History of Social Work in The United States of America


  1. Introduction
  2. Three Social Movements
  3. COS Movement
  4. Settlement House Movement 
  5. Child Welfare Movement 
  6. Summary 


The establishment of American relief systems was aided by the English Poor Law laws and associated developments. The early and mid-seventeenth-century colonists from England brought with them English laws, practises, institutions, and ideals, which they imprinted in America.

Three Social Movements

As a result of fast industrialization, urbanisation, and immigration, as well as significant population expansion, the United States witnessed an increase in social problems in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Three social movements arose in reaction to these issues, laying the groundwork for the formation of the social work profession:

  1. The Charity Organization Societies (COS) movement, which began in Buffalo, New York in 1877; 
  2. The Settlement House movement, which began in New York City in 1886; and 
  3. The Child Welfare movement, which was the result of several loosely related developments, notably the Children's Aid Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, both of which began in New York City in 1853 and 1875, respectively.

Let us take a closer look at these motions, as they provide the foundation for future advancements.

COS Movement

The settlement house movement and the child welfare movement both contributed to the development of the social work profession later on, but the origins of the profession can be found in the COS movement.

The first COS in the United States was founded in Buffalo, New York, in 1877 by S. Humpherys Gurteen, an English cleric who had been impressed with a charity organisation in London. The Buffalo COS served as a model for similar organisations' rapid growth. Within 15 years, there were COS offices in 92 cities across the United States.

The philosophy of the COS movement can be seen as the beginning of a professional approach to problems of human need. Rather than simply assisting the poor, the COS' "scientific charity" attitude enabled them to understand and cure poverty and family disorganisation. The charitable organisations wanted to use science in the same way that it had been used in medicine and engineering to improve social welfare.

The COS leaders aimed to replace the chaotic charity system with a rational one that prioritised investigation, coordination, and personal service. Each case was to be looked at separately, thoroughly investigated, and a "friendly visitor" assigned to it. Personal characteristics such as sympathy, tact, patience, and wise advice were used by the friendly visitors as techniques. COS's warm visitors, the majority of whom are women, are true forerunners of today's social workers.

Furthermore, the COS movement aided in the establishment of today's family service organisations, as well as the practise of family casework, family counselling, social work schools, employment assistance, legal aid, and a slew of other programmes that are now integral to social work.

In addition to these accomplishments, the founding of the first social work publication, Charities Review, which was absorbed into The Survey in 1907 and published until 1952, should be mentioned.

Settlement House Movement 

The social settlement house is another key development in American social services. Settlement homes in the United States began in the late 1800s and were modelled after Samuel Barnett's Toynbee Hall in England, which he constructed in 1884. Many settlement houses sprung up around the country, including Hull House in Chicago, which was founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889.

The settlement house movement was a response to the social disarray caused by extensive industry, urbanisation, and immigration. It combined social activism with social assistance. Settlement house employees established neighbourhood centres and provided services such as citizenship training, adult education, counselling, recreation, and day care through group work and neighbourhood organising tactics.

The settlement house workers were young, idealistic college graduates from privileged families who lived as "settlers" among the destitute and thus witnessed the hard realities. They were mostly community leaders and volunteers, rather than social workers.

The leaders of the settlement houses believed that through transforming neighbourhoods, they might improve communities and establish a better society. The settlement house movement therefore sowed the roots of social work practises such as Group Work, Social Action, and Community Organization.

Child Welfare Movement 

The New York City-based Children's Aid Society (1853) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1875) built the foundations of a child welfare movement. The origins of the Child Welfare movement may be traced back to 1729, when the Ursuline sisters opened a home in New Orleans for children whose parents had been slaughtered by Indians.

The goals of child welfare organisations were limited. They were primarily concerned with "rescuing" children from deplorable living conditions or the streets and providing them suitable housing. The agencies considered their job done after their objectives were met.


When the English colonists arrived in the New World, the movements and organisations that began in the United Kingdom were copied in the United States. The profession spread to other continents, and BSW and MSW degrees, as well as diplomas in some circumstances, were established in many universities around the world.


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