The Evolution of Social Work

Find Graduate Programs

In the beginning… there were the disadvantaged and those who wished to help them. In other words, we’ve had social work as long as we’ve had people. Some are always going to be less lucky, have fewer resources, and need a little help overcoming it.

Fortunately, this can often be a temporary part of life. Social Workers have been helping to make that the case for more than 100 years.

But it’s not all just about the work of helping others, there’s the social aspect of it too.

Social Work is about communities too. That means it has to stay organized as it always has, even before it was an official and legit enterprise and profession.

Social Work & Civil War

Want to share the full infographic image on your site? Just copy and paste the embed code below:

<a href=””>Social Work & Civil War</a><strong>Courtesy of</strong></p><a href=” /programs/social-work/evolution-of-social-work”><img alt=”Social Work & Civil War” border=”0″ src=” /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/evolution-social-work-v2_0_0.jpg” width=”800″ /></a></p>

Social Work & the (Not So) Civil War

You don’t have to be a historian to know that that Civil War brought this country to our knees. We were a beat up and burnt out land of the free by its conclusion in 1865. Thus, benevolent societies and self-help organizations began to address these overwhelming social consequences.

Times of Need

In fact, historically speaking, social work organizations tend to crop up more in time periods right after our country has endured the trials of war.

Anyone who has no need of anybody but himself is either a beast or a God.


Based on this need created by the upheaval of the Civil War (1861-1865), major social welfare initiatives, such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the American Red Cross, emerged. Charity boards were created as a means to improve the management of social institutions.

7 Years of Support for Freed Slaves

The first federal social welfare program, referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, started in 1865 to help newly emancipated slaves find their way and establish themselves independently. The program was short-lived, however, as Congress shut it down in 1872.

It’s not easy to keep organizations like these vital, even when the need for them remains. They require hard work and resilience along with the passion of people who care. That’s because it takes strong and mighty types to make effective Social Workers and organizations.

The Epic Rise of Social Work Post-War

Both the Charities Organization Society of the 1870s and the Settlement House Movement were responses to other problems that came out of the Civil War. Both movements were imported from Great Britain.

Considered to be solutions to the “problems of urbanization and industrialization” they basically helped house and feed those with fewer resources. It’s debatable if more people moving to cities and industrial growth were the direct/sole cause of these issues but at the time many thought so.

It could be the case that city life and industry helped many with few resources better their situations as well. No matter the precise cause of such challenges, The Charities Organization Society and the Settlement Houses were both critical in shaping American social work practice.

They also helped spawn the profession and legitimacy of social work. In fact, let’s look at an example of how cities can inspire social change.

Cities of Change: Chicago & Across the U.S.

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr created The Hull House, the most famous American settlement house. Located in the midst of a culturally diverse neighborhood in Chicago, the Hull House welcomed anyone in need of assistance.

The residents of Hull House provided public education programs to everyone in the community. They also offered social services such as a public kitchen, access to public baths, and a nursery.

When you do “it” right, Social Work is a feeling that is larger than your own life.
― Ogden W. Rogers

Then World War I ended in 1918, a precursor to the burgeoning United Way with its health and welfare councils. These Community Chest organizations grew from 39 to over 1,000 between 1919 and 1948. Now there are more than 1,300 local United Ways across the US.

So, it turns out Community Chest isn’t just a fun times card in the game of Monopoly. This social relief program helps fund the less fortunate by pooling efforts in fundraising for community support.

Social Workers Get Too Legit to Quit

It was during this period early in the early 20th century that Social Work became a legitimate profession. In fact, that happened officially in 1930.

The Great Crash & Why It Matters So Much

Many had been working in this role before then in hospitals and public schools, as well as in child welfare agencies, family agencies, and settlement houses. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, the need for public assistance grew. In fact, demand mushroomed to the point that systems and structures for these providers as professionals became crucial.

When Social Security Wasn’t a Bad Word

The Great Depression brought us more than just real-deal Social Workers. It also brought The New Deal from 1933-1936. This historic program led to dozens of subsequent social welfare acts including the one we’ve all heard about . . . the Social Security Act of 1935.

Social welfare programs expanded to include housing, recreation, cultural activities, social insurance, and child welfare programs.

After WWII, Social Workers Jump in the Fight

After World War II ended, The Council on Social Work Education was formed in 1952. Then the National Association of Social Workers was created in 1955 to further the professional status of social work. Various social work groups and organizations that had already been established throughout the country consolidated to form this new association.

This period represents the peak of Social Work organizations as social reform shifted into a focus more on psychology. As a result, the Social Work profession became more privatized as Social Workers took on a more therapeutic role and social change became more the work of non-profits.

“So Tell Me About Your Childhood” – Psychotherapy 101

In fact, it was in 1956 that protections were put into place for Social Workers as psychologists. Then in 1964 they were issued a position statement for private practice.

