History of social work

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Social work has its roots in society to deal with poverty (relative poverty). There are many influences. Therefore, social work is intricately linked with the idea of charity work; but must be understood in broader terms. The concept of charity goes back to ancient times, and the practice of providing for the poor has roots in all major world religions.[1]

Pre-Modern history[edit]

In the West, when Constantine I legalized the Christian Church, the newly legitimised church set up poorhouses, homes for the aged, hospitals, and orphanages.[2][3][4] These were often funded, at least in part, from grants from the Empire.[5]

By 580 AD the church had a system for circulating consumables to the poor: associated with each parish was a diaconium or office of the deacon.

As there was no effective bureaucracy below city government that was capable of charitable activities, the clergy served this role in the west up through the 18th century. During the Middle Ages, the Christian church had vast influence on European society and charity was considered to be a responsibility and a sign of one’s piety. This charity was in the form of direct relief (for example, giving money, food, or other material goods to alleviate a particular need), as opposed to trying to change the root causes of poverty.

The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern (17th century) and scientific origin.[6]

Modern history[edit]

Social work, as a profession, originated in the 19th century. The movement began primarily in the United States and England. After the end of feudalism, the poor were seen as a more direct threat to the social order,[citation needed] and so the state formed an organized system to care for them. In England, the Poor Law served this purpose. This system of laws sorted the poor into different categories, such as the able bodied poor, the impotent poor, and the idle poor. This system developed different responses to these different groups.

Social work involves ameliorating social problems such as poverty and homelessness.

The 19th century ushered in the Industrial Revolution. There was a great leap in technological and scientific achievement, but there was also a great migration to urban areas throughout the Western world. This led to many social problems, which in turn led to an increase in social activism.[7] Also with the dawn of the 19th century came a great "missionary" push from many Protestant denominations. Some of these mission efforts (urban missions), attempted to resolve the problems inherent in large cities like poverty, prostitution, disease, and other afflictions. In the United States workers known as "friendly visitors", stipended by church and other charitable bodies, worked through direct relief, prayer, and evangelism to alleviate these problems.[6] In Europe, chaplains or almoners were appointed for administer the church's mission to the poor.

Jane Addams (1860–1935) was a founder of the U.S. Settlement House movement and is considered one of the early influences on professional social work in the United States.

During this time, rescue societies were initiated to find more appropriate means of self-support for women involved in prostitution.[citation needed] Mental asylums grew to assist in taking care of the mentally ill. A new philosophy of "scientific charity" emerged, which stated charity should be "secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic.[8]" In the late 1880s, a new system to provide aid for social ills came into being, which became known as the settlement movement.[9] The settlement movement focused on the causes of poverty through the "three Rs" - Research, Reform, and Residence. They provided a variety of services including educational, legal, and health services. These programs also advocated changes in social policy. Workers in the settlement movement immersed themselves in the culture of those they were helping.

In America, the various approaches to social work led to a fundamental question – is social work a profession? This debate can be traced back to the early 20th century debate between Mary Richmond's Charity Organization Society (COS) and Jane Addams's Settlement House Movement. The essence of this debate was whether the problem should be approached from COS' traditional, scientific method focused on efficiency and prevention or the Settlement House Movement's immersion into the problem, blurring the lines of practitioner and client.[10]

Even as many schools of social work opened and formalized processes for social work began to be developed, the question lingered. In 1915, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Dr. Abraham Flexner spoke on the topic "Is Social Work a Profession?" He contended that it was not because it lacked specialized knowledge and specific application of theoretical and intellectual knowledge to solve human and social problems.[11] This led to the professionalization of social work, concentrating on case work and the scientific method.

Canadian History[edit]

Back in the 1800s, many people in Canada decided that they would like to react to the many needs of their neighbors. Many of the people in Canada chose to do this because there were many immigrants from Europe that needed this help because they were looking to better their lives. Due to industrialization many people lost their jobs and were in desperate need to receive work. Because many were not making much money and some were unemployed, they started to experience social problems and that is when social work emerged. Some examples of what caused the social problems was poor health from the stress of being unemployed, and a huge amount of poverty. If people were not receiving the support and love from their families, they would search for it elsewhere. This is when the lovely idea of social work emerged. One of the stats that a gentleman by the name of Herbert Ames’ reported was that in the study of poverty in 1987, “Montreal found that of the cases of poverty he examined, 64 percent included a man in the family who was able and willing to work, and that if employment were available for these families, they would soon adopt a better scale of living”[12] Due to all of this, many people realized that they would like to help the underprivileged. A type of social work that occurred as well is the introduction of child welfare. This also occurred because people wanted to help their neighbors and in turn developed a way to provide social help, more specifically social work.

Poverty was dealt with in Canada by adopting a civil law that established the responsibility of the poor was in their own hands and from the help of the community. And only then could they move on to seek help from organizations that would be able to help. Canada adopted many of the movements that created social work from England and this occurred in the late 1800s. The charity organizations that they adopted from England had a main goal and this goal was to improve social conditions that evolved from poverty and stressful situations such as unemployment.

One well-known woman that played a very specific role in social work was Jane Addams, whom is well known social work in the US. She gained all her knowledge and inspiration when she travelled to Europe and witnessed all of the social work movements they had there.

During the depression in 1929, Canada entered one of the worst times for unemployment, poverty and economic crisis. Many companies lost a ton of money, and the government was soon being asked to help out with finances around the country. Due to the fact many people were not receiving the financial help they were hoping for, social workers stepped in. There was such a huge amount of stress in this time for many people across Canada that there needed to be some relieving. From the words of Jacob Fisher, “due to the abandonment of a focus on the social context, the profession was completely unprepared for the challenges of the Depression.”[12] However, this was when social work as an occupation truly exploded. In the large cities, social work was provided based on one’s religion. In the 1930s, social work ran into a problem in Quebec and started to have trouble finding support for the needs of the poverty stricken population.[12]

When the Second World War started, it caused many people to feel fear and worry. Many people lost their loved ones to the war and it caused a great amount of stress. This time increased social work again because many were experiencing social problems due to the stress of just finishing with one war and moving quickly into the next. The war, however, decreased a bit of stress seeing as many job opportunities opened up for people and they even had extra jobs that were not filled. This also opened up other jobs for social workers as well cause more and more people were beginning to seek social help again. This was another explosion in the social work industry. Due to World War II, as many as twenty five percent of social workers were employed to help with the war effort and were even asked to travel overseas to help the soldiers with their problems. After the war ended, social work hit it’s highest well attending to the needs of the many people that lost their family members, and all of the people that were experiencing a great deal of postwar stress. This cycle seemed to repeat itself a couple times during other wars to come.[12]

During postwar reconstruction, Canada’s government decided to review all of the cases that Canada witnessed over the many years that had to do with social work. From reviewing this information, Rowell-Sirois, Marsh, Heagerty and Curtis came up with a final four reports that outlined the future of social work and the overall framework of it within Canada. “Rice and Price identify a number of common themes in the reports: a recognition that the economy was not self regulating; individual self-reliance was incongruent with a modern industrial society; and governments, both federal and provincial, would have to become active players in protecting people from income disruption.”[12] These four reports stated that Canada was to keep the economy stable and have a social security for its’ people at all times. This required the help from social workers in order to make this possible. After helping many through a depression, the first and second world wars, poverty, and many other stressful events, social work was implemented and was even required to keep our country stable and to keep our people relaxed and happy. It took many years for social work to successfully evolve within our country.[12]

Effects on Canada During the Cold War: The cold war was a rough time for Canada especially since there were extreme boundaries on freedom. This was hard for Canadians because it brought a lot of fear, created a lot of hate, and many started referring to other countries as the “enemy countries.” Because of the war, many female workers were asked to help the soldiers overseas and many of these workers were social workers. However, because many of these families that were away working had families, they needed to be able to have their children safely taken care of. Because of this, the government decided that there needed to be a facility that would care for the children while their parents were away. This was greatly supported by social workers specifically because they wanted to help get many of these families out of poverty and having two people away working instead of just one helped a great deal. Not long after the war was over, however, the government decided to stop the project all together and daycare was no longer offered. In the end, it did help social work and helped to relieve some families as well.[12]

Over the years, one of the main goals of social work was a peace movement. The well known social worker advocate, Jane Addams, was a very big contributor to this. She was the main reason the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom even came to be. Her main goal was to receive peace and this organization took place in Canada as well. Even though the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was extremely influential and was a huge success, there was another organization that was even more influential and successful. This was called the Canadian Peace Congress. There were two social workers that contributed to this meeting and the main goal was to avoid having a nuclear war and to gain peace. This would hopefully alleviate stress and social issues for many of the people within Canada, which was the goal of many social workers as well.

