Social Work & Social Welfare: Modern Practice in a Diverse World

Social Work & Social Welfare: Modern Practice in a Diverse World


This text is intended for use in introductory social work classes at the college level. Chapter topics include the foundations and history of social work and social welfare; generalist social work; ethics and values; social policy; race & ethnicity; sex, sexism, & gender; LGBTQ+ clients; poverty and financial assistance; school social work; families and children; healthcare and disabilities; substance use; mental health; criminal justice; and older clients. Mick Cullen, LCSW, CADC, MA, is a professor and chair of the social work/human services department at College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. Matthew Cullen, LICSW, LCSW, M.Ed., is a counselor at Green River College in Auburn, Washington.

About the Authors

Mick Cullen, LCSW, MA, CADC, is a professor and the chair of the social work/human services program at College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, where he has taught since 2005. He earned his bachelor's degree in social work from Troy University in 1999, his Master of Social Work degree from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001, and a Master of Arts in sociology from Arizona State University in 2019. Mick maintained a private practice until 2012, conducting individual, family, and couples therapy, specializing in addictions, sexuality, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders. His other social work jobs have included acting as a primary therapist in an intensive outpatient program for adolescents with substance use disorders, a therapist in a residential treatment facility for adolescent sex offenders, and a caseworker for a therapeutic foster care program. He is the father of four sons and has been married to his partner since 2010. In his spare time, Mick enjoys marathon running, hosting a community radio show, collecting records, and playing miniature golf. This is the second edition of his first book.

Matthew Cullen, LICSW, LCSW, MEd, is currently a faculty Counselor at Green River College in Auburn, Washington, where he has worked since 2019.  Prior to moving to the Pacific Northwest, he was the coordinator of the counseling center, in addition to being a faculty Counselor, at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, where he worked for eight and a half years.  He earned his Bachelor of Social Work degree, with minors in Human Behavior and Policy Evaluation, from Northern Michigan University, his Master of Social Work degree from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Master of Education in school counseling from Loyola University Chicago.  Matthew began his career helping previously incarcerated individuals transition to the workforce, then working in community health as a drug prevention specialist.  He later transitioned to higher education, first as an adjunct social work instructor before moving on to Moraine Valley, where he taught career planning and college transition courses as well as provided academic, career, and personal counseling to students.  He and his wife are big foodies, love traveling and experiencing new cultures, and speak both English and Spanish at home.  Matthew spends his spare time collecting hockey cards, playing miniature golf, and building furniture and home decor out of reclaimed wood and old sporting equipment.  This is also the second edition of his first book.


Cover image: "Diversity quilt" by OregonDOT is licensed under CC BY 2.0


From Mick

To my wife Kate, who always impresses me, and without whom I am lost

To my sons Xavier, Elijah, Maxwell, and Tobias, who are the most genuinely fascinating people I know

To my parents Dianne and Michael, who always demonstrated the value of education and made it clear how important it was to do something I love

To Matthew, for being the only person I could have asked and trusted to help me do this

To my professors Pat, Rich, Robert, Suzy, Ben, and Harriet, who ignited in me a desire to teach, and a belief that I could

To my colleagues and friends Janet, Frank, Chris, Mary, Jeff, and Kathryne, whose guidance and friendship make me a better teacher and person

To all my other friends, too many to name, for encouraging me to be myself and accepting exactly that

To my former students, especially Gaganjit, Kelly, Kyle, Jessica, Jessi, Michael, Kayla, Kat, Jeremiah, and Christy, whose pursuit of social justice inspires me to keep striving in the classroom

To the students of College of Lake County, who will solve bigger problems than I ever could

And to Friedlieb Runge, without whose work I might never have finished my own


From Matthew

A mi Bella, por la vida que hemos construido, el amor que compartimos, y todo su apoyo y fe en mi

To Mom and Dad for instilling in me the foundational values needed to do the work I do everyday

To my brother Mick, for choosing to work with me a second time on this project

To my counseling colleagues and friends, Sumeet, Souzan, Linda, Anna, Teresa, and Sharon who continue to support, teach, and laugh with me to this day, even though I am 1700 miles and two time zones away

To the students I've had the privilege of serving, they're the reason I keep growing as a professional

And to mi gatita preciosa Almond Joy, who I miss everyday



Chapter 1: Foundational Concepts

This chapter is designed to give you an idea of the basics of the profession of social work. Perhaps you are taking this class because you want to be a social worker; perhaps you’re majoring in another area related to social work, or you’re investigating the possibility of entering the field. Whatever your level of interest, this chapter should help you understand what social work is, setting the stage for the greater specifics in the chapters ahead. When you have finished reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Define social work and social welfare;

2. Explain social work’s relationship to other disciplines;

3. Detail the elements of liberal and conservative political ideologies;

4. Define generalist social work and explain its importance;

5. Describe systems theory and its relevance to social work;

6. Recognize the power of language in working with clients;

7. Identify key characteristics of social workers.

Seeking help Hands reaching out. Abstract background can be used for advertising background royalty free stock photography

Social Welfare: An Institution and a Discipline

What comes to mind when you hear the word welfare? If you’re like a lot of Americans, the word carries a lot of negative connotations for you. People often think of words like poverty, entitlement, handout, or free money. However, while these terms all have an association with poverty to many Americans, what the word actually means is far less contentious and divisive.

Put simply, welfare means well-being. The reason many of us think of specific public assistance programs when we hear the word welfare is because those programs are part of the social welfare system. Those programs are meant to help provide for the well-being of individuals in need. The social welfare system includes all those organizations, programs, agencies, and other entities meant to help people meet their educational, financial, social, and health needs. If it seems to you like that is a really broad definition, well, you’re right! Among the social welfare institutions you come across in your everyday lives are:

  • Schools
  • Police and fire departments
  • Libraries
  • Hospitals
  • Houses of worship
  • Social work agencies
  • Counseling centers, and many others.

Some people speak negatively of those who are “on welfare,” but considering the actual meaning of the term, all of us are on welfare. We all benefit from the programs that exist to provide for the well-being of all members of our society. In 2012, President Barack Obama got considerable negative press, especially from conservative pundits and media outlets, when he stated during a campaign speech,

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet (Obama, 2012).

Opponents of President Obama particularly seized upon the phrase “you didn’t build that” as an indication that he believed entrepreneurs didn’t earn their success, or at least, that success was not possible without government assistance. The President’s supporters countered, saying the remark was taken out of context, noting that it was in fact true that everyone benefited from government programs in some way. We do all pay taxes, so we are in effect (to borrow a modern term) crowdfunding many social welfare programs in a tangible way. However, in essence, President Obama was correct—we are all “on welfare,” not just those who are receiving public assistance. In that light, we should be able to have more empathy for people who receive public assistance benefits, since the only difference between all of us is a matter of how much or what kind of social welfare assistance we receive.

Social work, as you may have deduced, is part of social welfare. The services provided by social workers in a variety of positions and roles do have the common thread of working toward the well-being of society. So how do we define social work? According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, the primary goal of social work is to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW, 2021).


Social Work Defined

If you have told people you are taking a social work class (or perhaps majoring in social work), you may have encountered some common questions. “You can major in that?” “Isn’t that just helping people? How hard can it be to know how to help people?” “You mean sociology?” “Why aren’t you majoring in psychology instead?” There is often very little understanding about what it means to be a social worker. In fact, stereotypes about social work often can be more negative than positive. While some see social workers as crusaders, social justice seekers, and valuable allies of people who are experiencing injustice and/or disenfranchisement, others hear the term “social worker” and automatically have a negative reaction. They may first think of a school social worker they were compelled to speak to at some point, or even more commonly, social workers who are employed in child protective services (CPS) programs. It’s not unusual for social work students to hear from peers, “So you’re going to be one of those awful people who take children away from their parents?!” Obviously, while removing children from abusive and neglectful situations is one role that social workers fulfill (and quite a difficult one at that), the vast majority of social workers are not involved in such endeavors.

Psychology is “the study of mental processes and behaviors” (Comer, 2014), though that field is split up into many specific areas of study and specialty like abnormal psychology, organizational psychology, social psychology, and clinical psychology. Psychology is certainly important to social work, particularly clinical social work, but while psychology is often more focused on individual functioning and internal processes, social work tends to have a greater emphasis on looking at the client(s) as part of a larger system that both influences and is influenced by the client(s) in question. Social work is very interested in not only the individual functioning and mental processes of its clients, but also in the bigger social movements, norms, practices, and influences that have had an impact on where that client is today.

Brain Model
Psychology focuses on, among other things, analyzing the workings of the brain. This is one component of the knowledge base drawn upon by social workers. 
"Brain Model" by biologycorner is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In truth, social work draws from knowledge and research in a wide array of disciplines: psychology, sociology, anthropology, medicine, criminal justice, communication, and many more. This multidisciplinary approach is one of social work’s greatest strengths. The profession works to integrate as much empirical knowledge on human behavior, cognition, and functioning as it can for the purpose of helping clients to reach their identified goals and to improve their overall health and satisfaction with their lives.


Social Work and Politics

By its nature, social work cannot escape being involved in the political process. Social work’s quest for social justice (which will be expanded upon further in chapter 3) requires, at times, a savvy knowledge of the way things work at various levels of our government. Therefore, to help give you a basic understanding of the political underpinnings of social work, it is necessary to cover some of the basics of our political parties in the United States.

Many countries have several major competing parties holding various degrees of power within their governments. The United States’ political system, however, is largely dominated by two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, groups which are often depicted as opposite terminals on a continuum. The diversity of political views, of course, is far more complex; many people find that their views do not fit neatly within one party’s views or the other. Political scientists and other observers have at times posited that the true variations in political ideology would be better captured on a grid, or even some sort of three-dimensional construct, rather than a simple spectrum with two ends. This two-party domination of American politics has caused frustration for many U.S. citizens in recent years, as they’ve watched American politics became more and more polarized. Congress, in particular, has seen its approval ratings dip to some of the lowest levels ever recorded—9% in 2013, and never rising over 31% between August 2010 and January 2021 (Gallup, 2021)—as partisan gridlock has prohibited much work of consequence from being done in the legislative branch. Despite the vast disapproval voters hold of Congress, in the 2020 elections, 96% of Senators and Congressmen/women whose seats were up for grabs won reelection (Ballotpedia, 2021). America’s frustration hasn’t led to a change in leadership.

Precinct 86 voting booths
Despite widespread disapproval of Congress, American voters continue to elect most of the same people to continue their tenures in the House and Senate. We tend to view the party we don’t agree with as the cause of the problem, rather than acknowledging the problem belongs to everyone.
"Precinct 86 voting booths" by Big Dubya is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Conservative ideology

Conservative political views (also called “the right” or "right-wing politics") are typically held by Republicans in the United States. Conservatives tend to think of themselves as traditionalists, valuing the maintenance of the status quo and opposing wider social change in many cases. Republican politicians typically favor the so-called “traditional” nuclear family as the ideal family structure, for example, despite the fact that a home with a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and child(ren) has never actually been the dominant family structure in America for any extended period of time (see Chapter 11). Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to favor:

  • the right to personal firearm ownership (sometimes without limits or exceptions)
  • less access to abortion, and in some cases, contraception
  • greater restrictions on drug use
  • fewer limitations on the way businesses operate
  • less transparent government
  • prohibition of same-sex marriage (though most Republicans now approve of it)
  • more controlled spending on social services
  • higher military and police budgets
  • more tax breaks, particularly for wealthier Americans
  • more punitive criminal justice systems
  • stricter controls on immigration.

Please note that while these tenets of the Republican platform are shared by many elected Republicans, by no means are they universal among all members of the party. Some of these views may be more strongly held by certain Republicans than others, and some individuals within the party may break with the party line on certain views. Some Democrats may even favor some views on this list. While Republicans are often portrayed as favoring “small government,” when it serves their purpose, they appear to be greatly invested indeed in having significant governmental control over individual choice (e.g., on abortion access, substance use, etc.).

Liberal ideology

Liberal political views (also called “the left” or "left-wing politics) are typically held by Democrats in the United States. Liberals tend to believe the world is in a continual state of change for a good reason, and feel that changing attitudes about topics like marriage, gay rights, gun ownership, abortion, and birth control reflect the nation’s evolution toward new viewpoints on those topics--viewpoints which should be acknowledged by the government as valid. Democrats greatly value diversity and often express appreciation for many different forms of families as being acceptable and desirable. Liberals also typically favor:

  • stricter controls on gun ownership
  • more access to abortion (often considered a part of “reproductive rights”)
  • less punitive policies on substance use, favoring decriminalization or treatment over incarceration
  • more stringent limitations on the ways businesses conduct themselves
  • more transparent government
  • validation of same-sex marriage and equal rights for same-sex couples
  • continuing or expanding social service funding to widen the social “safety net”
  • greater taxes on wealthier Americans
  • more rehabilitative programs within our jails and prisons
  • more accessible opportunities for immigrants to become citizens.

Just as with the Republican Party platform, not all Democrats strictly adhere to all of these typical stances of the left (and some Republicans may agree with some of these views). For instance, it was under President Bill Clinton (a Democrat) that Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a move generally considered quite conservative in that it put stricter limits on the length of time one could receive benefits, as well as tighter requirements for qualifying for the program in the first place (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). (This change will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 9.) It was also under President Clinton that a national Three Strikes law was passed after he voiced support for the measure in his 1994 State of the Union address. This law sometimes resulted in life sentences for criminals who committed a third offense as minor as stealing a pair of socks or possessing less than a tenth of a gram of heroin (Taibbi, 2013). It was certainly a law more in line with stereotypical conservative hardline criminal justice rhetoric than Democratic ideals, but one nonetheless championed by a Democratic president.

Box 1.1: Political typology

Where do you stand?

You will notice as you read this text that many of social work’s values and ethics seem to be in line with ideals often voiced by the Democratic Party. It is therefore no coincidence that many social workers consider themselves to be politically liberal. The simple fact that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support expanded social service funding is perhaps enough to explain why many social workers support Democratic politicians: more funding means more social work jobs, and social workers generally like to stay employed and to see a panoply of services available to their clients. However, do not take that to mean that all social workers are liberal, or that it is somehow mandatory to vote Democrat in order to be a social worker. Social workers are diverse and the range of differing views they have reflects that diversity. As will be discussed later in the book when we cover ethics and values of the profession, it is essential to leave one’s personal views out of working with clients; therefore, a staunchly conservative clinical social worker who follows the Code of Ethics would not impose their views on their work with clients suffering from various mood or anxiety disorders. The social worker’s views, in fact, would not be coming up in a session at all, since the ethical social worker would be striving to put themself in the client’s shoes.

Other parties

As noted, more than two parties exist in the United States, though they have a hard time getting much traction when it comes to election results. In fact, as of 2021, only two members of Congress—Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both Senators—were unaffiliated with one of the two major parties, both identifying as independents (though both caucusing with the Democrats). Many other parties put forth candidates on major ballots, despite the lack of significant electoral success. Here are a few of the most well-known.

Green Party: The Green Party states its major values as social justice & equal opportunity, ecological wisdom, decentralization, community-based economics, feminism & gender equity, respect for diversity, personal & global responsibility, future focus & sustainability, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence (Green Party, 2020b). Many of their views line up with stances of the Democratic Party, but they go even further in some areas of their platform, supporting a reduced-hour full-time work week and at least a month of vacation for all workers, statehood for the District of Columbia, abolishing the Electoral College, ending the war on drugs, universal health care, free child care, a living wage, preventing the establishment of media conglomerates, and free college tuition at public schools and trade schools (Green Party, 2020a). Perhaps the most notable Green Party candidate in history was Ralph Nader, who earned 2.74% of the votes for President in the 2000 general election. Beyond Nader, no other Green Party nominee for President has garnered as much as 0.4% of the vote (Woolley & Peters, 2015).

