History of Social Work in the United States


The history of social work in the United States is marked by the adoption of English laws to adaptations designed to address novel social challenges. Social work developed out of the need to address the paradox of increasing inequality and poverty in the context of high productivity and economic growth (Stuart, 2022). Social work is a reflection of a specific community’s needs (Williams et al., 2019). It is a profession that facilitates the enhancement of human well-being and is focused on meeting the basic and complex needs of vulnerable individuals (National Association of Social Workers, 2022). The adoption of legal frameworks in the colonial era grew into volunteer-based services at the start of the industrial revolution, which ultimately grew into independent organizations tasked with the alleviation of poverty. The challenges occasioned by a growing population and expanding urban settlements required immediate action. Poor individuals and communities suffered under a capitalist system that prioritized individualism at the expense of communal interests. Social Work in America has evolved to address needs that, if ignored, would subject innocent Americans to harsh economic and environmental challenges.

Colonial America

A majority of Colonial America’s publicly funded relief programs were based on the English heritage of the country’s early settlers. The Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Massachusetts were largely influenced by the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1594 (Hansan, n.d). The aforementioned law classified the poor into specific categories. Individuals who were deemed worthy of aid were widows, orphans, and the handicapped, while those considered undeserving of help were drunkards and lazy individuals (Hansan, n.d). The parish or local government was tasked with the role of administering the law and providing services to those who met the criteria. The institutions raised taxes to fund their charitable activities.

The colonial governments that were subsequently established in early America used English laws as a foundation for their regulations regarding social work. They established the American view that public institutions were required to address the needs of the destitute. However, all who required aid had to produce proof of residence in a specific geographical area. The earliest forms of social work were accomplished through contract systems, poor houses, relief services for homes, and auctions (Hansan, n.d). Contract systems involved the placement of a disparate individual under the care of a farmer. Auctions were bidding events where low-income families were placed with a couple that bid the lowest amount of public funding to care for the destitute (Hansan, n.d). The early forms of social work did not always work efficiently because of the high potential for abuse.

Progressive Era

The emergence of social work in America’s Progressive Era was the result of the development of machines that would later spearhead the industrial revolution. The invention of steam engines and the development of manufacturing processes led to the development of urban settlements with large numbers of people. The booming population led to the development of numerous social problems, such as unemployment, chronic disability, and child neglect (Stuart, 2022). In the United States, the aforementioned problems gave rise to a social conscience that had both rationalistic and religious foundations. Stuart (2022) notes that the sentimental reformism that facilitated the abolishment of slavery was directed at the needs of the poor. Religious institutions advocated for the needy, as evidenced by the protestant ministers’ support of a social gospel, which argued that Christians were required to champion social reform. American states adopted a reform movement that prioritized social justice. It is worth noting, however, that the growth of big business meant that scientific principles and research would take the forefront in the modern form of social work.

The Progressive Era was characterized by the development of charity institutions such as Boards of Charity. These organizations constituted prominent citizens who volunteered their services for the good of the needy. There was an awareness that social work could change the lives of individuals while facilitating the transformation of communities (Florida State University, 2020). The institutions applied rational administration, which prioritized strict budgeting, data collection, and adherence to rules governing civil service (Stuart, 2022). The board members visited state-run institutions such as prisons and made recommendations for improved efficiency. Numerous child-saving movements in large cities devoted their efforts to addressing the well-being of orphans and the poor. For instance, the New York Children’s Aid Society, which was founded by Charles Loring Brace in 1853, placed orphaned children in Christian farm families in various regions of America’s Midwest (Stuart, 2022). Numerous orphanages developed in large cities to cater to abandoned children towards the end of the 19th Century (Stuart, 2022). Social work underwent a tremendous transformation as industrialization, and big business dominated America’s economic sphere.

Charity Societies

Social work in the United States was revolutionized by the introduction of an organized and efficient framework for the delivery of services. Charity Organization Societies grew in popularity in the late 1880s, and many of them were modeled after the London Charity Organization Society (Stuart, 2022). Charity societies advocated for a regulated form of love for the needy. They were structured as organizations that comprised voluntary charities rather than institutions created to offer direct material aid. They facilitated the city-wide voluntary associations in the areas in which they operated. District agents recruited and paid employees who interviewed applicants for relief and organized visits by volunteers (Stuart, 2022). Charity societies grew increasingly influential, and by the 1890s, they expanded their reach to environmental work (Stuart, 2022). The New York Charity Organization Society established the New York School of Philanthropy, which was designed to promote social work in the community (Stuart, 2022). The growth of Charity societies was spurred by the increasing number of problems occasioned by urbanization.