Among the years, one of the major successes of the social work history was that it ended up becoming a very admirable profession. All throughout history, social work was needed. It was needed in times of war, after the war and throughout a great deal of other struggles. Even though this was a hard time for many of these social workers and they needed to remain professional and extremely dedicated to their jobs. Because of these amazing people whom shared their knowledge and incredible amount of skills, social work became recognizable and even was offered as a program of studies in universities. Even though it took a long time to be established in Canada, it was not long before it became very important to the government of Canada to be implemented in universities country wide. This was important enough that they even negotiated to find ways to financially afford to implement this program. By the early 1950s, there was eight universities that had five hundred and forty three students enrolled. That increased by two hundred and sixty three students in five years. Social work was slowly becoming a popular career and a good degree to have.[12]

Over the years, Canada has seen a great deal of change and progress with the social work occupation and it’s effects. It helped many through the First World War, the Second World War and the cold war, it helped through the great depression, and it also helped many through different areas of life and social struggles. We have watched it transform and get adopted into schools and the government even used it to relieve many families and even helped with childcare in the process.[12]

American History[edit]

Following European settlement of northern America, the only social welfare was in the area of public health. When epidemics occurred, quarantine facilities were built to prevent contamination. As populations grew, Almhouses were built to house vulnerable people with no other support, including people with a long term illness or older people without families. The first recorded Almshouse was built in 1713 near Philadelphia by William Penn, and was only open to Quakers. A second one was built nearby in 1728, this time with public money. In 1736 New York opened the Poor House of the City of New York (later renamed Bellevue Hospital) and in 1737 New Orleans opened the Saint John's Hospital to serve the poor of the city.[13] Over the next 80 years, the facilities began to change. The precursors to modern hospitals began to form on the grounds of Almshouses, while the Almshouses themselves focused more and more on vulnerable people.

Modern social work in America has its roots in the mass migrations of the 19th century. Many of the migrants landed in New York and moved to other eastern cities, where mass crowding, led to social problems and ill health.[13] Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the United States' first female doctor [14] who set up the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1853. The dispensary was run to assist the poor communities of East Side, and it soon diversified beyond a basic pharmacy, providing social assessments and support to local families. In 1889 Jane Addams was a young medical student who set up Hull House in Chicago to work with poor and immigrant communities. The house was both a community service centre and a social research program. Precursors to modern social work arose in Blackwell's infirmary and in Hull House as health professionals began to work with social determinants of poor health.[13]

The first professional social worker to be hired in the United States was Garnet Pelton, in 1905 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Pelton retired after six months due to contracting tuberculosis in the course of her work. She was replaced by Ida Cannon who worked in the role for a further forty years. Dr. Richard Clarke Cabot was a key advocate in the creation of the role, as he believed there to be a link between tuberculosis and social conditions. Both Pelton and Cannon had trained as nurses before taking up the role. Cabot was in charge of the outpatient ward of the hospital, and together with the newly created social workers, they redefined the way in which health and wellbeing was managed. The economic, social, family and psychological conditions that underpinned many of the conditions that patients presented with were recognised for the first time. Social workers would work in a complementary relationship with doctors, the former concentrating on physiological health, and the latter on social health. In addition to this, he saw that social work could improve medicine by providing a critical perspective on it while working alongside it in an organisational setting.

This approach soon spread through other American hospitals, and in 1911, there were 44 social work departments in 14 different cities. Two years later, the number of social work departments had grown to 200.


After 1905, most social workers were trained as nurses. The American Association of Hospital Social Workers was set up in 1918 to increase the links between formal education and hospital practice. In 1929 there were ten university courses in medical social work. Around this time, psychiatry and psychology began to compete with social work as the complementary discourse to medicine in hospitals. Social work practice adapted to this by aligning itself more closely with psychoanalytic ideas, and became less concerned with living conditions and social health. While this detracted from the social concerns, it added a more scientific basis to dealing with patients, and challenging behaviours were more likely to be seen as a mental dysfunction than poor moral character.[13] The increase of social spending after World War Two saw another rise in the number of social workers.