Libertarian Party: The Libertarian Party favors small government; that is, they tend to want the government to reduce the amount of regulation on both the economy and on individual rights/freedoms. Therefore, some of their views line up with Democrats, some with Republicans. For instance, they are in favor of abortion access but also strongly in favor of gun ownership rights (Libertarian Party, 2020). Libertarians generally support a free market, much like Republicans, while opposing government interference in matters of personal expression, property ownership, and the like (Libertarian Party, 2020).

Reform Party: The Reform Party has occasionally made some noise on the national election scene, most notably in 1996 when H. Ross Perot won 8.4% of the popular vote for President (Woolley & Peters, 2015). Their platform is more vaguely worded on some points, however, than some of the other political parties. For instance, the party takes no official stance on abortion or marriage equality, while making multiple mentions of fiscal responsibility in its platform and advocating “the ability to access affordable [health]care” (Reform Party, 2020). The Reform Party did not field a Presidential candidate in 2020.

Cynthia Smoot, Ross Perot, Jane McGarry
1996 Reform Party Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, the most successful “third-party” candidate for President in recent history.
"Cynthia Smoot, Ross Perot, Jane McGarry" by Oh So Cynthia is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


            Constitution Party: The Constitution Party says they support a platform based upon what they see as the original intent of the Founding Fathers in The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. The party’s official platform supports phasing out Social Security, eliminating the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the national income tax, and encouraging private charities, houses of worship, individuals, and other groups to provide for the poor rather than the government doing so through a system of social welfare programs (Constitution Party, 2012).


Views of Social Welfare

There are two major views of social welfare in the United States, and a third which we will also discuss. These are known as the residual, institutional, and developmental views. The residual view tends to align itself with conservative ideology (i.e., the Republican Party) while the institutional view is more liberal in nature (i.e., aligning with the Democratic Party). The final view, the developmental view, provides some hope for a compromise between the two major opposing views.

The residual view of social welfare

Those who agree with the residual view see our nation’s safety net of social welfare programs (particularly public assistance programs) merely as temporary programs meant to provide help to people for as little time as necessary. According to the residual view, these programs should exist only in times of particular need, lest they become crutches on which people might rely, thereby making them dependent upon the government for support. People holding this view tend to believe that poverty is an escapable situation if one simply has the proper will and motivation.

Adherents to the residual view see many of the components of the social welfare system as gifts—they do not believe anyone is entitled to benefits like medical care or housing assistance. They also tend not to be terribly invested in making these services easy or pleasant for people to obtain. In the residual way of thinking, if benefits are easy to get, people will be less likely to work hard to get out of a situation where they no longer need to get assistance from the government. If services are unpleasant to obtain, that will discourage people from overusing the programs, and then money that would have been spent on supporting the poor can be redirected to other areas, or taxes can be lowered for everyone.

The institutional view of social welfare

The institutional view is the typical view held by social workers and political progressives. According to the institutional view, people generally end up in dire economic circumstances due to forces beyond their control: getting laid off, significant medical problems, death of a breadwinner, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, for example. It is the role of the government, therefore, to provide for these individuals, who may very well be hardworking, educated, moral individuals that simply have fallen on hard times.

This view sees social welfare programs as rights. Adherents to this view say that as members of a society, it is incumbent upon all of us to use our resources to help those who are currently in great need, especially since we may end up in a similar situation ourselves someday (or may have emerged from such a situation in the past). It believes these programs are legitimate and necessary for the overall healthy functioning of a society where people depend upon one another. Not surprisingly, holders of the institutional view believe these services should be as humanizing as possible to obtain. People who believe in the institutional view recognize that in many cases, people have come to seek public assistance only after exhausting every other possible avenue, and many of them have encountered significant negative reactions and judgment from others before resorting to applying for assistance. Therefore, it is imperative that those who are employed in such programs be as supportive and caring as possible in their approach to applicants for aid, rather than adding to their already considerable stress and negative judgment.

Finally, the institutional view believes these programs should be permanent. That is not to say that everyone who gets benefits should be on that program and receiving benefits forever, but that there will likely always be a need for that program due to different people needing assistance at different times. Therefore, supporters of this view also support well-established funding sources for these programs.

The developmental view of social welfare

As noted earlier, our government has experienced a remarkable amount of partisan gridlock over the last several years. In 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even said, "The era of bipartisanship is over" (Carney, 2021). With so little cooperation between differing views, it is clear that we need some sort of middle ground to appease both sides if we ever want anything to be accomplished in providing for the social welfare of our citizens. With this in mind, the developmental view provides some hope.

The developmental view comes down to one basic idea: social welfare programs can exist provided they are economically justifiable. Of course, this is more complicated than it sounds. When it comes to businesses, it is often fairly straightforward to determine profitability. Subtract expenses from revenue and what remains is profit. (Your economics professor may disagree with the simplicity of that definition, but you get the idea.) However, when it comes to social welfare programs, the same determination can be fairly tricky. Many social welfare programs do not bring in revenue in the way that businesses typically do. Even those that do may not be looking to offset all of their expenses with the fees charged for their services—for instance, counseling received through a county health department may have a fee determined by a sliding scale (based on what the client can afford to pay), even though in reality the cost of providing that counseling session is the same for the agency regardless of the client’s income.

Therefore, the developmental view can seem a bit murkier, since social welfare programs may seem very expensive to maintain while not charging their consumers an amount equivalent to the cost of providing the service. (For example, an in-prison drug abuse rehabilitation program must pay its staff counselors and supervisors, as well as paying for materials that are used in the program, office equipment for staff, and more while providing those services at no out-of-pocket cost to the client at all.) However, social welfare programs provide a lot of benefits to the economy that are not easily put into hard numbers. For instance, the benefit of an in-prison drug abuse rehabilitation program is that it decreases the chance that inmates who complete it will be recidivists—that is, prisoners who complete such a program have a lower chance of returning to prison than inmates who either don’t complete or never start one. Estimates of the annual cost of imprisoning a single inmate often hover in the $30,000-$60,000 range—for instance, Illinois estimates their yearly cost per inmate at about $33,400, while California leads the nation with a cost of over $64,000 annually per prisoner (Vera, 2017).

If an in-prison drug abuse rehabilitation program could stop just 32 inmates a year from becoming recidivists, that would mean (using California’s numbers) a savings of over $2 million for each year those 32 inmates stayed out of prison. That wouldn’t even be the full savings; the economy would also theoretically benefit from those former inmates being out and working in society, contributing to the tax base rather than draining taxpayer dollars used to imprison them. Even if those former inmates were on public assistance programs that paid them $17,500 in benefits a year in order to help them get back on their feet, the savings to the economy would still be around $1.5 million each year.

Another important way to determine the economic benefit of a given social welfare program is to look at the costs society would incur without it. What costs would there be to society if we didn’t have public schools? What if we didn’t have child protective services and foster care programs, or Medicaid? What would happen? Would there be more crime, ballooning the expensive prison population? Greater expenses incurred by hospitals as poor people came in for treatment they could never pay for, but which legally had to be provided? More homeless children? How would society counteract these costs?

Worlds Apart
Some social welfare programs are very expensive to maintain, but the cost of not having them could be even greater. What would occur if we had no resources to assist people in getting housing, or to help abused children get out of dangerous homes?
"Worlds Apart" by James Willamor is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The developmental view, therefore, supports investments in “education, nutrition, and health care” as well as “infrastructure” like transportation, highways, and utilities (Midgley & Livermore, 1997, p. 577-8). It looks to find ways to help people become self-sufficient rather than depending upon the public assistance system (and therefore costing taxpayers more money). This view provides hope for agreement between liberals and conservatives because it both recognizes the importance of providing basic services and a standard of living for everyone (a big plus for Democrats) while also keeping the social welfare system fiscally accountable (a frequent focus of Republicans).


Generalist Social Work

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is the organization responsible for accrediting colleges’ social work programs, is clear in its expectation that social workers trained at the baccalaureate (bachelor’s degree) level should be prepared for generalist social work—that is, the use of a diverse, wide-ranging knowledge base, the core values of social work presented in NASW’s Code of Ethics (see Chapter 3), and a formidable set of practice skills for the purpose of facilitating client and/or organizational/community change.

Why is it important that social workers be generalists? Well, no matter what sort of agency employs a social worker, (s)he can expect that a number of clients will have struggles or concerns that go beyond the typical scope or thrust of what that agency does. For example, a social worker at a domestic violence shelter will benefit from having a working knowledge of gender issues, substance abuse and dependence, the criminal justice system, family dynamics, eating disorders, human sexuality, general mental health, and more. Those are all topics that are likely to come up at various times with particular clients in that agency. It is important that social workers have enough of an understanding of many areas of practice to help their clients identify areas where they could benefit from some additional assistance or services. At times, of course, it will be necessary to refer clients to clinicians or other professionals who specialize in a given area; however, a solid generalist social worker can at least recognize when an issue needs that specialized treatment and can then hook a particular client up with the appropriate provider or service.


Systems Theory

The medical model is used by a number of professions to conceptualize human problems. This model tends to look at people as patients rather than clients—that is, they are seen as people who need to be diagnosed, treated, and cured. This sort of approach can occasionally be utilized in a progressive way, but in many cases it blames individuals for their problems, discounting outside factors and influences. This isn’t the way social work prefers to operate, as the people with whom social work professionals interact are usually called clients. This word tends to be less stigmatizing (a factor which we will discuss further later in this chapter) and puts more agency in the client’s hands, acknowledging the importance of the client being an active participant in the process of change and feeling empowered throughout the process.

Connecting People
Just as people are connected to each other, the parts of our individual lives are also connected in various ways, a key principle of systems theory.
Bowen Chin; "Connecting People" by Bowen Chin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]


A major component of social work practice, something which particularly sets it apart from professions such as psychology, is an emphasis on systems theory (also known as the systems model or systems perspective). Systems theory has been the primary approach of social workers to helping clients since the 1960s, when there was a renewed focus on sociological perspectives like environmental reform (see chapter 2) and other ideas popular in the foundational years of the profession. Systems theory consists of three major concepts: wholeness, relationship, and homeostasis (Zastrow, 2010).           

Wholeness: The idea of wholeness is a simple one. In the view of a systems theorist, a system cannot be adequately assessed or described by assessing or describing its components. For example, if one were to assess a lawnmower, would it be useful to disassemble the machine into each of its separate parts and assess whether there was anything wrong with each individual piece? One might find some glaring issues in this manner, but those same issues would likely have turned up from an evaluation of the mower as a whole. Conversely, an analysis of each separate component does not truly tell us if those parts all work in symphony when the lawnmower is reassembled. In other words (often applied to Gestalt psychology), the whole is different than the sum of its parts. (It is not “greater” than the sum of its parts, though that is a frequent misinterpretation of the concept.)

How does this automotive analogy relate to social work? Well, imagine working with a school system as a school social worker. The teachers are all individuals with various strengths and weaknesses, and the administration could be described the same way. The students are also, in all likelihood, a diverse group of people with a wide range of healthy, unhealthy, and neutral attributes. If we do an individual interview with each person in the building (a daunting task), will that give us an idea of how the school functions as a whole? It will give us a lot of perspectives, but how will we know what is accurate? Coming onto school property during a regular school day multiple times will probably give us a much better idea of the well-being of the system of that school. Seeing the school functioning as a whole is much different than knowing the various assets and liabilities of all the people within it (not to mention a lot less time-consuming).

Relationship: Another key of systems theory is the recognition that the various parts are all related to each other in a variety of ways. For example, if you were talking about that same school system, the teachers have a relationship with the students, the administration with the teachers, and the students with the administration as well. However, there are also other elements involved in this system: parents, the community at large, and perhaps still other entities. Understanding the relationships among these parts of the system is essential to understanding the system itself.

However, it should be noted that there are no simple, predictable relationships between the parts of the system. For example, imagine the teachers go on strike in the school system. How will that change the relationship of the students with their teachers? Perhaps the students will initially be supportive of or indifferent to their teachers’ plight; eventually, however, as the strike drags on, students may become resentful for a number of reasons: they know their summer vacation will be starting significantly later; their parents have political views that oppose the strike; media coverage may portray the strikers negatively. Any number of factors may change their view. How will the students’ relationship to the administration change, or the teachers’ relationship with administration? Multiple possibilities exist there as well. Further, there are many possible factors that may have led to the teachers deciding to go on strike in the first place, which will help determine how long the strike continues.

There is no simple, predictable result of a change within the system; the only thing that is certain is that a change will lead to some other change, since all the parts of the system are related to each other. This idea has often been expressed in a phrase sometimes used by social workers and other helping professionals: change does not occur in a vacuum.

Homeostasis: Homeostasis refers to a tendency to seek balance, for changes to be countered by other changes which seek to stabilize the system as a whole. These changes may be healthy or unhealthy, but the goal will be the same—to try to maintain some stability within the structure of the system.

For example, if a parent develops an addiction that effectively stops him/her from being a responsible parent, it is not unusual for the oldest child in the family to step up and take on some of the parenting duties. This will prove beneficial in some ways for the system, since there is still a need for someone to do things like making school lunches for the younger children, picking other kids up from extracurricular activities, or helping the younger children with homework. However, this can also cause problems—the kids may struggle to see the oldest sibling as a parental authority figure, and the stress of the additional responsibilities may be more than a teenager can handle. Even if the “replacement parent” handles it well, it may cause future psychological or relationship problems: the teen may grow up resenting one or both parents for the loss of the end of his/her childhood, or may be overly perfectionistic due to the early pressure to be more grown-up. Of course, it’s also possible that the new role forces the teen to give up some unhealthy behaviors and actually increases his/her healthy functioning. Again, the effects are not necessarily easily predictable; it is merely certain that there will be effects. Systems theory tells us to be on the lookout for them, and to help systems to find the healthiest possible ways to adjust to changes both planned and unexpected.

In addition to the theory’s three major components (wholeness, relationship, homeostasis), there are two concepts related to systems theory known as the client system and the target system. The target system is where the change must occur in order for the established goal of the change process to be achieved; the client system is who will directly benefit from the change. For example, in a situation where a community is experiencing high unemployment, it may be due to a lack of employment opportunities, low educational levels in an area with more professional jobs, or (as occurred in the COVID-19 pandemic) an increased need to stay home and supervise and care for children. In such a case, the school or the bully (quite possibly both) would be the target system; the client system would be the client who has been the target of the bullying.

Note that with many social work relationships, the client system can be hard to identify, since many different entities potentially would be able to benefit from this change: the school, other children who may be bullied, the bullied children’s families, the teachers, and so on. Therefore, the client system is often simply identified as the person(s) who benefit most directly from the change.                                                   

Critical Thinking

One major skill which will be emphasized throughout this book, and in your possible future social work career, is critical thinkingan essential part of the change process (which is discussed further in Chapter 4) and something social workers should strive to exemplify throughout their careers. Instead of simply accepting a statement that is made about statistics, “the truth,” or some sort of current state of affairs, a critical thinker questions what others take for granted.

For example, the presence of television shows like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant (which aired from 2009 to 2014) and the seeming ubiquity of news reports about teen pregnancy over the last 20 years have a lot of people saying things like, “Teen pregnancy is becoming a bigger and bigger problem; in fact, a lot of teen girls are getting pregnant now just because they see it glamorized on television.” This sort of statement certainly riles up the establishment and gets parents and policy makers talking about what to do to combat the supposed epidemic of teen pregnancy. Further, people who claim the problem is extreme are often quick to point to the reasons behind it, as in the statement above. Unfortunately, they are putting the metaphorical cart before the horse.

Pregnant teenager in urban setting
Is teen pregnancy an epidemic? What would the media have you believe? What have your own experiences shown you?
”Pregnant teenager in urban setting" by pennstatenews is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

First of all, with a statement like this, it’s important to ask questions in response, rather than simply accepting it as truth. Is teenage pregnancy really on the rise? Is there any way to know why teenage girls are getting pregnant? What is the role of the fathers, many of whom are teenagers themselves? Are we including adults age 18-19 in this population, even though they are legal adults and most of them are out of high school, some even legally married? How can we measure if a given teen pregnancy falls into the “problem” category? It’s not as simple as saying teen pregnancy is a problem, even if we can agree on whether or not its prevalence is increasing. Who defines it as a problem, and why?

