The Future of Social Work

It was no way for a person to live.

An elderly woman with a serious mental health condition lived alone in an apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with no running water or lights. One of her children had taken her money. It took a neighbor’s call to the city to find people willing to help.

Social workers came to the rescue, locating a new home that could accommodate her and enlisting another family member to provide care.

“When people come to us, they are facing barriers that they can't deal with on their own,” said Loretta Williams, who oversees social workers in the City of Bridgeport Office for Persons with Disabilities. “Being able to respond to that and have a positive outcome—that’s the reward in itself. I think that it's a blessing to work for people to serve the needy. And be able to get paid? That's a double blessing.”

History of Social Work

Social work started in the nineteenth century as a movement in the United States and United Kingdom. As feudalism ended, some saw the poor as a threat to social order. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act in the UK aimed to transfer unemployed rural workers to the cities, where they would be housed and fed in exchange for their labor in workhouses.

In 1886, the settlement movement began in the US. The name “settlement house” was derived from the resident workers being “settled” in the poor neighborhoods where they provided services and worked to end poverty. Jane Addams, the most famous and decorated US social worker, helped establish Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Hailed as the best-known settlement house in the United States, Hull House and its resident workers sought to reduce poverty and help immigrants in particular. Early social workers in the movement provided the poor with educational, legal, and health services. By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states. Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) says Americans enjoy many privileges because early social workers took action to fight miseries and injustices. Many benefits we take for granted came about because social workers spoke out against abuse and neglect on behalf of families and institutions.

Though they may have changed over time, the NASW Code of Ethics focuses on the core values that are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

Social Worker Job Outlook

Is there a demand for social workers? The answer is an emphatic “yes,” said Williams, as rates of disability, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness are also on the rise. Baby boomers, still the nation’s largest living adult generation, are nearing the end of their lives and face a panoply of needs.

Jobs in all areas of social work combined are growing more than twice as fast as the average profession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) occupation outlook data. They are projected to increase 16 percent during the next decade, with 109,000 social work jobs expected to be added by 2026. Almost half of those opportunities will be created specifically for child, family, or school social workers.

Child and family social workers will be in demand to help families strengthen their parenting skills, solve familial problems, and prevent neglect or child abuse. Although more school social workers will be needed as student enrollments continue to grow, limited state and local funding may hinder employment growth slightly for K–12 school settings, according to the BLS.

BLS data shows that there will be plentiful job opportunities for social workers trained to help patients with medical concerns, including patients who are elderly. As the baby boomer population continues to age, medical social workers will be in demand to help them and their families find appropriate health care.

New social work trends are emerging all the time in response to growing societal and cultural needs. For example, there has been a development of social workers who work with LGBT people, and yet another type of social worker specializes in working with families who have been affected by U.S. immigration policies. The future of social work largely depends on what types of challenges will rise up to threaten people’s health, happiness, or acceptance in society.

Technology and Social Work

How will social work change in the future? Social workers are becoming more digitally savvy. Professionals in the field are able to provide telebehavioral health care due to the availability of low-cost, user-friendly digital communications tools, according to an article in Social Work Today.

Email is being used as a therapeutic tool and specialized smartphones are helping patients record and send information about their moods to their clinicians and caseworkers, receive therapeutic messages and alerts, and communicate digitally with others who face similar challenges, the article states.

For those patients who aren’t tech-savvy, social workers can bring the tech – a tablet or a webcam, for instance – to their home or a local health care provider’s office and set them up to connect for future remote social work calls, or with health and mental health specialists located in urban medical centers. The telehealth visits can replace in-person appointments that might have required a long and in some cases difficult trip for sicker patients, such as those with cancer or late-stage Alzheimer’s.

Some insurance providers offer telehealth services and co-pays that are lower than in-office co-pays. Many government agencies are offering and covering some of the costs of telehealth services, too. The US Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, provided telehealth care to more than 702,000 patients in 2016.

Licensed social worker Ellen Belluomini has spent a large part of her career educating social workers on how they can integrate technology into their practice. In The New Social Worker magazine, Belluomini wrote: “Technical literacy is now a cultural competency, emerging into awareness much like the need for multiculturalism in the ’60s or continuous ethical training of the late twentieth century. The clients we serve integrate technology into their lives like the weaving of thread in a fabric. Technology is another color of thread. If we are not assessing the impact of technology on our client populations, then this is a disservice to them and our profession.”

NASW, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) have developed the Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice. These standards aim to help social workers do the following:

  • maintain and improve the quality of technology-related services they provide
  • incorporate technology into their services
  • monitor and evaluate the ways technology is used in their services
  • inform clients, government regulatory bodies, insurance carriers, and others about the professional standards for the use of technology in the provision of social work services

How to Become a Social Worker

The first step is to get a degree. Many social workers hold at least a master's degree from a CSWE-accredited social work school. Students who enroll in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program are usually required to complete an internship, practicum, or field education in order to work in the field.

An MSW degree qualifies social workers to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW). Many LMSWs work in non-clinical roles, such as case management or policy issues. Some social workers go on to complete at least two to three years of supervised clinical social work and pursue licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) licensure.

The LSCW is the highest level of licensure available to clinical social workers, although some states use different titles, including licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW). A clinical social worker typically addresses problems with individuals or families including drug or alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, or serious illness. Because they can practice independently, they are often found in private practice settings or at schools, hospitals, or community mental health agencies.

Learn more about earning your MSW online from the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.

Citation for this content: OnlineMSW@Fordham, Fordham University's online Master of Social Work program