Canadian History[edit]

In the 1700s Canada was heavily under the influence and authority of Great Britain. This meant that the government put into place laws, concerning welfare, such as the English Poor Laws which was first implemented in Britain. There was also a struggle with the principles of less eligibility and the perception of need.[15] As a result, the poor were distinguished as two separate groups. First, the worthy poor which consisted of mostly children whom were in need of education and apprenticeship, but also included the aged, sick and disabled; they were to receive help by being sent to the poor houses. The second were the unworthy poor which consisted of those who were able to work, but were still unemployed. These unlucky individuals were deported to the workhouses to learn how to earn a keep and good work habits.[16]

During the colonial era the responsibility of the poor went to the local governments which financed the relief through property tax revenue. In 1792 Upper Canada followed England’s footsteps and tried to move away from the poor laws and place the responsibility of the poor on voluntary charities, mainly the Roman Catholic Church.[16][17]

In 1867, the British North America Act (BNA Act) was applied; it directed provincial governments to take responsibility for the welfare for their own provinces. At this time welfare was not seen as an important aspect of government, so there was not much help for those who were left to the ruling of the poor laws and municipalities.[15] It was somewhat better for children as they were considered worthy poor, and were sent to the poor houses. Between this time to 1920 people were realizing how demeaning and humiliating the poor laws were and tried to move away from them in order to provide humane, practicable and inclusive programs. Although, because of the strong roots in Adam Smith’s “laissez-faire” economy Canadians debated the amount of support that would be obligatory of the government.[15]

Before World War I the social service congress met in reaction to the industrialization of Canada. This led to the concern of the amount of poor and lack of sufficient, ongoing work. For all of their ambition they could not move on because of WWI.[17] During and after WWI there were many family units that were becoming single parent families; due to the fact of fathers and husbands alike were going to war and the mother was staying at home. It was made clear that it would be better for the children to stay with the mother, so instead of moving the children away from their mother to an institution they were kept in their natural setting.[17] This could not happen with the limited income the mother made, so it was legislated that single mothers’ could receive income security, the subsidy was not really enough to cover all the needs, but was a step in the right direction. It was first seen in Manitoba in 1916 and soon thereafter spread across Canada.[16]

The Old Age Pensions Act was created in 1927 in response to the concern of how elderly people would care for themselves as well as the elderly of poor families. Although, this was a step in the right direction it was very hard to receive this support and the age to collect was 70 or higher, which at that time not many lived to be that old.[16] It was also “means-tested” meaning that their yearly income had to be under a certain amount which was very low. Although, it took nine years for the Act to become national, it was a major step in getting the government involved on such an important commitment level.[17]

In 1929 a survey showed that only two to four percent of the Canadian population were unemployed whereas in 1933 there was a sharp increase where the unemployed became nineteen to twenty-four percent. This period is referred to as the dirty thirties. This caused a lot of social and health problems, but also paved the way to public relief. The new modifications that occurred during this time did not suffice as municipal governments could not alone shoulder the cost which caused the federal government to pass the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1940. This was the first large-scale income security program.[16]

After WWII there were many suggestions and ideas of how social welfare would and should be implemented in Canada. One of the most well-known was Leonard Marsh’s report, which was called, Report on Social Security for Canada proposed January 17, 1943. Today it is more commonly known as the Marsh Report. Marsh was a harsh critic of his own country; he pointed out that Canada was sadly lagging behind in its social welfare programs. He promoted an all-encompassing reform of how help would be given to the unemployed and children as well as social insurance, and social assistance. The underpinnings of these changes were to create a ‘social minimum’ or GAI. The point was so that no individual or family were so entrenched by poverty or circumstances that they could not help themselves. Along with this proposal he also advised a way to finance these programs---taxation and social insurance.[15]

In 1944 the Family Allowances Act was enacted hoping to decrease the poverty of large families. It was supposed to guarantee a minimum income for Canadian families.[16]

1951 the Old Age Pensions Act was replaced by two separate plans. The first was Old Age Security where the individuals would all collect the same benefits without the high stakes and hurdles to receive funds. The second was the Old Age Assistance which was mean-tested.[16]

From World War II to 1970 the government worked to stabilize the economy under the principles of Keynesian Economics. This meant that the government would support lower income families in times of recession in order for them to be able to give back to the economy by spending. This was a move away from the capitalist thinking were each individual fends for themselves, because of this change in thinking Canada was then considered a welfare state.[16]

1965 the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) was implemented which required individuals between the ages of 18 to 70 to contribute to this program as long as they were in the workforce, so every paycheck a certain amount was subtracted to go towards retirement.[16]

The working poor are defined as people who are working, but are still in a poverty stricken state. This was the situation of 1976, so Canada took on a plan which they named war on poverty. The plan was to rid Canada of poverty and raise the standards of living by providing a guaranteed annual income (GAI). This income would be, “based on marital status, number of children, financial resources, age and geographic location.” The GAI was never implemented all across Canada, but some provinces showed variations of the idea of a minimum income.[16]