Secondly, in critical thinking, it is essential to answer the questions you’ve asked—usually through a search for data that looks at whether the statement is verifiable. In this case, we’d start by looking at whether teenage pregnancy is on the rise. We can verify rather easily that it has fallen considerably since 1991, from a peak of 61.8 pregnancies per 1,000 women and girls age 15-19 in that year to a low of 17.4 pregnancies per 1,000 females age 15-19 in 2018 ((Livingston & Thomas, 2019). That alone would be enough to disprove the original statement, in this case. Of course, it doesn’t answer the issue of what is defined as a “problem” pregnancy, it doesn’t separate married teen mothers from unmarried teen mothers, and it doesn’t address the role of fathers in the situation. However, the decrease of over 72% in the teen pregnancy rate in a 27-year period is fairly significant and would likely remain statistically notable even if the data were controlled for these other considerations.

Finally, in critical thinking, given the data and facts uncovered in the second phase, it is the thinker’s job to advance a position. Despite the oft-repeated public concern about the rise in teen pregnancy, the opposite has actually been happening—teen pregnancy is significantly less common than it was just a generation ago. Therefore, review of the facts supports a position that teen pregnancy is not a bigger problem, and that by extension, the supposed glamorization of teen pregnancy on television cannot be leading to an explosion in pregnancies. Of course, it’s possible that teen pregnancy might be even lower without that television exposure; that cannot be determined with the data assessed for this statement.


Vancouver Global Marijuana March 2015 - by Danny Kresnyak
"Vancouver Global Marijuana March 2015 - by Danny Kresnyak" by Cannabis Culture is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Box 1.2: Critical Thinking

Asking Questions About Questions

Sometimes, critical thinking must be done not in response to a statement of fact, but in response to a question. People may not have a specific opinion or policy position in mind yet when they take on a difficult topic. One such question could be: should recreational marijuana use be legalized by the federal government?

Let’s review the steps in the critical thinking process:

1. Ask questions.

2. Answer those questions.

3. Advance a position.

What questions might we ask in order to address the question as it was posed to us? Here are some possibilities.

  • What has been done about this in other countries?
  • What have the results of those varying policies been?
  • What has happened in states like Colorado and Washington, which legalized recreational marijuana use (with certain limitations) in recent years?
  • How would the recreational marijuana market be regulated?
  • What would this mean for states with medicinal marijuana laws?
  • Are there potential behavioral or psychological impacts of marijuana use that could cause unintended problems?
  • What benefits or problems would exist for the criminal justice system?
  • What would we do with people currently serving prison sentences for marijuana possession or trafficking?

There are many other questions that could be asked, of course, but that’s a good start for addressing a thorny issue. Secondly, again, we endeavor to answer our own questions. A lot of data that would need to be compiled, studying the effects of a variety of marijuana legislation in dozens of countries and some U.S. states. (Bigger questions about nationwide policy issues like this, understandably, often require a lot more time to research them thoroughly.) After we have collected sufficient data on the issue, we advance our position. Social work’s position on drug prohibition in general has been that it disproportionately impacts youths and minorities, and that approaching drug use from a position of treatment for abuse and dependence—rather than simple punishment like imprisonment—is more in line with the profession’s values and also more likely to lead to a positive outcome for the health and safety of our communities, states, and the nation (NASW, 2013).

Gambrill and Gibbs (2009) identify a number of ways that critical thinking can aid the helping professional (and, frankly, anyone). First, critical thinking helps people to identify propaganda—opinions or assertions that attempt to push a particular agenda or to damage an opposing agenda. Propaganda is generally offered up by someone who has something to gain by getting the viewer/consumer to accept the point(s) without applying critical thinking skills. In a project our Introduction to Social Work students have been assigned in class, they must visit a local social service agency and report about it in both oral and written form. A few of our past students have visited a local religiously-based agency that provides advice and some assistance to expectant and new mothers. The agency is known for having strict anti-abortion views, and at times they have handed out pamphlets to students (and other visitors) detailing a wide range of negative effects that can result from having an abortion—everything from suicidal thoughts to an increased risk of breast cancer. The obvious hope is that anyone who reads the pamphlet will be scared to have an abortion, and will also tell others about the dangers. However, “scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer” (American Cancer Society, 2015), nor any causal link between abortion and mental health problems (Cohen, 2006). The propaganda is easily contradicted by basic research into the facts, though with an emotionally charged topic like abortion, it can be very difficult to find a source that is unbiased. Looking for potential sources of bias like this is another part of what makes critical thinking such an essential social work skill.

Next, critical thinking can help you to focus on word usage in statements or questions—words that may be meant to lead you in a particular direction. For example, imagine someone were to say to you, “People who get public assistance from the government should have to take random drug tests to ensure that they aren’t using drugs while they’re on welfare. Why should we pay taxes to support drug users? That’s not fair.”

What words are trying to get you to have a specific reaction? Certainly, the end of the quote wants to appeal to your sense of fairness, to be upset about people being mistreated. Social workers are certainly interested in fairness and justice. Is it acceptable to pay for people’s food if those same people are using some of their limited funds to buy drugs? Many people get fired up by this particular concept, but they seem to overlook the fact that many public employees have salaries paid by tax revenue and they are not all subject to random drug screens, despite costing the system much more than a typical family receiving public assistance does. This seems to indicate a prejudice on the speaker’s part—a belief that poor people are more prone to use drugs, and we should really keep an eye on them to make sure they’re not taking advantage of the system. However, there rarely seems to be any similar sort of concern about the public university professor or the parks and recreation landscaper who is drawing a salary funded by public taxes, and making more money than any individual person receives in public assistance.

How would “fairness” even be assessed? It’s a subjective concept, to be sure. We could counter with questions like:

  • Would it be fair to remove welfare benefits from children because their parent is using drugs?
  • How many other personal decisions of public assistance recipients should we be supervising and judging for fairness to taxpayers?
  • Would it be fair to taxpayers to spend a lot of money on drug testing welfare recipients when there may not be any financial gain made by such an endeavor?

This brings up another key point mentioned by Gambrill and Gibbs. Critical thinking also helps us to be on the lookout for emotional appeals, which are meant to sway us by zeroing in on our emotions, in a sense bypassing our logic in order to elicit a stronger response. The mention of “fairness” in the statement about drug-testing welfare recipients is perhaps meant to appeal to your sense of justice, and therefore to make you feel angry and/or motivated to act.

Emotional appeals are very powerful tools used in advertising and other forms of mass media, and we are accustomed to using them in our communication with each other as well. How might they come up in social work?

Imagine a situation where the media is reporting on the death of a 10-year-old boy in the foster care system, a child who had been removed from his home due to his single father’s neglect and serious alcoholism. The child was moved around to three different homes before landing in the placement where he ran away and was found dead a few days later. The media may portray this as a failure of the foster care system, showing pictures of the boy smiling and happy, talking to people who describe him in loving ways and bemoan his death, and capitalizing on the tragedy by bringing in viewers with their in-depth coverage. They may talk about the obvious problems in a system where a kid was moved to multiple homes and ended up running away, calling for the caseworker and his/her supervisor to be fired.

Make no mistake about it, a story like this would be a tragedy, and occasionally, we hear even more profoundly sad stories about the social welfare system’s clients. However, while the boy’s death is tragic, can we justify the emotional call to fire those involved with his case before we have more information? Do we know the circumstances well enough to understand whether anyone was truly negligent in this situation? Could there be explanations for the multiple placements that would make sense to us? Perhaps the child was allergic to dogs and did not know this because he hadn’t lived in a home with dogs previously, but had to be moved out of one foster home due to the presence of a dog. Perhaps the first placement was meant as a temporary placement because it was an emergency move after the neglect case was opened. When a more permanent solution was believed to be found, the boy was moved to that home.

Children sometimes run away, even from healthy homes. It’s possible the foster parents were not at fault, nor the caseworker. Maybe the child said he was going to play in the backyard and ran off because he was homesick. Is it possible that the foster parents were ill-prepared or poorly trained, or that the system put the child into an inappropriate placement with little follow-up? Yes, but that simply isn’t known. We have to avoid allowing the emotional situation to prevent us from looking at the circumstances and learning about what truly has happened. If there is a problem in the process, we must find it so it can be fixed; if the system worked the way it should and there was no tragedy, then it would be unjust to punish the caseworker, the agency, or the foster family for what has occurred.


The Importance of Language

Some people bemoan the advent of what is often termed “political correctness”—the changing acceptability of certain terms and phrases in our society. Some things are disputed by few—for example, not many people would argue that Negro or cripple (once common descriptors) are acceptable words to use to refer to people today. However, the process that changes our usage of these terms tends to be a gradual one. In most cases, some people easily move on to the newly accepted term while others struggle to let go of the old one, and some fiercely hold on to the previous way of speaking, insisting there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, or that people are simply being too sensitive.

In social work, we tend to believe that people have the right to be known by terms they prefer and find to be accurate. For example, if we want to know what people with hearing difficulties want to be called, we should probably ask them. Do they prefer deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing impaired? (The answer, according to the National Association of the Deaf, is generally the first two.) This is part of people’s right to define themselves, and to determine what is empowering to them and what is offensive.


Evolution of language

What many people decry as the oversensitivity of modern Americans is really not a new phenomenon. Our language has continuously evolved, and certain terms have been falling in and out of favor repeatedly over time. We wouldn’t dare use many terms of the 19th century to refer to people today, and it’s likely that in 100 years, people will look back on some of the terms we now favor as hopelessly outdated, even possibly demeaning. Throughout this text, we will be encouraging the use of modern language and terms that people favor today, particularly focusing on the words preferred by the people to whom those terms apply.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics insists upon respecting and recognizing the dignity and worth of our clients.  Language has greater power to impact people than we often like to recognize. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t work out that way in practice. Not only do words have the power to hurt others, but they also shape our realities and impact the way we think about people. To you, there may not sound like a big difference between calling someone a “disabled person” versus a “person with a disability.” However, the implications of these language differences can be significant. What is most important—the person or the disability? What should be mentioned first?

When we insist upon continuing to use language to which we are accustomed and refuse to acknowledge the changing attitudes of our culture, as well as research findings that indicate the labels may be inaccurate, we are failing to recognize the rights of our clients—and all people—to define themselves as they see fit. It is not appropriate for any group to impose their terms and definitions on other groups. Social workers strive to understand the experiences of people who have been disenfranchised or marginalized, and language can be used as a tool to do both of those things.

Therefore, throughout this book, we make an effort to use the most accepted terms for other people—and particular conditions—as we understand them today. We will use the term preferred language to reflect this idea. No doubt, some of these terms will change in the coming years, and future editions of this textbook will differ as a result. It is no more than a minor inconvenience to social workers and the rest of society to adjust to changes in terminology. As far as this profession is concerned, it is a major aspect of respect for others.

Person-first language has often meant using the word "person" before a condition, as in "person with schizophrenia" rather than "schizophrenic person." However, not all groups and individuals prefer such construction of language. People diagnosed with autism generally prefer to be called "autistic" rather than "people with autism," for example. This is sometimes called identity-first language (as opposed to person-first language). We should always strive to use terminology preferred by those to whom the words apply.


Is Social Work for You?

Perhaps you are taking this class (and reading this book—a good idea) because you are sure you want to be a social worker and this is the first of many steps in that process. Perhaps you are majoring in another area, like sociology or criminal justice, and this class applies to that major. Maybe you don’t have any idea what you want to do, and this class just fit into your schedule. Whatever your reason for taking this class, it is our hope that you get a better idea of what social work is all about. Even if you don’t go into social work professionally, you have a good chance of interacting with social workers at some point, and if you are more educated about what their job entails, your interactions with them will be more likely to be meaningful and satisfactory.

PNG counselling service for women. PNG 2008. Photo: AusAID
Social workers are employed in a wide variety of settings. Though some types of social work discussed in this book may not be appealing to you, you may find that some others are more your style. Would you prefer to work with families in crisis? Mental health clients? Public assistance recipients? Hospital patients? You may know already, or you may have more of an idea by the end of this course. 
"PNG counselling service for women. PNG 2008. Photo: AusAID" by DFAT photo library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What sort of traits and characteristics can be found in typical social workers?

  • Possessing an empathic attitude and approach
  • Open-mindedness
    • Being open to new ideas
    • Being open to and strongly interested in other people
    • Being open to different perspectives
    • Being open to feedback and critique
  • Being an alliance builder
  • Flexibility
  • Being an active listener
  • Having good emotional health
  • Striving to understand others
  • Welcoming toward others
  • Energized by, and invested in, diversity
  • Strong writing and oral communication skills
  • Interest in social justice and equality for all people
  • A belief that all people have strengths and can be helped

Many of these are self-explanatory, but I’d like to define one term in particular. Empathy is the process of trying to understand a situation or experience from someone else’s perspective—we often think of this as “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” This is distinct from the idea of sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone. Generally, clients do not want us to feel sorry for them, but they do want to see that we are trying to understand their experiences from their perspective. It is always our goal to do what we can to approach client problems with a firm comprehension of their point of view.

Does this sound like you? Are you still unsure? It’s all right if you do not know yet. Over the course of this class, you will be challenged in the way you think about some of these issues, and encouraged to view them from the micro, mezzo, and macro perspectives of a social worker (see Chapter 2). You may find some of these areas really ignite a passion in you and that you find yourself wanting to learn more—you may be frustrated that we don’t go into greater depth about some of these interesting topics. Since this course is just an overview of many areas of the profession, you will likely feel we have not paid enough attention to a particular area of personal interest to you. Almost any of these chapters could be expanded into a full-semester class, and you will probably take some of those classes if you decide to pursue social work or a closely related major.

It is also a good idea for you to talk to people who are currently working in the field. Ask them what their experiences are like. (Talking to your professor is probably a good place to start.) You will find that different areas of the field, and even different agencies within that practice area, produce diverse experiences and work environments for their employees. People often find their passion through the internships they complete as undergraduates or graduate students, or through a particular reading in one course they take. It may be that you will start off with an idea of what you want to do, but end up working in a completely different area, and find yourself totally enamored with it. Be open to the possibilities as you explore the field. Social work affords you the opportunity to work in schools, hospitals, social service agencies, mental health agencies, government offices, private practice settings, and more. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to know exactly what you want to do just yet—chances are good that you will figure that out along the way.



American Cancer Society (2015). Is abortion linked to breast cancer? Retrieved from

Ballotpedia (2021). Election results, 2020: Incumbent win rates by state. Retrieved from,_2020:_Incumbent_win_rates_by_state.

Carney, J. (2021, June 10). 'The era of bipartisanship is over:' Senate hits rough patch. The Hill. Retrieved from

Cohen, S. (2006). Abortion and mental health: Myths and realities. Guttmacher Policy Review 9(3).

Comer, R. J. (2014). Fundamentals of abnormal psychology. Worth.

Constitution Party (2012). National platform in brief. Retrieved from

Gallup (2021). Congress and the public. Retrieved from

Gambrill, E. & Gibbs, L. (2009). Critical thinking for helping professionals: A skills-based workbook. Oxford University Press.

Green Party (2020a). Green Party platform. Retrieved from

Green Party (2020b). Ten key values. Retrieved from

Libertarian Party (2020). Libertarian Party platform. Retrieved from

Livingston, G., & Thomas, D. (2019, August 2). Why is the teen birth rate falling? Pew Research.

            Retrieved from

Midgley, J., & Livermore, M. (1997). The developmental perspective in social work: Educational implications for a new century. Journal of Social Work Education, 33(3), 573-586.

National Association of the Deaf (n.d.). Community and culture—frequently asked questions. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2021). Code of ethics. NASW.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2013). A social work perspective on drug policy reform. NASW.

Obama, B. (2012). Remarks by the president at a campaign event in Roanoke, VA. Retrieved from roanoke-virginia.

