History of Social Work in the Americas

We are increasingly living in a "global village." In this setting, international social welfare transcends national and regional boundaries, with a continual emphasis on building the social resources and procedures required to address the human repercussions of interconnected social, political, and economic circumstances (Watts, 1995). International social work, on the other hand, focuses on the profession's structured practice in various regions of the world, including the various problems and challenges they face, as well as the various roles they adopt and strategies they use to address them.

As we will see, historical influences from all across the world have shaped the distinctive nature of social welfare and social work. In order to establish a knowledge of our modern profession, we must study both universal factors (those shaping issues across cultural and national boundaries) and culturally specific impacts (those shaped by the specific circumstances in any given civilization). In this unit, we will look at the variables that have shaped the evolution of social welfare and social work in selected North and South American towns Throughout the process, we will be able to study the contrasts that emerge between so-called developed and developing countries, as well as hunt for common ground between them. The developmental viewpoint, as described in a United Nations declaration on social welfare published in 1986, is-

based on the maximum of human potential and the mobilisation of all segments of society for the resolution of social problems and the realisation of social progress This new concept of social welfare stands in stark contrast to previous formulations, which concentrated on assisting certain population groups in overcoming what were primarily viewed as individual or group deficiencies."

Following the World Summit in 2005, the Director of The United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development reaffirmed, quoting from its final report that liberated from poverty and sorrow And that every individual, People, especially the most vulnerable, have the right to liberty. from dread and.... wish, with an equal chance to enjoy all of their rights, and fully develop their human potential potential” 

Historical Turning Points in the Evolution of Social Work and Social Welfare

Social work and social welfare have evolved in distinct societies in the context of greater, global historical forces. Many of these originated in ancient European and Asian communities and may be dated back to the time before the Common Era (BCE).

Robert L. Barker (1999), as part of a project celebrating the first 100 years of professional social work in the United States sponsored by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), offered an overview of these effects. Significant dates and events, aimed at providing "the broadest possible chronology of social work history" (1999), and preceding major advances in the Americas, include:

  1. B.C.E. 2500: The Egyptian papyrus writings known as the Books of the Dead were deposited in numerous pyramids, spelling out a king's obligations, which included caring for the sick, hungry, and destitute.
  2. In Babylonia, King Hammurabi enacted a rule of justice mandating people to help one other in times of need in B.C.E. 1750.
  3. 1200 BCE: Jewish people in Israel are taught that their faith mandates them to serve the poor, elderly, disadvantaged, widows, and orphans.
  4. B.C.E. 530: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, teaches that love and charity for others leads to enlightenment.
  5. BCE 500: Philanthropy, or "acts of love for humanity," is instituted in Greece, with residents encouraged to donate money for the common benefit.
  6. B.C.E. 300: Confucius asserts in China that mankind are tied to each other by Jen, which is manifested through the social act of assisting others in need.
  7. B.C.E. 300: Prince Asoka of India endows hospitals and animal shelters (Van Wormer, 2003).
  8. BCE 100: The Roman habit of affluent persons providing free or low-cost grain to all citizens is well established.
  9. C.E. 30: Christian teachings emphasize the necessity of giving to those in need.
  10. 400: Hospitals or facilities providing shelter for the impoverished and disabled are established in India.
  11. 542: Hospitals similar to those in India are established in China, the Middle East, and Europe.
  12. 650: Muslims are taught that one of the Five Pillars (duties) of Islam is to pay zakat (a "purification tax") to care for the impoverished.
  13. 1100: The Roman Catholic Church says that wealthy people have a moral and legal obligation to help the destitute.
  14. 1215: In England, the Magna Carta protects human rights, but only for the nobles (protected class).
  15. 1348: European feudalism begins to crumble, owing in part to the bubonic plague, which killed nearly one-third of the population, leaving the poor even more economically vulnerable.
  16. 1531: The first legislation providing help to the destitute in England is passed, allowing older and crippled persons to begin their own communities.
  17. The Elizabethan Poor Law is founded in 1601 They taxed individuals to maintain fundamental requirements of dependent persons in their communities, and harshly penalized the "able-bodied" poor. They lasted nearly 200 years and provided a model on which colonial American laws were built.
Social Work and Social Welfare Development in North America

Many similar influences have affected the social welfare policies and practices in the United States and Canada in North America. Among these have been social, political, and economic practices drawn from Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. French influences were equally strong in Canada, leading to the creation of varied practices within a similar national context.

United States of America

In the United States, social work education was institutionalized a little more than a century ago, when the first lectures to people working with the poor were given at the School of Social Economics in Chicago, Illinois. Still, as L. Diane Bernard, former Dean of Florida State University's College of Social Work, wrote, "the sick, indigent, orphaned, elderly, and destitute have been with us from the beginning,...(and) treatment of those in need ranged from cruel to humane depending on the qualities and capacities of those responsible" for addressing their needs (1995: 7).

