A History Of Social Work In The United States Of America


For many families and communities in America, social workers are a much-needed lifeline. They advise and assist with healthcare, relationships, parenting, alcohol, and drug abuse, and they are often the fastest way to access federal and state resources. 

The numbers make it clear that social workers are an essential part of society. California alone, according to a 2021 Statista report, has more than 47,000 of them. New York has more than 24,000. Rural America isn’t very different; almost every state has an army of thousands of social workers.

How is it that they have become such a vital part of society? What is the history of social work in America? Who are some famous social workers? What do social workers do for us? These are some of the questions that this article will answer. 

What Is The History Of Social Work?

Today, privileges that many Americans take for granted are only possible because of the sacrifices and commitment of our early social workers. 

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Much of early social work was voluntary and unofficial. Churches, for example, would get together to help the needy within their communities. Women contributed money for others who were less fortunate. Hospitals took in and treated those who couldn’t pay. 

Social work as we know it today goes back to the early 19th century. At the start of the industrial revolution in the UK, there was a marked increase in social problems. 

People who previously made their livings as farmers and rural workers no longer had a source of income or a place to live. They had to find ways to make ends meet. 

Cities were their only option. They promised employment and a better life. Those who lived in places like London and Manchester were appalled by the “rural poor”. 

At the same time, industrialization was catching on. The development of the steam engine meant that factories could increase output. They needed workers. Trains made the transportation of both humans and goods easier. 

Within a short time, cities in the United Kingdom experienced an influx. Everyone wanted to find work in a factory, in a city. The government was not prepared, and social problems soon erupted. 

Many of the new arrivals had nowhere to stay, no work, no food or water, and no access to healthcare. There was mass unemployment, disease, abandoned and neglected children, poverty, homelessness, and disability.

The Emergence Of Social Work In The United States

By the 1800s and 1900s, waves of immigrants arrived in the United States every month, many with nothing. 

They had large families that continued to grow after they arrived. A large number of them wanted to live in cities where there were better odds of finding work. They ended up in crowded tenements without jobs, healthcare, or any way to make a decent living. 

Charity organizations sprang up. Most were organized by religious groups. Protestant ministers, for example, proclaimed that it was the duty of every Christian to champion social reform. The Catholic Church campaigned for equality between capital and labor, and Jewish communities called for reforms in social justice. 

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Early champions of social work took a scientific approach to solve social issues. They would borrow from the emerging corporate culture to provide help as efficiently as possible.

Rather than bring together church ladies or community fundraisers, they formed organizations that had boards of directors and employees.

They created budgets, were governed by rules, and relied on data and research to guide their social work. 

Board members, who were comprised of prominent citizens, visited and inspected institutions that had been set up to provide for the needy. 

These included orphanages for abandoned children, hospitals, schools, and public kitchens. They played an advisory role, and some had administrative oversight.

In cities like Chicago and New York, saving young children became a core focus of social work. Famous social workers like Charles Loring Brace started institutions and established child-saving measures that kept thousands of children alive. 

The New York Children’s Aid Society (1853), for example, started orphan trains that would relocate poor and homeless children from New York to the Midwest.

Jewish and Catholic orphanages also stepped in, but they had a different approach to social work for children. Rather than place them in poorhouses, where life wasn’t ideal, they found homes where they would be loved, cared for, and given an education. 

A system soon emerged that involved placing children in public and private institutions. Many states also developed legislation governing social work. Children, for example, could not be used for labor, and school attendance was mandatory. 

Roots Of Modern Day Social Work

By the 1890s, two institutions had emerged that focused on the needs of the poor rather than just children. 

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There was a growing understanding that the way to help the child was to help the family. Starting in Buffalo, charities were formed that were modeled along the London Charity Organization Society. 

Besides providing material assistance to the needy, social workers (called district agents) also provided love and care. The agents visited and interviewed those who applied for relief, provided advice to families, and intervened in cases of abuse.

By this time, most district agent work was done by voluntary workers who were widely known as “friendly visitors”. By the end of the decade, however, paid social workers outnumbered volunteers and social work began to take the form we recognize today. 

How Did Social Work Studies Develop?

Social work studies were first offered by the New York Charity Organization Society. It started the Summer School of Applied Philanthropy in 1898, which went on to become the Summer School of Applied Philanthropy in 1904. 

In 1919 the school was renamed the New York School of Social Work under Columbia University. Becoming the Columbia University School of Social Work in 1963, it provided education to those who wanted to join the workforce as social workers. 

The First World War saw an expansion of social work in America. The Red Cross Home Service was formed to act as an intermediary between soldiers and families. One of the most famous social workers of the time, Mary Richmond, trained workers to assist the families of soldiers in rural America. 

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The Army Medical Corps also played a part. As more and more soldiers returned home suffering from shell shock (PTSD), they relied on trained social workers to help them reintegrate back into society and go back to work. 

Social Work During The Great Depression

The 1929 depression saw a decline in economic and social conditions all over America. People lost jobs, demand for goods slackened, and there was political unrest. Social work suffered greatly.

Workers were laid off because states could not afford to pay them. More than one-third of agencies and organizations were forced to close their doors. 

Donations dwindled rapidly, and social workers were soon joining dole queues themselves. Big cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago turned to the federal government to support the huge population of devastated Americans. The Hoover administration issued the first state loans in 1932. 

A series of bills since then has vested some social work responsibility on states, but some budgets are still supported by the federal government. 

Interesting Facts About Social Work In America

  • Jane Addams is one of America’s most famous social workers. She built homes for immigrants in America and helped them to integrate in the 1900s. For her efforts, she received a Nobel Prize in 1931.
  • According to the Social Workers Occupational Handbook, social worker employment will grow by 9% in the coming decade. 
  • About 83% of all social workers are women
  • Today’s famous social workers include Brene Brown, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Paula Allen-Meares, and Dorothy Height.
  • America isn’t alone in making strides in social work. There is a remarkable army of social workers in every country in the world. Medha Patkar is known for her work in India, and Pushpa Basnet for her contributions in Nepal. 
  • The highest-paid social work professionals are those who work in schools with children and families.
  • Social workers provide the most mental health assistance in the United States. 
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How Do I Become A Social Worker?

It is a good idea to enroll in a social work degree today. The projected job outlook means that demand for social workers will be high in the next 10 years and salaries and benefits are likely to increase. 

The easiest way to become a social worker after you obtain a high school diploma is to enroll for a bachelor’s in social work. These courses take about 4 years to complete, but if you are disciplined, you can enroll in an online program and finish in about half the time. 

If a career in social work is not for you, there are still numerous ways you can contribute to your community


The history of social work in America is rich with individuals who sacrificed to help the poor and needy. They founded institutions that helped immigrants and legions of poor who moved from rural to urban areas in the 1800s and 1900s. 

Social workers are charged with one of the toughest jobs in America today. They deal with the poor, the addicted, those with mental issues, and other at-risk groups to give them a chance. 

You can become a social worker by enrolling in a social work degree from an accredited university. You may not become one of America’s most famous social workers, but you will bring meaningful change to people’s lives.

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