Reform Party (2020). Our solutions. Retrieved from

Riffkin, R. (2014). 2014 U.S. approval of Congress remains near all-time low. Retrieved from

Taibbi, M. (2013, March 17). Cruel and unusual punishment: the shame of three strikes laws. Rolling Stone (1180). Retrieved from unusual-punishment-the-shame-of-three-strikes-laws-20130327?page=5

United States Department of Health & Human Services (2009). Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Retrieved from

Vera Institute of Justice (2017). The price of prisons. Retrieved from

Wooley, J. & Peters, G. (2015). The American Presidency project. Retrieved from

Zastrow, C. (2010). Introduction to social work and social welfare: Empowering people (tenth edition). Brooks/Cole.


Chapter 2: History of Social Work and Social Welfare

This chapter will discuss the history of social welfare and social work. As you will see, our history of social welfare programs stretches back much longer than the history of the social work profession, but their stories are unavoidably intertwined. When you have finished reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Understand the early attempts at social welfare programs in England;

2. Name and explain the laws that aimed to provide a basic standard of living for the poor;

3. Explain how the settlement house movement was important in the development of the social work profession;

4. Name and explain the various public assistance and social insurance programs in place in America and how they started;

5. Explain the War on Poverty and Economic Opportunity Act;

6. Identify the changing attitudes toward social welfare programs throughout American history to the present day.


File:Sleeping in a Parking Lot.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Franco Folini at

The History of Social Welfare

            Efforts to enhance or secure social welfare predate the existence of any professional activity that might be considered social work. Since the United States is still a relatively young country, we draw the beginnings of our attempts at social welfare back to our mother country, England. Several of the early attempts at providing assistance for the poor and insurance against social problems that were developed on the other side of the Atlantic had equivalent movements in the United States (or earlier on, the colonies)—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes after a delay of some years.

            Before there were government efforts to assist the poor, such tasks were typically handled by feudal landowners. Many people who needed help from those lords did not receive it, however, and there were also people in poverty who did not reside on someone’s property, and therefore had no one to whom to turn. In some of those cases, churches and charity organizations (which were frequently connected, as is the case today) stepped up to provide basic needs. Government was reluctant to get involved in addressing the plight of those in poverty; some people were concerned—again, much like today—that providing assistance with no strings attached would cause people to become dependent upon the government and lose any incentive to work their way out of poverty themselves.

            In the late 16th century, a series of poor harvests led to famine conditions.  The Act for the Relief of the Poor in 1597 was England and Wales’ first attempt to provide a true plan for provision of basic standards of living for the needy. The English Parliament passed the laws in an effort to both “prevent starvation and to control public order” (Boyer, 2002).


The Elizabethan Poor Law

            The 1597 law was quickly amended as the situation became more clearly dire. Severe inflation coupled with wage stagnation had reduced the purchasing power of the poor significantly even though those who were employed were working just as hard—and perhaps making equal or even higher wages—as in generations past. Since feudal landowners could not necessarily be trusted to take adequate care of their own workers, the government felt the need to intervene.

The resultant policy, the Elizabethan Poor Law (officially the Act for the Relief of the Poor), is the most well-known early attempt at providing some basic benefits to destitute residents of England; it became law in 1601. The law wasn’t passed due to philanthropic sentiments on the part of the government, however; it is generally acknowledged that the major impetus for the law was the fact that the poor were becoming so numerous and their panhandling so publicly visible that it was a nuisance. The well-to-do simply couldn’t enjoy their time out on the town while being accosted by beggars simply looking for a few spare pence. The Elizabethan Poor Law was therefore put into place to provide an opportunity for the poor to get basic necessities covered—enough, at least, that they wouldn’t be forced to steal or beg on the streets to survive.

Benefit recipients were separated into three basic categories. The different categories were handled in unique ways and considered to be differently worthy of help. The following list begins with the group considered most deserving.

  • Dependent children: Children of the poor were not blamed for their situation; after all, there was little (if anything) they could do to prevent their families’ economic situation. Since the families were seen as being unable to provide for the basic welfare of these children, they were put to work as apprentices. They would remain apprentices until young men reached the age of 24 and young women either reached age 21 or became married.
  • Impotent poor: People who were deemed unable to work due to a physical or mental disability (or simple old age) were seen as somewhat less deserving than dependent children. There was still a prevalent idea that many people with disabilities had somehow been punished by God due to their own sinful acts (or those of their parents) (Sharma, 2003). However, the Poor Law also acknowledged that it was unrealistic to expect these individuals to work to earn their benefits. They could be placed in almshouses, which were basically shelters that gave them a place to stay and receive benefits rather than begging from passersby. The presence of people with disabilities on the streets was particularly distressing to the upper class who wished to enjoy their leisure time on the town, so getting this group out of sight was a crucial part of the law.
  • Able-bodied poor: These individuals were physically and mentally capable of holding jobs but found themselves unemployed for other various reasons—systemic unemployment, lack of skills, discrimination, etc. They were provided jobs. Initially, they were not provided with shelter, but later the act was amended to provide those accommodations as well, making the workhouse the center of relief efforts for this category of the poor (Spicker, 2014; Socialist Health Association, n.d.).

This tendency to see certain groups as worthier of aid than others can still be seen in today’s conversations (both governmental and private) about public assistance programs in the United States. Washington Post writer Darlena Cunha penned a very personal piece detailing the reactions she got when she drove her old Mercedes to pick up her food stamp benefits after her husband had lost his job and she gave birth to twins: “When you lose a job, your first thought isn’t, ‘Oh my God, I’m poor. I’d better sell all my nice stuff!’ It’s ‘I need another job. Now.’ When you’re scrambling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives” (2014). The same attitude about who is deserving of benefits and who is not has led to welfare reform decisions like the replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF; see Chapter 9).

The Elizabethan Poor Law recognized that the previous systems of depending on voluntary contributions from people were not adequate to provide for a growing needy population; therefore, parishes (geographical divisions) of England that did not collect enough in donations to provide for all the poor people entitled to receive benefits under the law were to have further money collected by government-appointed overseers. They effectively collected property taxes when necessary in order to enforce the provisions of the law (Socialist Health Association, n.d.).

Many elements and amendments of the law, surprisingly, continue to be seen in programs that we have in the United States even today:

  • Local administration: Though the law was a national one, there were few enforced federal standards to it, and it was meant to be overseen on a local parish level. This was good in that local officials were more likely to have an accurate idea of the precise nature of the situation in their area; however, it was bad in that it had the potential to cause vastly different systems from parish to parish, and in the case of poor individuals relocating, it could be quite confusing. This tendency toward local administration can be seen in many public assistance programs today that are funded by local taxes and/or overseen by local officials.
  • In-kind benefits: Benefits that are not paid out in cash are considered in-kind benefits. Examples include the provision of shelter, food vouchers, medical care, and clothing. Instead of giving program beneficiaries money with which to purchase these basic essentials, an in-kind benefit program provides these assets directly. This way the government (and taxpaying citizens) can be certain that the money is used to cover the needs that the policymakers deem most important. This characteristic is seen today in programs like the Housing Choice Voucher Program (often simply called Section 8) and Medicaid. Some lawmakers and citizens, reflecting a distrust of the poor, believe recipients would make irresponsible spending choices if cash were given instead of in-kind benefits.
  • Residency requirements: Since recipients of Elizabethan Poor Law benefits were given assistance through their local parish officials, the law established that recipients had to have been residents of a parish for a given amount of time before they were eligible to receive benefits. This, in theory, prevented people from moving from parish to parish in order to discover which one had the best benefits or conditions (almshouses often were deplorable settings—overcrowded, disease-ridden, without heat in winter, dangerous). If they attempted to move in order to get benefits from a different parish, applicants could be forcibly moved within 40 days of relocation, or simply refused assistance (Spicker, 2014).

This was due in part to the Settlement Act of 1662, which gave parishes the right to expel people based upon their residency status. However, historians have noted that the law was applied somewhat selectively to “single women, older workers, and men with large families” since these individuals and families were more expensive to assist (Boyer, 2003).

Today, residency requirements exist for many programs, and can be quite confusing; there may simply be a need to prove one has established residency before applying for benefits, or there may be a minimum amount of time one most reside in a state or county before receiving benefits.

  • Means tests: In later versions of the Poor Law, means tests were introduced. In order to qualify for Poor Law benefits, prospective recipients had to be able to prove their need; in other words, they had to show they did not have the means to provide for themselves. This is standard procedure for public assistance programs in the United States today and is a major feature that distinguishes them from social insurance programs. (Social insurance and public assistance will be covered further in Chapter 9.)


The Speenhamland System

            In 1795, much of England adopted a practice of guaranteeing a basic minimum income for all citizens. The income level—a sort of early poverty line—was not fixed, but rather, in continual flux since it was based on something else which ebbed and flowed: the price of bread. Based on the size of one’s family and the current price of bread, a subsistence-level income was identified and guaranteed; if a worker did not make enough money to reach that income, then the government would cover the shortfall in order to close the gap between the worker’s income and the designated minimum. On the surface, this appears to be a tremendously liberal approach, an attempt to ensure for everyone what is often called a living wage today (“Speenhamland system,” n.d.)

File:Fast food workers on strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits (26154683940).jpg
People striking for $15 per hour minimum wage as well as other workers' rights in 2016.  As of June 2021, while some cities have a $15 minimum wage, no states mandate it.  In fact, the federal minimum wage in June 2021 was only $7.25, having remained the same since 2009 (Sources: Wall Street Journal, 2013; Paycor, 2021).
"Fast food workers on strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits" by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0


            However, the system was a colossal failure for two major reasons. First, there was not yet a minimum wage law in place in England (that wouldn’t occur until the 20th century); therefore, there were no controls in place to prevent employers from systematically lowering wages. If an employer knew that some of its workers were already not making enough money to get up to the minimum income level guaranteed by the Speenhamland System, they had no incentive to increase those workers’ wages. In fact, they could lower the wages of those workers without actually having any negative impact on the standard of living those workers had. The employers knew the government would simply cover the difference regardless of how large that difference might be.

            As a result, wages fell. Workers were not suffering economically from the lower wages being paid by their employers since the government was now providing a guaranteed basic income; however, they also did not appreciate the fact that their employers were paying less and less for the same work, which would bring in the same overall profits for the company. In essence, shrewd business owners exploited a loophole that allowed them to become richer by exploiting the Speenhamland System’s guaranteed income.

            Imagine if you were working a minimum-wage job at a coffee shop and the United States government had passed a similar law. You are now receiving biweekly checks from the government to cover the difference between your earnings and what the company is paying you. Sounds like an improvement so far, right? Then imagine your employer cuts your wages by 10%. Perhaps that wouldn’t bother you too much, since you know the government will just cover it. But what if your employer cut your wages by 25%? Fifty percent? At what point would you say, “Take this job and shove it,” knowing the owner of the business was getting richer by taking advantage of this law and paying you less and less for doing the same quality and quantity of work?

If you knew that the government would make up for the lost income, how much would your employer have to reduce your wages—while still bringing in the same revenue themselves—before you’d quit? 
"Paycheck" by AZAdam is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

            Therein lies the second problem: unemployment rose as a result of the system. Workers did not appreciate ownership becoming richer on the back of their exploited labor and many chose not to participate in the process, leaving jobs where they felt they were being mistreated. While the law was a well-intended effort to make sure all workers had the ability to survive and pay for the basics, instead it ended up lining the pockets of the rich, who counted on the fact that the government would take care of poorer workers so employers didn’t have to do it themselves. The manipulation of this law by the upper class caused it to be a fairly cost-prohibitive policy, requiring much more tax revenue than they would originally have believed to be necessary to fund it.

            In a just world, the populace would have seen the situation for what it was: the rich acting in what many would say is an unethical way, indirectly pocketing tax revenue while those in poverty were used as tools to increase the profits of their bosses and business owners. Instead, many people looked at the fact that the poor were leaving their jobs and depending entirely upon the government for their income, and they drew the conclusion that the poor were simply lazy. The public attitude toward recipients of benefits from the Speenhamland System (and thereby people in poverty as a whole) became more negative than it previously had been. Since the Speenhamland System was such a spectacular flop, England sought to replace it with a system that was more in line with what people believed the poor deserved (Kirst-Ashman, 2012).


Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834

            In 1834, modifications were made to the system to appease the public, who had grown disenchanted with the Speenhamland System and felt their taxes were going to waste. Commonly known as the English Poor Law Reforms, the act mandated that the able-bodied poor could only receive assistance in the form of indoor relief, which meant they could no longer be given assistance in their own homes (outdoor relief) but had to enter workhouses to get their benefits. Outdoor relief was curtailed for other recipients as well, and continued to be reduced through efforts like the Crusade Against Outrelief, which had the backing of the Charity Organization Society (to be discussed in more detail later in this chapter) (Boyer, 2002).


The Industrial Revolution and Social Welfare

            As rapid industrialization occurred in both America and Europe through much of the 1700s and 1800s, ideas about the poor and their plight shifted to reflect the times. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a focus on laissez-faire economics and the Protestant ethic (Zastrow, 2010). Laissez-faire economics was a philosophy that favored businesses being generally permitted to operate without interference or regulations from government entities, doing whatever they found would lead to greater profits. The idea behind laissez-faire economics is that the market is capable of being self-governing; if anyone tries to raise prices on a commodity too much, then the competitors dealing in that commodity will see an increase in business, forcing the overcharging company to lower its prices to match the competition, for example. Similarly, if an employer tries to take advantage of its workers by paying them an unfairly low wage, those workers will leave and go to a company that can pay them a fair amount for the same work.

            The Protestant ethic is the idea that people are responsible for their own lot in life. If one is rich, according to the Protestant ethic, it means one deserves it—that person has worked hard, been a moral and upstanding individual, and has not depended upon the help of others. Conversely, a poor person suffers in poverty due to their own personal and moral shortcomings: laziness, lack of education, poor will power, poor money management, greed, irresponsibility.

The Protestant ethic remains a popular idea today, especially among people who hold the residual view of social welfare (see Chapter 1) and those with other conservative views. Many stereotypes persist about the poor that show the general public opinion of them is rather low. For example, many states have made an effort to drug-test recipients of public assistance in order to be sure they are not using drugs; if they are found to have drugs in their system, their benefits may be revoked and/or the individual may be sent to a treatment facility. In the states where these policies have been implemented, the rates of welfare recipients who are found to be using drugs is actually lower than the national average (Covert & Israel, 2015), yet the myth about public assistance being a way to fund drug users’ habits persists. It’s just one example of an idea held by many—that people who fall below the poverty line must have done something to deserve being in that position, or that they haven’t done the right things to get themselves out of the situation.

These two philosophies put together created a very dangerous situation for the less fortunate. With employers being allowed to do whatever was necessary in order to make a buck, they didn’t have to treat their workers fairly. If one company got away with subpar working conditions, others followed suit. The resultant lack of jobs that paid a living wage exacerbated the already existent divide between the haves and the have-nots. Despite the fact that the poor were powerless to shape policy or challenge the status quo, they were blamed for their own circumstances.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin would not have endorsed the idea of Social Darwinism, despite the name. 
"Charles Darwin" by Franco Folini is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another prominent philosophy that really grew in popularity during this time was Social Darwinism. What do you think of when you hear the name Darwin? Evolution, survival of the fittest, origin of the species—something from that list probably popped into your mind. Darwin did not come up with the idea of Social Darwinism; it was an unfortunate application of his ideas regarding evolution among living organisms to human social systems and safety nets. The underlying principle of Social Darwinism is that we should not help the poor when they struggle. In order to survive, organisms must adapt. If we assist the poor by paying them enough to live in minimal comfort and security, we are preventing them from adapting to their struggles, and thereby hindering their ability to improve themselves and their skills. Conversely, if we let the poor suffer without help, then those who do not have the genetically superior traits that will allow them to survive will, in fact, die out. According to Social Darwinism, that will make the human race stronger, because we will be eliminating the less desirable genes from the population.

If this sounds horrifying to you, you aren’t alone—people holding the institutional view of social welfare would agree (and even many of those holding the residual view would consider Social Darwinism overly harsh). This philosophy and its close relatives have been one reason why many have opposed expanding (or even maintaining current levels of) social welfare spending. As David Macarov put it, “Not only does Social Darwinism block social change; it is also at the root of some opposition to social welfare;” according to this theory, “social welfare activities somehow maintain the unfit at the expense of the fit…and thus undermine the rights of those who strengthen society and support the development of a new and better way of life” (1995, p. 214).

            Macarov (1995) also points out the inherent flaw in Social Darwinism—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we assert that poor people are somehow deficient and therefore do not deserve to thrive. Due to this belief, we refuse to help them in their time of need. When they thereafter fail to survive or thrive, we say, “See? We told you they didn’t have what it takes to make it.” Taking this approach may help us feel absolved of responsibility, but it’s really just an example of blaming the victim, similar to the reaction of the English to the failed Speenhamland System. When the poor stood up for themselves and refused to be mistreated, they were branded “lazy” and treated as if they lacked moral fortitude. When they are not helped and go on to struggle further, we blame them for not working hard enough to get out of a situation that was quite possibly out of their control in the first place.

Box 2.1: Blaming the victim

It is always easier to blame someone in a difficult situation for their own circumstances than it is to truly assess the reasons behind the situation. This is especially true because we don’t want to believe the same bad things could happen to us for reasons beyond our control. One common way we blame the victim in our society is when it comes to sexual assault. When people are sexually assaulted—usually women—we ask them what they were wearing, if they were drinking, if they led the assailant on, if they had had sex with the attacker previously, if they fought back, and many other questions. Imagine if we did this with other crime victims!

“Hello, Officer, I’d like to report a mugging.”

“You were mugged?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I see. Well, were you wearing expensive clothing or jewelry?”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Perhaps you gave the mugger the impression you wanted to be mugged, sir.”

“Why would I want to be mugged?”

“I don’t know you, sir. Maybe you’re the type of person who likes being roughed up now and then.”

“No. I’m not.”

“Do you ever give money away, sir?”

“Sure. What does that have to do with…”

“Can you prove you didn’t willingly give up your money this time?”

“The guy had a gun. I handed over my wallet. I don’t have any bruises or anything.”

“Did this just happen?”

“What? I…yes.”

“What were you doing out late at night in this neighborhood, sir? Why would you be there if you didn’t want to get into an altercation?”


It sounds absurd, right? Yet we treat sexual assault survivors this way on a regular basis.

Can you think of any other circumstances in which we blame the victim? Think beyond the world of crime. What sort of people do we blame for their own circumstances, though they may occur due to factors beyond their control?

            Social workers are well aware of the fact that people land in poverty and other difficult situations not because they are deficient or lack redeeming qualities, but because they have encountered any of a range of issues that could not have been predicted or prevented by anything they could have done: discrimination, tragedy, medical problems, layoffs, outsourcing, and many more. Regardless, this isn’t a view shared by all of society today, and it certainly wasn’t at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It took one of the worst times in American history to shake the country out of the commonly held ideals behind the Protestant ethic.


The Great Depression

            Much like they had been in England, poverty and its related issues were mostly addressed by private charity in the United States; the federal and state governments took little to no role in helping people. Since the ideas of Social Darwinism and the Protestant ethic were still popular, the government saw little need to get involved. However, when the stock market crashed in October of 1929, everything America thought it knew about hard work was called into question.

            Unemployment more than doubled in the first five months following the crash. President Herbert Hoover, tasked with the monumental challenge of leading the country through the economic crisis, maintained a stiff upper lip, saying that worries about the future economic stability of the United States were misplaced and predicting the worst of the Depression would pass by May 1930. By the peak of the Great Depression in 1933, official unemployment rates had climbed from 3.2 percent before the crash to 24.9 percent. In some cities (e.g., Akron and Toledo, Ohio), unemployment was well over 50%. Nationally, the production of the manufacturing industry dropped by 54% (Katz, 1996; PBS, n.d.)

            Hoover’s lack of response to the frightening rise in unemployment caused him to quickly fall out of favor with the American people, who named the ramshackle towns constructed by people who have lost their homes “Hoovervilles” in mocking tribute to the President’s inaction. He continued to believe the neediest should be helped by charity, but charities struggled to raise sufficient funds since so many people were now unemployed and far fewer could afford to donate than in previous years. Hoover resisted efforts to do much until 1932, the year he was running for reelection. By that time, the Depression had become synonymous with Hoover’s presidency, and his chances of winning appeared slim. He was summarily defeated in November 1932 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would take office in March 1933 (PBS, n.d.).

A Home in Sullivan's Gulch (A Portland Hooverville)
“Hooverville” on the Seattle waterfront, ca. 1930. 
"A Home in Sullivan's Gulch (A Portland Hooverville)" by A. Davey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

            Roosevelt had promised that he would immediately get to work restoring America to prosperity, famously talking about making a noticeable turnaround within the first 100 days of his term. He put a lot of temporary relief programs into place immediately, having promised “a New Deal” for America upon being elected. His efforts helped to revive American confidence that there was a chance to pull out of the Depression. Under the New Deal, Roosevelt established a number of programs that sought to alleviate the conditions of the economic disaster through the provision of jobs in programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). The CCC sent young men to do government work in rural areas, national parks and forests, while the WPA worked mostly with young men who were still in school and wanted part-time jobs (Katz, 1996). Several other programs were active in providing either jobs or temporary financial assistance as well.

            While economists may debate the extent of the New Deal’s role in the economic recovery (and there are valid criticisms to be made about institutional racism in some New Deal policies), it did give Americans confidence in their leaders again, and it appeared to show that government intervention had the potential to make a big difference in dire situations like the Great Depression. This in turn set the tables for the biggest unit of social welfare legislation in American history.


The Social Security Act

            In 1935, as part of FDR’s “Second New Deal,” the Social Security Act both established a series of programs meant to provide for the well-being of Americans in a variety of circumstances and established a set of rules and guidelines for states to follow in order to receive the federal funding necessary to pay for these initiatives. Three categories of programs were established:

  • Public assistance: This category required the passage of a means test, as noted earlier in this chapter, to determine if one qualified. If someone was in great enough financial need, then they could obtain the assistance, provided they were part of the group it was meant to serve. Programs under this umbrella are aimed at alleviating poverty.
  • Social insurance: These programs were more reflective of the institutional view of social welfare, which recognized that some programs needed to be in place permanently and not simply providing a band-aid effect. This category was established due to the recognition (as recently vividly illustrated by the Great Depression) that sometimes people experienced hardship due to events that they could not prevent or change. Programs in this category intend to prevent poverty.
  • Public health and welfare services: The government established itself as the provider of particular social services that had previously been handled by private organizations.


Public Assistance

            The public assistance programs established under the Social Security Act were:

  • Old Age Assistance: Aid to people age 65 and up who are in poverty.
  • Aid to the Blind: Aid to people with permanent and significant blindness.
  • Aid to the Disabled: Assistance for people with disabilities that render them unable to work full-time; this program was actually added in a 1950 amendment.

(note: the above three were later combined into Supplemental Security Income [SSI])

  • Aid to Dependent Children: Assistance for poor families with children at home, often headed by single mothers. This later became Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and then was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (Social Security Administration, 1935).


Social Insurance

The Social Security Act established the following social insurance programs:

  • Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI): The program that people refer to today as Social Security.
  • Unemployment Insurance: Meant to provide some replacement income for people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own (Social Security Administration, 1935).
Soup kitchen line
Unemployed men wait in line outside a free soup kitchen opened by Al Capone during the Great Depression. (Source: National Archives.)

Public Health and Welfare Services

            Finally, the Social Security Act established the following programs, among others, and determined the government had a responsibility to provide the services in question.

  • Adoption
  • Foster care
  • Child protective services


Minimum Wage

            After the laissez-faire nature of the Industrial Revolution and its concomitant support of Social Darwinism, as well as the horror of the Great Depression, the United States government finally became invested in establishing a fair minimum wage to cut across all fields of work. Though President Roosevelt had attempted to establish a minimum wage as part of his plan to pull America out of the Great Depression, the minimum wage law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. A second attempt in 1938 was successful and again established the minimum wage at 25 cents (equivalent to just over $4.80 in 2021 dollars) (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.).

            The minimum wage has been periodically raised by Congress ever since it was first established. It first reached the $1.00 level in 1955, and as of June 2021, the federal minimum wage is now $7.25 for all non-tipped workers (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.). States, however, are free to set their own minimum wages, and many have. As of 2021, Washington’s state minimum wage of $13.69 was the highest in the United States; some cities have also enacted their own minimum wage laws that surpass federal and/or state laws (U.S. Department of Labor, 2021).

Box 2.2: Minimum Wage through the Years

Infographic: A Brief History of the U.S. Minimum Wage | Statista
Source: Statista (2021).

LBJ and the War on Poverty

            Although many other issues pertinent to social welfare occurred in the quarter-century following the Social Security Act, the next major push for the expansion of the social welfare system was under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Johnson had taken over as President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. He saw the United States experiencing less prosperity than he believed possible, and noticed systemic inequality that he didn’t believe should exist in our country. As a result, he declared a “War on Poverty” and aimed to move the United States forward as a “Great Society” (Ambrosino, Heffernan, Shuttlesworth, & Ambrosino, 2005). Johnson and his administration saw poverty not as evidence of individual faults held by poor people, but an indication that there was a problem with the economic system that caused such wide earning and achievement gaps.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer
Lyndon B. Johnson (second from left, meeting with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer) believed the U.S. could reach greater levels of equality and prosperity. His War on Poverty resulted in the establishment of several new social welfare programs.
("President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer" by Jared Enos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


                      Programs and laws launched under Johnson to assist in the War on Poverty included:

  • The Economic Opportunity Act: Passed in 1964, the EOA established a number of programs aimed at helping people in poverty to have a greater chance at social mobility. Two such creations were Job Corps and Head Start, both of which remain in operation today. Job Corps aims to provide vocational training to at-risk youth ages 16 to 24, at no charge, and sometimes while day care is provided for children of the trainees. Head Start provides access to preschool programs for children in poorer households, so everyone has a chance to attend preschool before kindergarten and therefore begin their formal education on the same footing (Vinovskis, 2005).
  • The Older Americans Act: Passed in 1965, this act formed a foundation for programs designed to assist seniors, from recreational resources to Meals on Wheels (Ambrosino et al., 2005). (This act is discussed further in Chapter 16.)
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The most famous legislation of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act was an attempt to eliminate the discrimination suffered by nonwhite Americans in many spheres, from employment to banking to education (Ambrosino et al., 2005)
  • Medicare: Health care benefits were made available to the aged, with the basic benefits free of charge and some others available for a fee (Ambrosino et al., 2005).
  • Medicaid: Established in 1965 (like Medicare), Medicaid provided people on public assistance with access to medical care free of charge (Ambrosino et al., 2005).

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as the political parties in power vacillated, so did social welfare spending. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter all voiced conservative approaches to social welfare spending, choosing not to back any major new initiatives, but social welfare spending continued to increase regardless. Under Ronald Reagan (President from 1981-1989), however, social service spending was cut in favor of increasing defense spending, though we were not at war with anyone at that time (Zastrow, 2010).

The beginning of the 1990s brought about the Americans With Disabilities Act, the largest piece of social welfare legislation in American history aimed specifically at helping people with disabilities. (See Chapter 16 for more information.) Under President Clinton in the 1990s, social welfare made strides and had some setbacks as well. The move from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) took place during this time, a move that is generally considered more conservative in nature despite Clinton being a Democrat.

Former U.S. Presidents
Former President George W. Bush (center) championed “compassionate conservatism;” Former President Bill Clinton (2nd from right) presided over the dismantling of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Also pictured are former Presidents Barack Obama (2nd from left), George H. W. Bush (far left), and Jimmy Carter (far right).
"2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush, President Elect Barack Obama, Former Presidents George H W Bush, Bill Clinton & Jimmy Carter, Standing" by Beverly & Pack is marked with CC PDM 1.0

President George W. Bush, son of the man who had preceded Clinton in the White House, attempted to appeal to both conservatives and liberals by advocating what he called compassionate conservatism, a philosophy that (true to Republican ideals) eschewed the idea of having too much direct involvement in people’s lives, lest they become dependent on the government; instead, the idea was to help people learn how to pull themselves out of their bad situations. Bush, like Hoover in the 1930s, believed that most of the needs of society could be addressed by private charity, opining that they were less wasteful and bureaucratic than the government in addressing these issues. What sounded like a compliment to faith-based organizations and charities also conveniently served as a rationale for refusing to expand social welfare services in favor of establishing the Department of Homeland Security and spending money on another war in Iraq.

            Under President Obama, whose first term started in 2008, the most significant social welfare reform law was the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare (particularly by its detractors). This law will be covered further in Chapter 12, but is likely to go down in history as the signature legislation of President Obama’s tenure. It continues to be a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans in our government, as Republicans have called for votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act dozens of times in Congress, while aspects of the law continue to be rolled out to more positive reviews than negative ones. Since the passage of the ACA, 10 to 12 million more Americans have medical insurance coverage, and no one can be refused insurance coverage due to a preexisting condition (Cohn, 2014). Despite harsh opposition by Republican leaders, the ACA has nonetheless made its mark on the American healthcare industry, with many insurance companies eagerly joining the government-run exchanges. While President Donald Trump promised Obamacare would be repealed and replaced under his administration, this never occurred.

Healthcare and the law
Though it has provided insurance for millions of previously uninsured Americans, the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called Obamacare) has remained a subject of serious debate and division.  However, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2021, despite efforts to have it dismantled.
"Health, Doctor and Legal Issues" by weiss_paarz_photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

            President Trump attempted at times to slash funding for many assistance programs and bragged in his campaign rallies that he had succeeded in doing so; however, some of those cuts were rejected by legislators or courts, particularly as need increased during the covid-19 pandemic (Hsu, 2020).

            The future direction of social welfare policy is inevitably going to be tied to the political process and the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans at the highest levels of our government. If anything is certain, it’s that public opinions will shift and many of us will likely think differently of many of our current laws down the line. New policies will continue to be proposed and developed, and social workers hope to have significant influence in that process through lobbying and educational efforts.


The History of Social Work

            Compared to the history of social welfare, and the history of many sorts of professions, social work has a relatively short tale to tell, but still a compelling one. The beginnings of social work are often traced back to charitable organizations of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which were connected to religious organizations. Many of these programs had their roots in English programs and ideas.

            Early American chemistry professor John Griscom and a number of associates devised in 1817 the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, a collective of like-minded individuals who wished to eradicate the problem of American poverty. (Pauper, as you may know, is a somewhat outmoded term for a poor person.) As noted in Griscom’s memoir, the purpose of the Society was:

To investigate the circumstances and habits of the poor; to devise means for improving their situation, both in a physical and moral point of view; to suggest plans for calling into exercise their own endeavors, and afford the means of giving them increased effect; to hold out inducements to economy and saving, from the fruits of their own industry, in the seasons of greater abundance; to discountenance and, as far as possible, prevent mendacity and street begging; and, in fine, to do everything which may tend to meliorate their condition, by stimulating their industry and exciting their own energies (1859, p. 157-158).

Put another way, the Society saw poverty as the natural effect of certain deficiencies in the poor: laziness, a lack of resiliency, and listlessness.    

Griscom and his associates in the Society delineated the following as the major causes of poverty with which they aimed to do battle:

  • Ignorance
  • Idleness
  • Excessive drinking (“emphatically the cause of causes”)
  • Poor spending habits
  • Getting married too quickly and/or for poor reasons
  • Lotteries
  • Pawnbrokers
  • Brothels
  • Charity
  • War (Griscom, 1859, p.159)
Pawn shop
John Griscom, founder of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, recognized that pawn shops often preyed on the poor. Today, pawn shops are still found more often in low-income areas. (Source: Library of Congress.)

