 2020, 190 in 2019 and 151 in 2018.2

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. Social workers frequently help people of all ages deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, as an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes.12

8. Hunger and food insecurity

We all have likely felt the discomfort of hunger; even worse, the lack of energy, mental function and physical pains it creates. According to Feeding America, 34 million regularly face hunger in the U.S., and 38 million live in poverty.13, 14 In 2021,193 million people globally were in need of “urgent food assistance”. To put that number into perspective, if that population were a country, it would be the eighth largest in the world15

At current rates, 574 million people will still be living in poverty by 2030, nearly 7% of the world’s population, with most concentrated in Africa.16 Despite tens of thousands of private, nonprofit and government agencies, food insecurity remains a stubborn issue to solve. And, as with many other social issues in America, its roots are tied to several others on this list.

Taking Action

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 focused on three main pillars: cultural responsiveness, social justice and human transformation.

Grounded in an acute awareness of today’s social problems in America, the faculty and staff at Wurzweiler have created a deeply personal program that combines historical knowledge with a contemporary curriculum to equip you to help the world transform.

Learn more about the program, or apply today and see how you can make a greater impact.

  1. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/
  2. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/anafaguy/2023/07/05/us-murder-rate-finally-dropping-even-as-mass-shootings-reach-record-levels/?sh=6e8fed2d520a
  3. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.socialworkers.org/News/News-Releases/ID/2645/NASW-opposes-anti-LGBTQIA2S-legislation
  4. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2021/aug/mirror-mirror-2021-reflecting-poorly?gad=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjw8NilBhDOARIsAHzpbLAnzVjoKhKyeBjyLxVjZmompDQQsJntL9J7nQf_27SUtuSGi3zoMBcaAgN_EALw_wcB
  5. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.governing.com/next/the-biggest-issues-to-watch-in-2023
  6. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/5-global-issues-to-watch-in-2023/
  7. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/national-media-release/cbp-releases-may-2023-monthly-operational-update
  8. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/
  9. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Billionaire-Bonanza-2020.pdf
  10. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=5_8UM6PD82Y%3D&portalid=0#:~:text=This%20finding%20was%20supported%20in,social%20work%20job%20was%20%2412%2C045.
  11. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.kff.org/global-health-policy/issue-brief/child-and-teen-firearm-mortality-in-the-u-s-and-peer-countries/
  12. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd
  13. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america
  14. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/poverty
  15. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.one.org/international/blog/what-you-need-to-know-hunger-crisis/?gad=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjw8NilBhDOARIsAHzpbLDQ1VMRUkeuRrapT5KzeeVdzyJh5WMaHv9lyS0aZRaNlQmYXC1xETMaAtVyEALw_wcB
  16. Retrieved on July 18, 2023, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview