Social work is a large and complex field that tackles a lot of different issues, but it hasn’t always been this way. Its roots can be traced back to ancient times when a variety of different organizations, usually religious in nature, sought to feed the hungry, provide basic healthcare for the poor, and protect widows and orphans. Its modern form is usually traced back to the 1840s when the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor was founded, but it has gone through many changes since then. This article looks at how global issues and trends have reshaped it over time, eventually creating the profession we know today.

The end of chattel slavery

One of the founding moments in the history of social work in the US came with the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865. Although it wasn’t around for long, this institution played an important role in helping formerly enslaved people develop a measure of economic freedom during the Reconstruction era, and it served as a model for many later initiatives. Though less dramatic in scale, similar changes took place around the world from the early 1800s to the late 1980s (in South Africa) as the mainstreaming of the idea of equality led to a recognition that those with nothing could live better lives and be more socially and economically productive, if states invested in their development.

The industrial revolution

Globally, the process of industrialization saw people leaving their rural homes and moving en masse into cities. This led to massive issues with poor quality, cramped housing, resultant health problems, and poor nutrition, becoming particularly acute during periods when people were unable to find work, and compounded by the rising tide of disability and illness caused by unsafe work environments. A host of charitable organizations sprang up in response, and the focus began to shift from helping individuals in the short term to helping populations through long-term infrastructure improvement and regulation.

World Wars and the professionalization of social work

Following the two world wars, the vast numbers of displaced people in need of support across much of the world led to governments stepping in where the third sector had previously taken responsibility for social work in almost all cases. In the US, it saw the establishment of the Association of Training Schools of Professional Social Work (later known as the Council on Social Work Education), which professionalized social work.

The Great Depression

The final chapter in the development of social work to date was heralded by the Great Depression, which saw governments stepping in to take real responsibility for vulnerable people, as they do even now. This involved hiring recently professionalized social workers and developing consistent programs aimed at helping individuals and communities and tackling endemic problems. 

Since then, social work has greatly developed and evolved as mental health and social mobility has become more prevalent in society. As a result, enrolling in programs like the Spalding University master of social work program will provide you with a skill set that is defined by a century of social work developments. With these skills, a new relationship between the community and their citizens, reflected in the current discourse, has emerged which you can continue to help reform whilst improving the lives of those around you. 

What was once the concern of scattered groups of individuals has become a priority for society as a whole.