The reasons why social work is needed vary depending on who you ask. The real value of social work is grounded in the field's simultaneous commitment to improving individual well-being and addressing the broader social justice issues that impact the individual. In fact, social work's code of ethics is exceedingly clear about its mission to empower individuals and focus on private and public issues, especially those issues that impact disadvantaged populations.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states: "The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living."1
So what does this mean for contemporary social workers?
What Do Social Workers Do?
What do social workers do in this modern era? They direct their efforts toward relieving people's suffering, fighting for social justice and improving the lives of individuals and communities. Social workers can be found in schools, community health centers, hospitals, nursing homes, the military, and other professions.2 Social workers can fill many roles—from therapist or clinician to administrator or policymaker.
Here are some examples of what social workers do to tackle some of today's most pressing issues:
- In 2017, 12.3 percent of the U.S. population was living below the poverty line3, a decrease from 2016. However, this still leaves 39.7 million people who need social workers to help them navigate the challenges and stressors of homelessness, poor health, underemployment and unemployment. On a broader scale, what social workers do is research and confront social justice and policy issues that exacerbate poverty and financial disparity across our country.
- While mental illness awareness has increased in recent years, there is still room for progress. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experience mental illness in a given year.4 Given this prevalence, it's hard to imagine a family that is unaffected by this issue. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), serious mental illness costs the U.S. $193 billion in lost earnings per year.5 Furthermore, adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than those without serious mental health issues, largely due to treatable medical conditions.6 What social workers do is vitally important in providing clinical services to those who are struggling with mood disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of mental illness. They must also lead the charge for efforts to ensure that mental health services are adequately funded and that health insurance coverage for mental health services is attainable for all.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports the national rounded number of children who received a child protective services investigation response or alternative response increased 10 percent from 2013 (3,184,000) to 2017 (3,501,000). The 2017 data show three-quarters (74.9 percent) of victims are neglected, 18.3 percent are physically abused, and 8.6 percent are sexually abused.7 So what do social workers do for these children? On an individual level, they provide clinical services to protect the children and to help families cope with stressful situations and issues in their lives. On a broader scale, social workers need to address social and public policies that increase the incidence of child abuse and neglect. These include but are not limited to poverty, unemployment and homelessness.
- The number of inmates in the U.S. has decreased in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of people behind bars in 2016 was the lowest it had been in 20 years.8 Changes in prosecution and sentencing practices, as well as the relaxing of criminal laws (like the decriminalization of marijuana), play a role in the declining number of individuals who are incarcerated in prison or jails. Still, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Certain demographic groups are more likely to find themselves in prison or jail, and this is where social workers are needed to advocate for those who are marginalized by the justice system. They must lead the efforts to push for crime prevention and restorative justice as well as build up community-based services and promote the reform for constructive sentencing.
Today's social workers must show their continued commitment to both individual cases and the broader social causes that affect their clients. Social work should be as much of a calling as it is a career. If you feel that calling to fill the growing need for social workers, consider how a CSWE accredited online Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University can help you serve the most vulnerable and oppressed members of our society.
1. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
2. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from socialworkers.org/Careers/NASW-Career-Center/Explore-Social-Work/Why-Choose-the-Social-Work-Profession
3. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from census.gov/library/publications/2018/demo/p60-263.html
4. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154785
5. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from Insel, T.R. (2008). Assessing the Economic Costs of Serious Mental Illness. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 165(6), 663-665
6. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Council. (2006). Morbidity and Mortality in People with Serious Mental Illness. Alexandria, VA: Parks, J., et al. Retrieved January 16, 2015
7. Retrieved on June 25, 2019, from cf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2017.pdf
8. Retrieved on June 25, 2016, from pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/02/americas-incarceration-rate-is-at-a-two-decade-low/