So perhaps Griscom and the other members of the Society weren’t solely blaming the poor for their circumstances; after all, they appear to have acknowledged that certain capitalistic and political entities and events that were out of the poor’s control caused them to suffer economically (i.e., war, pawnbrokers). However, it is also clear that there was a lot of emphasis on the faults of the poor—idleness, alcohol consumption, indiscriminate spending, questionable morality—and a perception that remains common in some circles today: charity is doing more harm than good, by failing to require the poor to rely on their own initiative to escape their problematic financial circumstances. You may have heard someone say the poor “should look for a hand up, not a handout” as a way of saying that it’s okay to ask for help as long as it’s the right kind of help—that is, not simply mooching off the government and costing taxpayers more money. This is a centuries-old example of that sort of thinking, which is virtually unchanged in some political and social circles today.

Since there wasn’t much in the vein of direct government intervention, and that which did exist was far from centralized, the organizations (charitable and otherwise) that wished to address poverty and other social ills were basically operating independently of one another. There was no one to make sure that programs were efficient, effective, cooperative, or even ethical. This is another case where an idea that started in England laid the groundwork for a similar movement in the United States.

Charity Organization Societies (COSs) were an attempt to get everyone on the same page when it came to helping the poor. Different groups were providing redundant services, there was no way to track whether someone was getting duplicate assistance from multiple entities all for the same issue, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of coordination meant that resources were being wasted—resources which could have been making a bigger dent in the serious problems of poverty. There was also a residual element to the establishment of COSs—they standardized the application and investigation process so it could be more definitively determined if someone truly needed assistance or was simply trying to take advantage of flaws and cracks in the patchwork system. Charity reformers who favored the expansion of the COS approach disapproved of what is often called income redistribution—taking from some (in the form of taxes, usually) in order to help others to survive (with the assistance of charitable programs)—unless it could be shown to be beneficial to the people on both sides of the equation. Still, there was an acknowledgment that any “civilized community…had an obligation to prevent its members from dying as a result of hunger or cold” (Katz, 1996, p. 72).

The first Charity Organization Society in the United States was established in Buffalo in 1878. Like many social welfare agencies then and now, it struggled to make ends meet, at times having to cut programs or staff due to budget shortfalls (Katz, 1996, p. 45-46). To keep in line with the mission of helping the poor while also benefiting society as a whole, COSs had to abide by five self-imposed rules:

  • Let no one go without the most basic needs (e.g., food, shelter)
  • Do as little “moral harm” as possible to both the recipient of assistance and to the larger community
  • Provide the assistance for as little time as is reasonable
  • Fund such programs through as small a tax obligation as possible
  • Inform the community that the needs of the poor will be handled in this way, so they do not need to take it upon themselves to further contribute to charitable causes (Katz, 1996, p. 72).

These tenets were embraced by New York COS champion Josephine Shaw Lowell (author of Public Relief and Private Charity), an early advocate of scientific charity, which claimed on the surface to be a new approach that aimed to push the poor closer to self-sufficiency as they were being assisted. The idea was that the poor needed to be given advice and taught how not to be poor (a parallel, to be sure, with Griscom’s Society for the Prevention of Pauperism), rather than simply being given monetary or in-kind assistance (Katz, 1996).

Mary Ellen Richmond
Mary Richmond​​
(Public domain photo)

This COS model employed people who were perhaps the first paid social workers—executive secretaries (usually men) who helped to coordinate applications, investigate financial means, and determine eligibility for assistance. These workers were trained to take on their roles and were considered professionals. Among the early men and women who trained these agents was Mary Richmond (who wrote what is often considered the first social work textbook, Social Diagnosis) and Edward T. Devine, who went on to found the Columbia School of Social Work, America’s first college social work program (Cox, Tice, & Long, 2016; Rasmussen, 2001).

However, they also relied upon friendly visitors—volunteers (usually women) who went to visit the poor who were receiving benefits. During those visits, the volunteers offered guidance—save your money, don’t drink, consider putting your children into apprenticeship programs—that was meant to help the relief recipients to become more self-sufficient. Note that clients were not allowed to refuse the visitors when they stopped by; in fact, they were expected to display gratitude and deference throughout the interaction. Such behaviors were seen as indications that the charitable work was having its intended effect. Rather contrarily, it was believed that any show of independence on the part of the client represented ungratefulness. Insofar as they encouraged such shows of dependence on the part of relief recipients, Charity Organization Societies have also been criticized as perpetuating poverty rather than decreasing it (Katz, 1996, p. 70).

            To your authors, and to many historians of social work, the true beginnings of social work in America go back to the settlement house movement. The approach embodied by the movement was rather progressive: educated, sometimes wealthy people would buy property in the midst of a poor neighborhood of a city in order to establish a settlement house; they would live there so as to better understand the actual day-to-day living circumstances of the poor; and they would endeavor to help those in poverty to have better lives, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in larger ones. Instead of occasionally visiting the poor and giving them advice, or forcibly relocating the poor to almshouses or workhouses in order to receive outdoor relief, settlement house workers were better able to earn the trust and respect of those whom they were helping, because they lived among their clientele. To them, the living conditions of their clients were not abstract or distant. Settlement house workers saw those realities daily with their own eyes, woke up in the midst of them, and dealt with the consequences of those conditions (Crocker, 1992).

            The settlement house movement, while still endeavoring to teach the poor new behaviors that could potentially help them experience upward social mobility, embodied principles that came to be known as hallmarks of social work—ideas like environmental reform. Unlike previous efforts to eradicate or reduce poverty by essentially diagnosing what was wrong with the poor and telling them how to change—thereby defining poverty as a problem of the individual—the leaders of the settlement house movement recognized that the system was set up to produce inequality; people in power manipulated rules, procedures, and laws to their own benefit while the often voiceless, nearly politically invisible poor became more and more disenfranchised in the process.

            This shift in philosophy brought with it an increased sense of duty and commitment to reform on a broader level. Helping people with their individual problems was important, but not sufficient to counteract the very powerful forces that were causing the problems in the first place—it was analogous to giving a competitive athlete with knee pain a prescription for a painkiller. While the drug alleviated the discomfort and made it easier to function on a day-to-day basis, it didn’t help to heal the knee or cure whatever the underlying problem might be.

Settlement house workers could (and did) teach English classes, provided medical treatment at little to no cost, made strides on issues of public health, assisted job seekers, and provided counseling and myriad other services to clients who were in great need of those services, benefits, and skills. However, the never-ending stream of people who truly needed these kinds of assistance showed that the services provided were the equivalent of treading water—clients may not have been drowning, but they weren’t necessarily progressing either. More to the point, even if people did rise out of poverty and no longer required the services of settlement house professionals, there was always someone else who did.

Jane Addams Hull House Museum - Exterior 1
Hull House Museum, on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Jane Addams Hull House Museum - Exterior 1" by Chicago Architecture Today is licensed under CC BY 2.0

            Settlement house workers’ political activism led to a myriad of reforms in the system. Among the changes they helped to instigate were:

  • Child labor laws
  • Improved conditions for women in the workplace
  • Improved public health and safety in cities like Chicago
  • The founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  • The founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • Protecting domestic workers (often single mothers of minority races) from unfair working conditions and treatment
  • Desegregation of urban hospitals (Crocker, 1992)

Our knowledge of the settlement house movement is tied to one American more than any other: Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, still the most recognizable name among the many settlement houses that operated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois and attended Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford College) in her home state. She went on to study medicine but did not complete her studies for her own health reasons; still, her desire to help others continued to drive her. She spent considerable time traveling, reading, and writing in order to determine how she might fulfill her drive to serve the needy (Haberman, 1972).

      While traveling with her companion Ellen Gates Starr, Addams had the experience of visiting Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. This helped her to put her drive into a specific direction, as she’d been considering establishing some sort of social service center in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Addams and Starr purchased a home in Chicago in order to establish Hull House, which would go on to became the most well-known settlement house in the country, particularly making an impact on the lives of Chicago’s immigrant residents. The famous settlement house provided early childhood education, after-school activities for kids whose parents were still at work, medical care, a kitchen for the hungry, and mental health counseling services. The evening hours were just as busy as the day, as Hull House provided a range of classes to adults, both professionally and personally oriented. Fine arts opportunities also abounded; the agency had an art gallery, art and music classes, and a theatre troupe (Haberman, 1972).

Box 2.3: Jane Addams writes to President Woodrow Wilson

     Jane Addams famously penned this letter to Woodrow Wilson imploring him to keep America out of World War I. Though women could not yet vote, Addams was not shy about being politically active.

October 29, 1915

To the President of the United States,

Washington D.C.


Dear Mr. President:

            Feeling sure that you wish to get from all sources the sense of the American people in regard to great national questions, officers of the Women’s Peace Party venture to call to your attention certain views which they have reason to believe are widespread, although finding no adequate expression in the press.

            We believe in real defense against real dangers, but not in a preposterous “preparedness” against hypothetic dangers.

            If an exhausted Europe could be an increased menace to our rich, resourceful public, protected by two oceans, it must be a still greater menace to every other nation.

            Whatever increase of war preparations we may make would compel poorer nations to imitate us. These preparations would create rivalry, suspicion, and taxation in every country.

            At this crisis of the world, to establish a “citizen soldiery” and enormously to increase our fighting equipment would inevitably make all other nations fear instead of trust us.

            It has been the proud hope of American citizens who love their kind, a hope nobly expressed in several of your own messages, that to the United States might be granted the unique privilege of not only helping the war-worn world to a lasting peace, but of aiding toward a gradual and proportional lessening of that vast burden of armament which has crushed to poverty the peoples of the old world.

            Most important of all, it is obvious that increased war preparations in the United States would tend to disqualify our National Executive from rendering the epochal service which this world crisis offers for the establishment of permanent peace.


Jane Addams

(Source: Carroll, 2008)

      Addams herself became openly active politically, fighting for the rights of the poor, immigrants, children, and women at every turn, despite the fact that women still did not have the right to vote in America. She was an outspoken feminist and pacifist, qualities which earned her fans and enemies alike, and became well known internationally through her work with organizations like the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Efforts like these led to Addams becoming only the second woman in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Haberman, 1972).

      Hull House continued to operate for many decades after Addams’ 1935 passing, closing in 2012 after falling several million dollars into debt. In its final years, Hull House served more than 60,000 clients yearly with services ranging from foster care and domestic violence counseling to vocational programs and family assistance services (Thayer, 2012).


The Emergence of Social Work as a Profession

            Though efforts to help the poor were becoming more refined and less client-stigmatizing, the term “social work” didn’t really get used much. Social work was seen as a paraprofessional field by some, which was in line with its early beginnings—many people who had a hand in the early years of the profession’s existence were simply people with a heart to help and time to give. There wasn’t any consistency in their education or experience; in fact, some early social welfare workers really had no training at all. Hence, there were many varied philosophies, approaches, and tactics used by people in the field, and that could have a negative impact on service delivery and the consistency of outcomes.

In 1934, Puerto Rico was the first jurisdiction in the United States to place legal constraints on who could call themselves social workers; California became the first state to do so in 1945 (Thyer & Biggerstaff, 1989). There were several different social work organizations on the national scene in the 1940s and 1950s, and they recognized the need to consolidate for the good of the profession and the benefit of clients.

            The founding of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) took place in 1955 with the hope that the profession could be more consistently regulated nationwide. There were no universally agreed-upon standards of ethics, certification, education, or licensure, and conversations and problem-solving efforts for all of these topics were necessary in order to help legitimize social work as a profession. NASW lists its major functions as:

  • Enhancing social workers' "professional growth and development"
  • Identifying and maintaining standards for professional practice
  • Pushing for "sound social policies"  (NASW, n.d.a)

NASW publishes a journal, Social Work, highly respected as a source of social science-related research, as well as four additional specialized journals (Children & Schools, Health & Social Work, Social Work Abstracts, and Social Work Research). They also maintain statewide and local chapters in every state and U.S. territory. NASW helps the social work profession to have a political voice, as it aims to educate and lobby elected officials on matters of importance to social work clients and social justice in general. Further, NASW informs its members about candidates whose campaign goals and promises are in line with or opposed to social work values and ethics, as well as emerging trends, ideas, and new endeavors of our fellow professionals, and even job opportunities for current practitioners or new graduates (NASW, n.d.b).

Senator Barbara Mikulski Visits NASA Goddard
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is the Senate’s longest-serving female Senator, first elected in 1986. She was the first Democratic female Senator elected, and also a professional social worker.
"Senator Barbara Mikulski Visits NASA Goddard" by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Perhaps most importantly, NASW has become the accepted authority on the ethics and values of the profession, which are going to be covered extensively in Chapter 3. Without the NASW Code of Ethics, it is likely that social workers would operate under quite varied ideas of how to determine the best course of action to take for clients in various ethical and clinical scenarios.

Shortly before NASW was founded, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) was established in 1952 to help set national standards for the college education of social workers (Suppes & Wells, 2013). Initially, CSWE only accredited master of social work (MSW) programs, but it also began governing and approving baccalaureate (bachelor’s degree) programs in 1974 (Suppes & Wells, 2013). (There is further information about CSWE’s role in American social work education in Chapter 4.)

These organizations have helped social work move from a field that was well-intentioned but disorganized to one with predictable standards of care and service, a reliable program of education for everyone to complete before entering the field, and a means of judging the quality of practitioners once their careers have started. The profession is recognized as a legitimate career, with hundreds of colleges offering social work majors fully accredited by CSWE and every state having licensure and/or certification standards.



Ambrosino, R., Heffernan, J., Shuttlesworth, G., and Ambrosino, R. (2005). Social work and social welfare: An introduction (5th ed.). Brooks/Cole.

Boyer, G. (2002). English poor laws. In Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Carroll, A. (2008). War letters: Extraordinary correspondence from American wars. Simon & Schuster.

Cohn, J. (2014). 7 charts that prove Obamacare is working. Retrieved from working.

Covert, B., & Israel, J. (2015). What 7 states discovered after spending more than $1 million drug testing welfare recipients. Retrieved from

Cox, L.E., Tice, C.J., and Long, D.D. (2016). Introduction to social work: An advocacy-based profession. Sage.

Crocker, R.H. (1992). Social work and social order: The settlement house movement in two industrial cities, 1889-1930. University of Illinois Press.

Cunha, D. (2014, July 8). This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Griscom, J. H. (1859). Memoir of John Griscom, LL. D, late professor of chemistry and natural philosophy, with an account of the New York High School; Society for the Prevention of Pauperism; the house of refuge; and other institutions. Robert Carter and Brothers.

Haberman, F. W. (ed.) (1972). Nobel lectures, peace 1926-1950. Elsevier Publishing Company.

Hsu, S. S. (2020, October 18). Federal judge strikes down Trump plan to slash food stamps for 700,000 unemployed Americans. Washington Post.

Katz, M. B. (1996). In the shadow of the poorhouse. BasicBooks.

Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2013). Introduction to social work and social welfare: Critical thinking Perspectives (4th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Macarov, D. (1995). Social welfare: Structure and practice. SAGE Publications. National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (n.d.a). About. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (n.d.b). NASW Press Journals. Retrieved


PBS (n.d.). Timeline of the Great Depression. Retrieved from

Rasmussen, F. N. (2001, March 17). Richmond was a pioneer in social work nationally. The Baltimore Sun.

Sharma, V. (2003). Residual sighted children. Discovery Publishing House.

Socialist Health Association (n.d.). Poor Law 1601. Retrieved from

Speenhamland system. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from

Spicker, P. (2014). An introduction to social policy. Retrieved from

Suppes, M. A. & Wells, C. C. (2013). The social work experience: An introduction to social work and social welfare. Sixth ed. Pearson.

Thayer, K. (2012, January 25). Hull House closing Friday. Chicago Tribune.