The need for interventions intended to meet the needs of the poor, who were increasing in number, prompted charity societies to merge and formulate strategies that would effectively address emergent social challenges. The challenges that social workers were prepared to deal with were based on emotional or social disadvantage, poverty, discrimination, and trauma (British Association of Social Workers, 2022). The new social work practices were guided by policies, laws, and procedures based on ethical principles (Banks & Rutter, 2021). Members from various state boards of charities came together in 1874 as part of the American Social Science Association (Stuart, 2022). The group later merged into a single organization which later became the National Conference of Social Work in 1917 (Stuart, 2022). The organization held meetings for social workers, formulated policies, and advocated for greater government involvement in the plight of the poor in the United States.

Great Society

The Great Society was a period in America’s history when the impact of social work resulted in tangible changes in American lives. Lyndon Johnson’s administration oversaw perhaps some of America’s most famous and extensive entitlements in U.S. history (Thornton, 2018). The objective was to bring an end to poverty, inequality, and crime in American society. The ambitious legislative programs and policy initiatives highlighted the importance of social work in the increasingly urban American communities that suffered the grave effects of a capitalist economy.

The Johnson administration was determined to make an impact on American lives. His administration declared war on poverty in 1964 and proceeded to implement an aggressive anti-poverty initiative that involved public entities and local community action programs (Stuart, 2022). The administration actively involved social workers in the design of the program. However, some viewed the president’s activities as unprofessional and ineffective. The administration’s actions allowed voluntary social service agencies to enter into contracts that facilitated the provision of services to the poor. They addressed various needs ranging from community organizations to counseling services (Stuart, 2022). 1965 marked a period of significant social change, given that the federal health insurance program, Medicare, and state-run health insurance programs for the poor were enacted by Congress (Stuart, 2022). The expanded social welfare services had a significant impact particularly because funding was shifted from non-profit organizations to the public sector. The emphasis on health programs meant that more Americans had access to services that were previously inaccessible.

The New Deal

The New Deal was President Roosevelt’s promise to the American people to use the power of the federal government to tame the effects of the Great Depression. The positive effects of the President’s initiative were seen soon after he was sworn into office in 1933 (Library of Congress, 2022). The administration passed banking reform legislation and implemented emergency relief strategies and agricultural initiatives. The measures significantly improved the lives of the American people and created opportunities for social workers to impact society positively.

The effects of the Great Depression adversely affected the delivery of social services in the United States. A decline in community Chest donations was quickly followed by the closure of numerous voluntary social service organizations (Stuart, 2022). The remaining agencies partnered with local governments to offer aid to the increasing number of unemployed individuals. The economic depression made it challenging for local governments to raise the funds required to offer relief to citizens. President Franklin’s New Deal in 1933 was designed to focus on recovery efforts to improve the lives of the American people (Stuart, 2022). His administration mandated the formation of public agencies to run relief programs, which effectively ended the practice of relying on voluntary organizations.

The action spurred the development of private social work entities, which focused on casework. In 1935, the Social Security Act facilitated the growth of state welfare systems across the United States (Stuart, 2022). This was swiftly followed by the formation of training institutions that focused on social work training. Stuart (2022) notes that organizations such as the American Association of Schools of Social Work pioneered the development of social work as a profession. Practitioners were taught to embrace service, protect human rights and social justice, maintain dignity, and always maintain confidentiality (Amadasun, 2020). Even though the Great Depression created a harsh economic reality that America’s society was forced to contend with, the New Deal provided an opportunity for social work to grow and address the needs of the people.


The expansion of social work was the result of increasing inequality and poverty in the context of high productivity and economic progress. Many of Colonial America’s publicly funded relief programs were based on the English heritage of the country’s early settlers. These forms of social seldom worked because of the high potential for abuse. The re-emergence of social work in the Progressive Era was the result of the development of machines that would later spearhead the industrial revolution and spawn a new variety of social problems. Charity institutions that introduced organized and efficient frameworks for the delivery of services were introduced to address the novel challenges. Contemporary social work organizations are the product of an evolutionary process that applied academic rigor and a legal framework to address the needs of America’s vulnerable communities.


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Hansan, J. E. (n.d). Poor relief in early America. Virginia Commonwealth University. Web.

Library of Congress (2022). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Web.

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Williams, J., Jackson, M. S., Barnett, T., Pressley, T. & Thomas, M. (2019). Black megachurches and the provision of social services: An examination of regional differences in America. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 38(2), 161-179. Web.

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