Barker's (1999) Milestones highlight some of the pivotal moments in the growth of social welfare and social work in the United States of America.

  • In 1624, the Virginia Colony passes legislation to provide for the needs of crippled soldiers and sailors.
  • Plymouth Colony enacts the first such legislation in the "New World" in 1642, based on the Elizabethan Poor Law.
  • 1650: The "Protestant Effort Ethic," emphasizing self-discipline, frugality, and hard work, becomes prominent, justifying those who accepted it to look down on others who are unemployed or rely on others.
  • 1692: Massachusetts legalizes indentured slavery, allowing homeless children to be placed with other families who may ask them to work for a period of time in order to pay for their care.
  • 1776: The United States Declaration of Independence is signed, supporting freedom for all except slaves.

  • 1787: The United States Constitution is ratified in order to "advance the public welfare," ushering social welfare into American political discourse.
  • Child labor regulations are passed in Connecticut in 1813, forcing factory owners to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to youngsters who work for them.
  • The National Negro Conventions convene in 1830 to begin talks about civil rights, health, and welfare for people of color and women.
  • The New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor is founded in 1843, and its emphasis on abstaining from alcohol, becoming self-disciplined, and building a work ethic as strategies to eradicate poverty is later emulated.
  • 1848: Feminists gather to begin the foundation of women's voting rights and equal educational and employment possibilities.
  • 1870: Social Darwinism gains traction, promoting the concept that poverty is a natural aspect of the human condition and that assisting the poor makes people lethargic.
  • 1874: The first Charity Organization Society is formed, initially providing mainly guidance rather than direct cash assistance to the destitute.
Charity Organization Societies (COS) were created to bring order and organization to the numerous private and religious responses to the poor (Bernard, 1995). The attitude was to offer everyone an opportunity to be able to stand on their own, with those requesting assistance being rated as either deserving or undeserving depending on their willingness to help themselves. As has been seen time and again in efforts to create social work solutions, it was frequently the "economically wealthy who offered to rehabilitate the destitute through the power of personal persuasion."
1886: The first US settlement home is constructed, modeled after earlier attempts in the UK, with the purpose of narrowing the gap between socioeconomic classes by putting accommodation for the destitute in working-class communities.
  • 1895: The Chicago School of Social Economics, widely regarded as the birthplace of modern social work, begins giving lectures to people who work with the poor. Simon Patten invented the term "social workers" 
  • In 1900, after debating with Mary Richmond whether their primary job should be social advocacy or the delivery of individual care.
  • Abraham Flexner issues his report in 1915, claiming that social work is not yet a profession due to the lack of a written body of knowledge and educationally communicable methodologies.
  • 1917: Mary Richmond publishes Social Diagnosis, influenced by Sigmund Freud's work and emphasizing a client-centered approach to problems based on knowing their inner lives and familial environments.
  • 1933: President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States declares a "New Deal" for Americans, instituting substantial social safety programs to combat poverty and unemployment.
  • 1950: The Social Security Act of 1935 is revised to include children and relatives of poor youngsters, as well as persons who are permanently and totally disabled.
  • In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, igniting the modern civil rights movement.
  • The NASW establishes its first code of ethics in 1960.
  • 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States develops the "Great Society" programs, and the Civil Rights Act makes racial discrimination in public places unlawful.
  • 1965: More "Great Society" initiatives are developed, including those for medical care, the needs of older Americans, and children's education.
  • 1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination against disabled individuals illegal in any business employing more than 15 people.
  • 1990: The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act provides funds for HIV/AIDS prevention, intervention, treatment, and community development.
  • 1996: President Clinton signs the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which limits or eliminates many entitlement programs for the poor and replaces them with more temporary aid aimed at promoting independence.
The continuation of debate over whether the poor are trapped in a trap of their own making, from which they should be forced to "work their way out," or are casualties of a society where income and opportunities to obtain it are unequally distributed can be summarised as a simplified understanding of 20th century social welfare in the United States. As Barker's milestones show, the trend over time has been to provide additional types of social aid to the poor, while still grappling with the involuntary distribution of financial resources via taxation.

  1. Borges, D. (1993). ‘Puffy, Ugly, Slothful, and Inert’: Degeneration in Brazian Social Thought, 1880-1940. Journal of Latin American Studies, 25(2), 235-256
  2.  Social Work and Social Welfare. Washington, D.C.: NASW Press. Bernard, L. D. (1995). United States. In T. D. E. 
  3. Watts, Doreen; Mayadas, Nazneen S. (Ed.), International Handbook on Social Work Education (pp. 7-22). London: Greenwood.


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