That means Social Workers as one-on-one psychologists could put up their own shingle. They were officially legit from that point forward.

Try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and don’t give up. Never give up on anyone.

— John Lewis, Congressman and Social Reformer

Thus Social Workers began adopting psychoanalysis as a means to solve several of the profession’s challenges. It’s debatable whether this focus on psychology in Social Work was a cause or consequence of a disengagement from social action and the poor. But it does seem evident that these practices closed off many of those avenues.

Why is social work so important?

One of the reasons Social Workers matter so much throughout the history of our country is that their work has helped meet the needs of the less fortunate. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, well known to all studying psychology since 1954, defines the most crucial of these as food, shelter, and safety. Although these are indeed basic necessities, human history bears out that many of us aren’t even meeting that minimum.

All You Need Is Food, Housing & Safety (Plus Love)

Luckily social reformers throughout history have fought for these needs to be met as human rights and found ways to provide them for society’s most underserved. Not only that, but recent research on the topic of Maslow’s needs indicates that all human needs have equal import.

Think of it this way, we don’t need human contact and love less just because we are without a home or food. In fact, we need it all the more.

Maslow’s Myth Revealed!

Any gaps in need supply can harm our overall well-being. In other words, it’s not entirely accurate to call out food, shelter, and safety as “the most fundamental” when really all of our needs are necessary. The needs are real but that familiar hierarchy pyramid attributed to Maslow is a myth. It’s all essential stuff.

We’re just now learning supplemental ideas like these in psychology and social science classes today. But if you look at the history of Social Work, it seems like professionals in their industry were aware of this all along. In fact, their missions seem to address these needs for all with equal fervor.

5 of the Most Important Social Workers Ever

One wonder woman of social work was Grace Lee Boggs, a human rights activist. She remained a vital inspiration with her 70 years of activism until her recent passing in 2015 at 100 years old.

You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it, and responsible for changing it.

— Grace Lee Boggs

As we look at some of the forerunners in the Social Work movement throughout history, let’s also focus on the crucial needs they met for our communities.

A Home Advocate – Jane Addams

Perhaps the most famous and decorated female social worker, she founded one of the world’s first settlement houses – the renowned Hull House in Chicago – often cited as the first social worker or the mother of social work, Addams received the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

The surest test of discipline is its absence.

— Clara Barton

The Work Warrior – Frances Perkins

The first woman to be a Presidential Cabinet member, Perkins served as Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. She’s often described as the architect of the New Deal for all her contributions. A lifetime champion of labor reform, she helped pass a minimum wage law and was one of the drafters of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act. The Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. is now named after her.

The Rock the Vote Trail Blazer – Jeannette Rankin

A graduate of what is now the Columbia School of Social Work, Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. In addition, she was an advocate of women’s suffrage and a lifelong pacifist. Her first act as member of congress was to introduce a suffrage amendment on the House floor. The amendment then passed about a year later because she never gave up on her passionate mission. The people are what matter to government, and a government should aimto give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.— Frances Perkins

Hopped Up on Health – Frances Feldman

A University of Southern California professor and social work pioneer, Feldman conducted a groundbreaking study in the 1970s. It revealed discrimination in the workplace against the sick, specifically cancer patients. Her research provided evidence that changed employment laws and created protections for the sick. According to the National Association of Social Workers, several states modified fair employment legislation because of the study.

These Social Workers played a crucial role in the way Social Work as an agent of change impacts the lives of people in our country. It can help fulfill their needs and thus make their lives better. Sometimes this takes a village and other times the mighty and passionate Social Worker does the job. But either way, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us. They show us that humans didn’t just evolve to play with our devices with fingers flying ever faster… we’re also getting better at helping each other.

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.

—Earl Nightingale

Be a Social Work Warrior!

You can put your time to good use right now with by clicking around our site right here on Whether your interest lies in the wonders of Social Work, Psychology, or any field of study. We have the resources right here at your fingertips to find the degree program of your dreams. You may find a social work program by using the search below.

  • The MSW@USC is an online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
  • USC’s online MSW can be completed in as few as 12 months with a BSW.
  • USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.
  • GRE scores are not required to apply.
  • Complete the online MSW program in as few as 18 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • There are two online MSW program tracks: traditional and advanced standing.
  • Earn your degree from a university with a “Whole Human Education” approach that focuses on assisting you in all aspects of your education: academic, emotional, career, financial, and family.
  • Choose from 75+ programs: Whether you’re starting fresh or seeking advancement, our career-focused programs are designed to help you make an impact in your chosen field.
  • National University is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

Sponsored Result

Study anywhere. Study any time.

Join the millions earning their degrees online!

32.6% of graduate students were enrolled exclusively in online courses in 2019*.