Thyer, B. A. & Biggerstaff, M. (1989). Professional social work credentialing and legal regulation. Charles C. Thomas.

U.S. Department of Labor (n.d.). History of changes to the minimum wage law. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Labor (2021). State minimum wage laws. Retrieved from

Vinovskis, M. A. (2005). The birth of Head Start: Preschool education policies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. University of Chicago Press.

Zastrow, C. (2010). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People. Tenth ed. Brooks/Cole.

Chapter 3: Social Work Values and Ethics

Many professions have certain ethical standards by which they must abide. Social work has not only a Code of Ethics, but within that Code, a set of values that professionals in the field are expected to embody. The values and principles in the Code of Ethics define and govern social work, informing both practitioners and the general public what is to be expected from people who represent the field. Though the guidelines are extensive and may even seem cumbersome, they are there to protect both clients and social workers. Without them, the discipline of social work would be subject to inconsistency and unpredictability; with them, workers have guidance in the event of ethical dilemmas and clients can know what to expect from the people charged with their care. When you’ve finished reading this unit, you should be able to:

1. Articulate the purposes of the NASW Code of Ethics;

2. Name and define the core values of the social work profession;

3. Explain the various ethical guidelines by which social workers must abide;

4. Give examples of various applications of these ethical guidelines and core values in practice situations;

5. Define confidentiality and explain its limits;

6. Recognize the difference between personal morals and professional values and ethics.


NASW State House Day
NASW State House Day in Massachusetts
"NASW State House Day" by Mass_HHS is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

History of the NASW Code of Ethics

            After the establishment of NASW in 1955, one of its early tasks was to establish guidelines for the profession. After a period of focus on environmental reform, social work had shifted toward a diagnostic way of looking at human problems, in part due to the significant influence of the psychodynamic treatment movement led by Sigmund Freud. With several different organizations of social workers operating independently from one another, there had been no central governing body to determine the ethical roadmap for the field. NASW’s original Code of Ethics, adopted in 1960, identified 14 single-sentence principles to guide social workers in carrying out their duties, noting that a social worker had an obligation to maintain “certain standards of behavior…in his professional relationships with those he serves, with his colleagues, with his employing agency, with other professions, and with the community” (NASW, 1960). (Ironic, isn’t it, that the language of the time used male pronouns despite the fact that social work was—and still is—a female-dominated profession?) The ideas embodied in the 221 words included in those 14 original ethical guidelines are still alive in the Code of Ethics as we know it today. (The single-page original Code of Ethics can be viewed here.)

There have been nine revisions since the original Code was put into place, some larger than others, and each one has gone into greater detail about the specifics of social work practice. The first revision, in 1967, merely added a fifteenth guideline—a non-discrimination clause: “I will not discriminate because of race, color, religion, age, sex, or national ancestry and in my job capacity will work to prevent and eliminate such discrimination in rendering service, in work assignments, and in employment practices” (NASW, 1967, p. 1). 

The 1979 revision was the first to go into enough detail that the Code of Ethics couldn’t be contained on a single page. Practice had shown us that there were many situations that arose in typical social work that called for greater guidance than the Code of Ethics provided, and therefore, considerable uncertainty and conflict remained about the best way to handle particular scenarios. This expansion of the Code was the most significant in its history, as NASW moved from 15 guidelines to a staggering 82, grouped into six major areas:

  • “The social worker’s conduct and comportment as a social worker” (NASW, 1979, p. ii)
  • Ethical responsibilities to clients
  • Ethical responsibilities to colleagues
  • Ethical responsibilities to employers
  • Ethical responsibilities to the profession
  • Ethical responsibilities to society (NASW, 1979)

While the specific names of the categories have changed somewhat, these six groupings largely remain in place in today’s version of the Code. In this chapter, as an introduction to the Code, we will largely be focusing upon ethical responsibilities to clients and appropriate professional behavior.

In the 1990s, the Code of Ethics was revised on four different occasions in response to a number of specific concerns. The first tackled issues such as how prices for service were determined, the acceptability of being paid for referring a client to another professional or agency, and how clients appropriately could be recruited for enrollment in services (NASW, n.d.). The 1993 revision addressed “social worker impairment and dual relationships,” which will also be defined later in this chapter (NASW, n.d.).

The most recent major adjustment to the Code of Ethics occurred in 1996 due to an ongoing broadening recognition of a range of issues not addressed in the 1979 version of the document, as well as increased media and public scrutiny of the profession. Social workers found that stories about clients who had been done a disservice or even harmed by members of the profession were more likely to be covered by newspapers, television networks, and other outlets, and the increased publicity caused NASW to cast a critical eye inward to clarify details of the Code and add new elements to deal with issues not really considered decades before (NASW, n.d.)

The four most recent adjustments of the Code have been relatively minor. Further clarification was made in 1999 regarding the limits of confidentiality (a topic that will be discussed in depth later in this chapter). Nine years later, the non-discrimination guidelines of the Code were expanded to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and immigration status. In 2017, the Code was updated to address issues related to the use of technology, and 2021's revision largely emphasized the importance of social workers' self-care (NASW, n.d.).

Pride Flags
In recent years, the Code of Ethics has been updated to reflect a support of non-discrimination toward people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Pride Flags" by celesteh is licensed under CC BY 2.0


In the future, the Code of Ethics will no doubt require additional modification and revision as we encounter still-unknown areas of practice, social injustice, and additional dimensions of diversity. The Code is in effect a living document, as it should be; its dynamic nature reflects the ever-changing field of social work and our consistent desire to modify practices and procedures in order to best meet the needs of a clientele that continues to display its tremendous diversity.


The Core Values of Social Work

            First, we should take a moment to define what we mean by values, and how they are distinct from ethics. Values are what one considers to be good or important—the things one holds in esteem. For instance, what do you find important in your own life? You might recognize the importance of family, education, success, independence, freedom, faith, or any number of other abstract concepts or concrete items in your own life. Those are your values!

Chances are, if you’re considering becoming a social worker, your values have been a big part of what has driven you to evaluate whether this is the right direction for your future. Perhaps you were raised in a home where you were taught the importance of giving back to the less fortunate. Maybe your faith imbued in you a sense of purpose in serving your fellow human beings. Maybe you personally have experienced difficulties, had someone help you through them and come out stronger, and you want to provide that same sense of resiliency and self-efficacy in someone else. Whatever your reasons, it’s likely that your values had a hand in influencing you to look into social work.

Though it is clear that our values are important, and probably influenced our decisions to enter the social work field (or simply study it), it is essential that we recognize that our clients have values as well, and theirs supersede ours in our work together. Social workers often talk of leaving their biases at home when they go to work, and this is exactly what they mean. Your personal values, while important, have limited application in your work with clients. Only where they align with the values of the profession presented in the Code of Ethics should they really influence practice. For instance, if you have a personal value of social justice, which is one of the six core values we’ll cover shortly, obviously that is fine to pursue in your work with clients. (If you don’t value social justice, your job as a social worker still demands that you make efforts to pursue it—for instance, by eradicating racial inequality, even if you personally believe people should be satisfied with the current level of racial inequality.)

On the other hand, if you have an important personal value of faith in God, and you have an atheist client, it really isn’t permissible (or even in the client’s best interest) to try to emphasize the importance of faith when it comes to working with your client. No matter how important your faith is to you, and how much you believe it would help your client if they believed in God, it’s not ethical for you to pursue that direction. If you want to convert people or proselytize, social work is not the profession for that. The client’s values and the values of the profession take precedence over our own.

With this in mind, let’s examine the six core values identified in the Code of Ethics: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence (NASW, 2021).

Volunteering is a common activity for social workers, exemplifying the value of service.
"Volunteers" by vastateparksstaff is licensed under CC BY 2.0


            Our most basic task as social workers is to serve our clients. Service, simply put, means we put our clients’ interests before our own. Sometimes, social work students (or even social workers themselves) make the mistake of looking at the worker-client relationship as a superior-subordinate relationship. This may happen in part because social workers occasionally do have some element of power—for instance, the power to remove children from homes where they are being abused or neglected—but it should always remain prominent in the social worker’s mind that, if anything, the client is the one in charge. In the end, no matter what the social worker hopes the client does, the client is the one who makes the final decision. The social worker ultimately has no control over the client’s actions, and that is as it should be. There may be consequences to the client’s actions, of course (particularly if there is a court order or child protective services case involved), but the client still has the right to choose their course of action (NASW, 2021).

            The core value of service means the social worker recognizes that they are working for the client, using skills, knowledge, and resources to help the client reach the goals that have been identified for the helping relationship. It also means that social workers are encouraged to spend part of their time volunteering, providing pro bono services to clients and programs that could use their expertise and experience to their advantage. Social workers generally enjoy this sort of work (at least at times); in fact, many people in the field discovered or confirmed their love for social work through volunteering as adolescents or young adults. Nevertheless, fitting in a job, volunteer work, and a personal life can seem daunting at times, especially if one’s job is particularly demanding.

BLM Protest #56
"BLM Protest #56" by sasastro is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Social justice

            Both as individuals and as a collective profession, social workers fight for social justice. Social justice is the belief that all people deserve equal rights, opportunities, and access to economic and political resources. This holds true regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or other dimensions of diversity. It is incumbent upon social workers to combat instances of social injustice, when it is clear that a group (or individual people in a particular group) is/are being disadvantaged or disenfranchised (NASW, 2021).

            What are some examples of social injustice? One commonly discussed topic in recent years has been discrimination against LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and other sexual/gender minorities) people. In the 1960s, the United States saw the pinnacle of the civil rights movement as a response to “separate but equal” policies of having separate schools, separate drinking fountains, and separate lunch counters for whites and nonwhites. It eventually became clear to most Americans that those practices were reprehensible, and the Supreme Court and Congress worked to overturn some laws, pass new ones, and generally make it known that racial discrimination was not an acceptable part of a free and just democratic society.

            NASW would argue that we are now in a similar place when it comes to discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. People are more aware than ever of the issues being faced by LGBTQ+ Americans, but their treatment and rights remain major sources of controversy. You may be familiar with stories that have been popping up in the media about bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, or dress shops refusing to sell a dress to a lesbian for her wedding to her future wife (Roth, 2015; Terrero, 2011). The question often discussed is what reigns supreme: the customer’s right not to be discriminated against or the business’s right to refuse service to someone based upon supposed religious grounds?

In the 1960s (and certainly earlier), there were many businesses who would have used religious arguments to support their choice to refuse service to nonwhite people (or an interracial couple), or provide them with lesser service. Now, we generally recognize those arguments are invalid, and one’s religion does not give one the right to discriminate against customers in a place of business.

            Despite this, a number of states passed laws either making it legal for businesses to refuse service to someone based on religious beliefs. Some went as far as to prohibit municipalities in the state from passing anti-discrimination ordinances (Guo, 2015). To social workers with an eye toward social justice, this was a clear violation of the principle. NASW would say that LGBTQ+ customers deserve to be served just like anyone else without their sexual orientation or gender identity being used as a disqualification for that service. The Supreme Court eventually agreed in Bostock v. Clayton County, finding that the language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also affords protections to LGBTQ+ people and laws permitting employers to fire people based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity alone were unconstitutional (Totenberg, 2020). NASW lobbied in support of declaring these discriminatory practices illegal.

            Other examples of fighting for social justice would include taking the government to task for the longer prison sentences nonwhites receive for the same crimes as whites (Palazzolo, 2013) and fighting for equal pay for women, in an effort to close the wage gap between men and women that still exists. Social workers may take up the battle on the behalf of a specific client on their caseload when they feel the client has been disadvantaged in some way, or they may be part of larger community-wide, statewide, or nationwide movements to overturn unjust policies and implement replacements that make social justice more attainable.


Dignity and worth of the person

            It seems like this should go without saying, but it’s important to discuss. Every client with whom a social worker interacts is worth that worker’s time and effort. Every one of those clients has a right to dignity, to be treated as an individual who deserves assistance in reaching their goals. Many clients have been treated badly by multiple people in their lives, perhaps (most disconcertingly) even some professionals who were supposed to help. It is not unusual for people to be judged by others without full knowledge of their circumstances. Frankly, it is easy to pass judgment on someone when that person appears either to have brought negative circumstances upon themselves or not to have done enough to get out of a bad situation. Of course, the view from outside someone’s life is rarely similar to the one that person has from the inside.

            Still, many of you are probably reading this and thinking, “Well, of course everyone has the right to dignity, and everyone is worth something. If I didn’t believe that, why would I be studying social work?” That sounds like a perfectly good question. In practice, though, it may not be so easy to see everyone so generously. In fact, it might seem totally reasonable to look at people in a different light if they were in your personal life than you would if they were in your social work office. People who have done things you might find morally reprehensible could be very difficult to tolerate if they play certain roles in our lives, like your kid’s kindergarten teacher; however, if a client has done something you find morally reprehensible, that client still has a right to be treated with dignity and worth. If you struggle to treat a client with dignity and worth, then a) you should discuss this with your supervisor, and b) you may ultimately need to refer that client to another professional.

Female Inmates in a RDAP Program
Could you work with a client who had spent time in prison? Would you be able to treat that client with the same dignity and worth as a client with a clean record?
"Female Inmates in a RDAP Program" by CoreCivic is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


            There is an idea called the looking-glass self that was popularized by 20th-century sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. He suggested that a major component of each person’s self-concept is based on the way other people treat and react to that person (Gray, 2002, p. 509). In other words, people know how to think of themselves based on the way it appears others see them. If everyone treats you like everything you say is interesting, would you not believe you are an interesting person? Conversely, if most people reacted to you as if everything you say is unintelligent, it would be natural for you to believe you were unintelligent, right? Of course. So how does this apply to our work with clients?

            Think about the way many clients have experienced the world before coming to seek assistance from a social worker. They may have been told they deserve what has happened to them; that life would be better if they simply tried harder; that their problems are all in their head and simply a matter of perspective. As the concept of the looking-glass self indicates, it would not be unusual for clients to come to your office already feeling pretty badly about themselves. The social worker’s office is one place that clients should be able to know they can come and feel welcomed and respected—a judgment-free zone.

            Imagine how it would feel, instead, to have a social worker treat you like you were not worthy of dignity and respect—that something about you, perhaps something you had done, rendered you instead worthy of judgment, even from someone who is not supposed to judge others. What sort of self-concept would that foster? Even if the worker’s judgment of the client led to kindly and quickly referring that client to a new social worker right at the beginning of the relationship, it could send a message that the worker does not personally think it is worth her/his time to work with that client. At any given time, with any given client, that could be a devastating blow to one’s self-concept. That could end the individual’s willingness to engage in a helping relationship not just with that social worker, but with any social worker.

            Does this mean you should be able to work with any client at any time? Not necessarily. For instance, if you were going through a breakup or divorce due to a partner's infidelity, it might be difficult (if not impossible) to work well with a client who was having an affair and considering leaving their partner. While you might have been able to work with a client like that in the past, and potentially could again in the future, it may not be the right time for you. It is important to acknowledge your limits and always keep the client’s best interests in mind.

Box 3.1: Challenges of the Job

Questions to Ask Yourself

What kinds of clients would be most difficult to work with, and why would you struggle? Do you have personal experience with that specific issue?

Do you have memories of difficult circumstances in your life that a particular kind of client could trigger? Do you see those clients as unworthy of assistance?

How would you react in the moment if a client revealed something about her/his personal history that caused you to realize you couldn’t help that client any further?

Should social workers expect to work with clients that have done things they find morally reprehensible? Should it be required that they do so? Why or why not?


Finally, keep this idea in mind when it comes to dignity and worth. There are certain criminal acts which nearly everyone finds unacceptable: rape, child molestation, domestic violence, and so on. It might seem totally reasonable not to wish to work with clients who have engaged in acts like these in the recent past. Imagine, though, if no one were to be willing to work with those clients. What would the outcome be? Without assistance, it is likely their behaviors would continue, resulting in further damage being done to victims of these acts. If no one sees an abusive spouse as worth helping, then not only are we refusing services to that potential client, we are allowing the cycle of abuse to continue unchecked. Being able to see people with dignity and worth involves a “dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society” (NASW, 2021, para. 17).