Throughout 1973 to 1976 a social security review was undergone. There were some benefits such as, the family allowance was almost tripled as it went, from average, from $7.21 to $20.00 a month per child, and were, “indexed to the consumer price index.” [16] There were also a few problems that arose, mainly the cost of programs which the government supported. This led to a decrease and in some cases the elimination of social welfare programs.[16]


This section will focus on how the above social policies are converted into real life situations. The policies are carried out by different types of social programs or agencies which are, “formally structured unit, sanctioned by society, whose goals and activities focus on meeting human needs” [15] There are two types of agencies. Primary agencies make up the bulk of social welfare, is where most professional social workers are employed and have specific goals to which they focus their help. The secondary agencies are found within another organization such as schools, or hospitals. These types of agencies also employ social workers, but are only a small part of the main specialities.[15]

There are a few general terms to label different programs. The first being a demogrant, these programs use case payouts to help the needy. Needs of these individuals are based on demographic features, such as age, opposed to means-tested. Programs that determine the degree of need by a means-test are social assistance programs. These are most likely administered at the provincial or local government level. The third types are social insurance programs. This type of program only gives back as much as the individual had been recorded to invest in that particular establishment. The payout would only occur in the event of a death, unemployment, etc. An Example of this is employment insurance or the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP). The last two are the most common today partly because of the policies of neo-conservatism.[15]

There are three groups that attempt to fund relief---government, voluntary and commercial. The government sector divides its responsibility between the federal, provincial, municipal and local governments. Individuals’ understanding is that they have a right as a citizen of Canada to gain support from the government through legislation. This support can be provided by each level of government through taxation as the governments have to arrange cost-sharing agreements, which easily become complex. This means that a social agency may receive funding from multiple levels of government. The voluntary sectors funding is more charity based and may come from an individual’s religious, humanitarian, or singular interest; or national organizations. Some agencies have a combination of both government authorizations and voluntary groups. Voluntary sectors funding is often uncertain, so they must gain donors hearts, sentiment, and interest to keep afloat, which also means that there is sometimes strong competition between voluntary agencies to gain donors. This can also cause donors generosity to run dry. Lastly, is the commercial sector; this is the most recent contributor to start helping meet human needs. This sector purpose is twofold, for they are helping those in need, while at the same time are hoping to increase profit. Some find this somewhat controversial, as the motive are mixed, and goes against the ethics of social welfare. Another concern is that if there is too much pressure to make profit, than the public’s needs are not sufficiently met. As time goes on it can be seen that the commercial sector is expanding. It generally fills in the gaps that are left by the government and voluntary sectors and are able to act with speed and efficiency.[15]

Australian History[edit]

Social work as a profession in Australia developed later than in England or America, with the first professional social workers being hired in the 1920s. Social work training began in Australia in 1940 at the University of Sydney. The profession took direction from the established schools in England until the 1960s, when a more American model took hold. Most high level training and theory was imported from abroad until the 1980s. Some Australian social work writers such as Jim Ife has criticised the impact that this has had on Australians being able to develop culturally appropriate theories and practices. Since the 1990s, Australian social work has increasingly affiliated itself with Pacific Islander and New Zealand approaches.[18]

Social Work has been a mostly public sector or not-for-profit sector profession in Australia, with private practice being rare. The profession has experienced changes in two different direction in the last 30 years. One is a pull towards a more managerial, professionalised model, and the other is to a more community based, deprofessionalised approach. Further to this has been the trend by large organisations to replace the "jack of all trades" social work approach with less highly trained, more technical positions. Since the 1990s, other reactions to managerial control of social work have followed theories of feminism, ecological sustainability and critical theories.[18]

English History[edit]

The growth of social work in England as a discipline had similar parallels to the American experience of mass migration and social upheaval. The Industrial Revolution was a major cause of these changes, as social and economic conditions changed, resulting in the massive growth of cities. The first social workers were called hospital almoners, and were based in medical institutions. The Royal Free Hospital hired Mary Stewart as the first almoner in 1895. Her role was to assess people requesting treatment at the hospital to ensure that they were considered "deserving enough" of the free treatment. The role soon developed to cover the provision of other social programs, and by 1905 other hospitals had created similar roles. By this time, the Hospital Almoners Council had been formed to oversee the new profession.[13]



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