March is National Social Work Month, a great time to take a fresh look at the historical and ever-growing importance of social services in America. Apart from the people who benefit on a daily basis from their contact with them, how many of us really know what they do to protect and advocate for the vulnerable in our society? Americans should celebrate the often difficult and unheralded work of these highly trained and compassionate professionals who offer lifelines to the suffering and maintain the fabric and promise of our society
Social services work as a part of the modern safety net began in Europe at the end of the feudal age when traditionally agricultural populations no longer had a clear or permanent connection to the land. The rise of the industrial era in Europe, Canada and the United States came with a new class of dislocated and mostly urban poor who were severed from their traditional occupations and social support systems. As such, many were unable to fend for themselves when they became ill, lost shelter or sources of income.
At one time poverty was even a punishable crime, but by the post-industrial 19th century, social activists became pioneers in shaping this field as a scientific profession aimed at preventing and alleviating the suffering of the poor, rather than criminalizing and segregating them. After WWII, increased spending on social programs expanded the field further, and contributed to its establishment as the rigorous, research-based profession it is today.
What Do They Do, Anyway?
Social workers belong to one or more of four main groups. In ascending order of academic accomplishment they are:
- Bachelors (BSW)
- Masters (MSW)
- Licensed Clinical (LCSW)
- Doctorate (DSW)
All of these fulfill a wide variety of tasks, from hands-on advocacy at the grassroots level to policy analysis, teaching and research. But whatever level of licensing they have achieved, she or he is part of the essential work of improving the financial, psychological, medical and emotional lives of people in need. They protect vulnerable communities like children and the elderly, offer expert counseling, and connect people to the resources they require to change their lives for the better. In doing their important work, they serve not only their clients, but also our society as a whole.
Social work is a rapidly growing profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that work opportunities for these professionals will expand rapidly over the next ten years. According to Paul Pace of the National Association of Social Workers News, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the social services work profession will grow by 25 percent from 2010 to 2020, a faster-than-average rate for all occupations." The NASW says that health, social service, and behavioral health will be the areas with greatest demand and that non-urban areas are where the greatest number of job opportunities will exist.
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