Why Social Workers?

The profession of social work celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998. From its early beginnings in the settlement house movement in the late 19th century to the present day, the profession has evolved and diversified to provide services and responses to almost every conceivable challenge to the human being and spirit. The preamble to NASW’s Code of Ethics1 describes the historic and present-day mission of the social work profession:

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.

Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. “Clients” is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. These activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation. Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs. Social workers also seek to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems.

An estimated 300,000 licensed social workers in the United States strive to fulfill this mission.2 Currently, 146 graduate and 430 undergraduate social work programs located at U.S. colleges and universities are accredited, and an additional 22 baccalaureate and 25 master’s programs are candidates for accreditation.3

The social work profession is characterized by its diversity of practice modalities, practice settings, and client groups. Social workers help people from all points on the lifespan: children, adults, and the elderly. They are employed in settings such as public schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, nursing homes, substance abuse treatment programs, child and family services, and employee assistance programs.

More clinically trained social workers (192,814) are in the U.S. labor force than the other three core mental health professions—psychologists (73,018), psychiatrists (33,486), and psychiatric nurses (17,318)—combined.4 According to a study completed in 1995, nearly 38 percent of all social workers identified their primary practice area as mental health services, 25 percent specified family services, and 13 percent named medical clinics. Only 2.3 percent of respondents identified the primary focus of their work as “violence—victim assistance.”5 Because of the high rates of violent victimization in the United States and social work’s focus on helping vulnerable populations and disenfranchised groups, it is surprising that a larger percentage of social workers do not primarily practice in this field. Historically, victims of crime have been a disenfranchised group frequently victimized twice, first during the actual crime and then when they come into contact with law enforcement and criminal justice systems.6 A partnership between social work and the victim assistance field would seem like a natural alliance and would fulfill recommendations proposed for mental health professionals in New Directions from the Field: Victims’ Rights and Services for the 21st Century.7

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The Victim Assistance Field and the Profession of Social Work
March 2006