            Elements of this principle will be discussed in greater depth later in this chapter when we cover the strengths perspective.


Importance of human relationships

            Out of all the items in the social worker’s metaphorical toolbox for working with clients, the ability to build a relationship with clients is perhaps the most important. Very little can be accomplished without first establishing rapport and possessing an ability to talk openly about some very difficult subjects.

            Remember, our relationship with clients is a partnership. We are working together to help them reach the goals that we’ve identified for our helping relationship. The quality of that partnership can make all the difference. We also recognize that the relationships people have with each other are key both to dysfunction and to the recovery/change process. Relationships our clients have with other people can be assessed and strengthened in order to help them through the change process. We understand that the relationships among people in organizations impact how well those organizations function as well (NASW, 2021).

We can help our clients to identify positive relationships in their lives and maximize the support they can obtain from those friends, family members, and significant others; we also help to identify relationships that could be improved—or perhaps reduced or eliminated, when the client feels they are ready and it is necessary—always with an eye toward accomplishing the client’s identified goals.

            It is important to note that we do not tell clients what people in their lives are positive for them and which are negative. It is important that they come to those recognitions themselves and present their own arguments for these changes. We can encourage clients to explore these ideas, of course, and it may be important for us to do that in particular situations where we can see the damaging effects of certain people in the client’s life. However, it’s not our job to dictate or suggest whom the client should and should not have in their lives. It is our job to help them come to the healthiest decisions they are ready to make, and assist them in the execution of those decisions.



            Without acting in a trustworthy manner, social workers would never be able to foster the rapport needed to establish a healthy helping relationship with any client. This is the same basic directive that underlies the next core value of social work: integrity. Social workers are expected to be honest and deserving of trust in all their behaviors in the course of their job. Lying or misleading a client is typically unacceptable (though exceptions exist, based on safety needs). It is usually preferable not to answer a client’s question rather than to answer it dishonestly (NASW, 2021).

            Integrity goes beyond trustworthiness and honesty to point out that social workers are bound to stay updated on the Code of Ethics and emerging ethical issues, being certain to promote ethical practice while adhering to the mission and values of the profession itself. It is our responsibility to be sure that we are complying with ethics, obviously, but we also are expected to ensure our organizations and employers are acting in a consistently ethical manner as well. If they are not, it is our obligation to act upon our knowledge of any unethical practices, bringing attention to them and working to change them (NASW, 2021).

For example, let’s say our agency has a large and diverse service area within a city. This service area has within its boundaries a number of neighborhoods, some of which are crime-ridden and more profoundly impacted by poverty, some of which are more middle-class and perceived as less dangerous. If the agency has a policy that the most tenured employees get to choose their assigned territory first, and this has resulted in the poorer neighborhoods within the agency’s service area consistently getting assigned to the least experienced workers at the agency, this is problematic. While the agency did not in all likelihood intend to do anything unethical, the end result of this policy is that the areas that probably need the most assistance get workers who may be less prepared to help them. It would be easy not to speak up about such a policy for fear of “rocking the boat,” but the core value of integrity dictates that we say something about it. The policy is a clear violation of the value of social justice we spoke about earlier, and failing to bring it up would be akin to giving it the stamp of approval, since we would knowingly be allowing it to continue.

            Another example of integrity applies when clients ask a social worker about her/his personal history. Imagine a client named Esther is in treatment for depression, including periodic suicidal thoughts. She asks her social worker, Lexi, “Have you ever dealt with depression yourself?” Lexi has never been clinically depressed, but worries that Esther isn’t going to trust her if she’s never experienced similar feelings. Lexi decides it wouldn’t be a big deal if she just told Esther she was in treatment for depression as a teenager. This does seem to put Esther at ease, and she opens up about more of her struggles. Lexi is relieved.

Later, Esther asks Lexi if she ever felt suicidal, and Lexi finds herself in a difficult position: should she continue the lie, admit the truth, or deflect the question? While she may have had good intentions—helping the client feel comfortable enough to open up—Lexi has violated the principle of integrity by intentionally misleading a client. If Esther discovers her dishonesty, she understandably might no longer trust Lexi—or any social worker or counselor. If Lexi continues to lie, she’s also continuing to exhibit a violation of social work values. Furthermore, if Esther strikes up a conversation in the waiting room with another client of Lexi’s who has different information, Lexi may have compromised her practice with that client as well. We have to remember clients may (and often do) talk to each other. We cannot and should not expect them to keep secrets about us, even though we need to respect confidentiality with them. (More on that topic is coming later in this chapter.)

Opening Conference Speakers
Attending professional conferences can be an important part of a social worker's ongoing education during their career.
"Opening Conference Speakers" by Nor-Shipping is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


            Social work is a relatively young field, and given its ever-increasing focus on empirically supported practice, there is always new information emerging about how best to help our clients. Many journals publish research that helps those of us in the field to understand what the latest developments are in order to stay current in our knowledge and approaches. Whether through these publications, presenting seminars to colleagues, or other means, social workers are encouraged to contribute to that expanding knowledge base upon which the profession depends.

            It is impossible to be an expert in every area of social work. It is still expected that social workers do their best to have knowledge in as many areas of practice as possible. This includes staying abreast of the developments in their own particular area of specialty or expertise, if they have one, but also learning more about areas in which they are less well-versed. It is ethically questionable to work with a client whose major problem is outside the worker’s area of expertise, especially if there are experts in that area of practice readily available and willing to take a referral. This core value of competence indicates it is the worker’s responsibility to have the proper knowledge to best help their clients.

            In line with this value, social workers are generally expected to continue their education beyond graduation. However, different states all have their own unique requirements. For instance, in the state of Illinois, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are required to get 30 continuing education units (CEUs) during every two-year licensure period, three of which must cover ethics three of which must cover cultural competency, and one which must address sexual harassment (NASW Illinois Chapter, 2021). Tennessee instead requires an LCSW license to be renewed yearly with 15 CEUs, with at least three in ethics and ten in general social work (Tennessee Department of Health, n.d.). It is important for you to understand the continuing education requirements of your state so you can stay in compliance with the expectations of your governing body. Additional requirements may exist in particular states or with particular licenses (e.g., a requirement that a certain number of hours must be completed face-to-face rather than online or by mail).

            Continuing education units generally represent clock hours spent in educational settings. Among the ways CEUs can be earned include:

  • Attending seminars, workshops, or conferences
  • Taking college courses
  • Teaching college courses
  • Conducting seminars or other training events
  • Writing and publishing research or books related to social work
  • Approved self-study courses

If there is any doubt about whether a particular educational provider is approved, you should be certain to check with your local governing body to verify the status of the provider before you pay for the program.


Ethical Standards

            As noted, the Code of Ethics continues to break its general elements into social workers’ ethical responsibilities to clients, to colleagues, in practice settings, as professionals, to the social work profession, and to broader society. The next part of this chapter focuses upon this rather extensive portion of the Code. We will not examine each ethical principle—since this is an introductory text, we will provide a basic overview with some particular key points highlighted. Keep in mind that it is important for you to fully understand all parts of the Code of Ethics when you are a professional. Should you continue to study social work, you will be required to learn about the Code in much greater detail in some of your upper-level courses.


Ethical Responsibilities to Clients

            This section of the Code is extensive, and aims to cover many of the dilemmas we may encounter in our daily interactions with clients, as well as laying out the client’s basic rights in interactions with a social worker and the social welfare system. The client’s best interests come first in the vast majority of cases, but the social worker also has to honor a responsibility to the community and larger society, and therefore may at times make decisions that favor the safety of the community over the client’s happiness. The circumstances in which that can occur are specific and limited.


            Clients have the right to determine the course of the helping relationship with any social worker, except in those cases when in the worker’s “professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others” (NASW, 2021, para. 24). Examples of this would include if the client intended to give his child some medication that was not meant for children to use, or to allow the client’s four-year-old son to care for his two-year-old sister for eight hours while the client was at work.

            Ultimately, unless a client’s choice puts the client or others at risk of serious harm, the social worker cannot interfere in that choice. Our clients have the right to make decisions about their own lives, including unhealthy ones. It’s no different than if you go to see your doctor, she recommends a particular prescription for a medical condition, and you refuse to take that medication. The doctor may have a lot of information and experience that indicates you will benefit from that medication, but you have the right to refuse it, unless a court hears a really compelling argument that you are incapable of understanding the decision or its potential ramifications.

            Self-determination is not just a client’s right, but it is also for the social worker’s own good. Imagine for a moment that you tell a client he should dump his boyfriend, saying that the relationship appears to be making your client unhappy. If the client follows your advice and breaks up with his boyfriend, but finds himself single one year later and clinically depressed when his ex-boyfriend adjusts well and finds a new relationship, then obviously, the advice did not lead to a positive life change. That potential negative result is one reason that client self-determination is the key, rather than a social worker’s advice or recommendation.

            However—and this may come as a surprise—it is also problematic if the social worker’s advice is well-received and results in a positive outcome. Sticking with the same example, suppose your client finds he is happier since ending his relationship, and he feels very grateful to you for the suggestion that he end his relationship. On the surface, it might seem like that’s a great result. However, what you’ve done has robbed the client of the satisfaction of making his own healthy decision, of learning that he does not need to rely on others to make those decisions for him. This denies the client the opportunity to develop self-efficacy, which is an essential component of healthy, independent functioning—our ultimate goal.


Informed consent

            It is important that a client knows, as much as possible, what to expect from participation/enrollment in a treatment program or other social work service relationship. This includes understanding:

  • The purpose of the services being provided (e.g., housing assistance)
  • Potential risks of receiving those services (e.g., legal consequences for failed drug screens)
  • Limits to services related to the involvement of a third-party payer like an insurance company
  • Costs of services
  • Possible alternative methods of service provision
  • Their ability to refuse or discontinue receiving services (e.g., if services are court-ordered, what will happen if the client stops attending services?)
  • An expected end date for service provision (NASW, 2021).

Clients should have the opportunity to hear a verbal explanation as well as receiving written explanation of the services to be provided. Clients may be better able to process one or the other, and they should have the opportunity to take the written copy of the consent home so they can have more time to review it or show it to someone else who can help them understand it (in case they feel shy or embarrassed about asking the social worker for clarification). This can also be helpful when a client may struggle with literacy or having a full understanding of the language in which services (and documents about those services) are provided. If possible, interpreters and translated documents should be made available.

Remember, clients have the right to refuse services, even if they are court-ordered. Social workers and their agencies are not ordered to provide services; we may receive referrals from the criminal justice system, but any mandate applies to the client, not the worker. It is important that clients know the consequences of refusing services, but ultimately, it is their choice to make (NASW, 2021).

Diversity quilt
Working with diverse people requires an interest and desire to understand many dimensions of diversity.
"Diversity quilt" by OregonDOT is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Cultural competence and social diversity

            The importance of cultural/racial issues and other matters of diversity will be addressed more fully in another chapter, but it is worth mentioning here that it is essential for social workers to recognize that every culture has its own unique characteristics and traits that serve as assets to people in that culture. Social workers should always strive to be culturally competent and to learn more about groups with whom they will interact, particularly those with whom they do not have a lot of experience and may serve in their professional career. Part of understanding the realities and differences among diverse groups includes a recognition of the oppression and unequal outcomes some of these groups face, and how those unequal outcomes may contribute to the problems that bring our clients into agency offices (NASW, 2021). It is not acceptable to bring up the fact that minority groups once had it worse, or that they should be happy with the advancements that have been made. The fact that inequality was once worse doesn’t mean the current state is acceptable or that people should be satisfied with progress moving slowly or stalling.


Conflicts of interest

            The primary role any social worker should have is the betterment of the client, and we should avoid any circumstances which may give even the appearance of impropriety, or the impression that we could have something further to gain from our interactions with a client. One way in which we might put ourselves in a position for our motives to be questioned is if we have a conflict of interest.

            It is unethical for a social worker to gain anything financially from an interaction with a client (beyond their salary, of course). This could happen, for example, if a social worker were to be paid a commission for every client signed up for a program. When the social worker has the opportunity to gain financially from certain decisions made by the client, it compromises their ability to concentrate exclusively on the client’s best interests. When conflicts of interest exist or may arise, the social worker must both inform the client of the conflict (or potential conflict) and take steps to minimize or eliminate it. It may be necessary for the client to work with a different social worker if a conflict of interest cannot be resolved.

            A conflict of interest may also occur if a social worker is working with two people who have a relationship with each other. In such cases, the social worker must clarify who the actual client is and what the worker’s responsibilities are to the various parties involved in receiving services. Whenever possible, social workers should avoid providing individual counseling services to separate people who are dealing with problems in the same relationship. (Obviously, this does not apply to couples counseling.)

            One specific example of a conflict of interest is a dual relationship. This describes a situation in which a social worker has two kinds of relationships with a client: one as his/her social worker, and another in some other capacity. (The other relationship could also have been in the past rather than presently active.) Dual relationships are to be avoided; it is impossible to be truly impartial and objective with a client with whom one has some other sort of relationship. Some dual relationships are strictly prohibited—for instance, one should not be a social worker to one’s own friend, relative, coworker, or significant other. Others may be more difficult to avoid; for instance, if one lives and works in a rural area, there are likely to be fewer agencies that serve particular needs or populations, and so there may not be many referral options to help someone avoid a dual relationship. A social worker may end up having a client whose son is in the same classroom as the social worker's daughter, or who goes to the same house of worship. In those cases, it is essential that the social worker set boundaries that are firm, “clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive” (NASW, 2021, para. 39).


Privacy and confidentiality

            Social workers should strive only to obtain necessary private information from clients—that is, only the information the social worker must know in order to serve the client successfully. All of that information is to be kept in the strictest confidence. The client has the right to expect both privacy—the knowledge that no unauthorized people are listening in on the conversation between the client and social worker—and confidentiality, which is more complex.

            Confidentiality is the policy that forbids the social worker from sharing information gleaned during the course of a relationship with a client unless it meets certain criteria that trigger the social worker’s mandated reporter status. A mandated reporter is someone who is required by law to share certain information with authorities when it is presented to them. Teachers, nurses, doctors, child care workers, social workers, and many other people are legally designated as mandated reporters.

            It is important that a client understands what confidentiality is and what its limits are as early as possible in the relationship with a social worker. Therefore, it is expected that a social work professional will explain these principles at the beginning of the first meeting with the client whenever possible and appropriate, and revisit the rules throughout the relationship to keep the client aware of possible reasons confidentiality may be broken. Although some people might expect that once clients know about the limits of confidentiality, they would be reluctant to share anything with a social worker that would trigger a mandated report, clients still often share information like this with their social workers. It is important that when they choose to share such information, clients know how the social worker is going to react.

 There are several reasons that confidentiality may cease to apply, resulting in a report to authorities or other individuals. The most frequent reasons are often called “the three hurts.” This means a social worker must disclose information to authorities when it is “necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm” (NASW, 2021, para. 43). That includes:

  • When the client is going to hurt her/himself
  • When the client is going to hurt someone else
  • When someone else is going to hurt the client

In other words, if a client says he or she is going to commit suicide, or assault someone, or that someone else is going to assault the client, the social worker must report this to police or other authorities that can potentially intervene or prevent the situation from occurring. However, the social worker should only share that information which is necessary in order to reasonably protect the client or others from harm. In addition to the three hurts, social workers’ mandated reporter status is activated in the following situations:

  • Child abuse and neglect (even if the client is not involved)
  • Elder abuse and neglect (even if the client is not involved)

Furthermore, social workers can also break confidentiality (though it is not mandated) in the following scenarios (judgment must be applied, and a supervisor’s opinion should be sought in some cases):

  • When the client has signed a consent to release information to a particular party
  • When it is necessary to obtain payment from a client’s insurance carrier or other third-party payer (and the client has been informed that information will be shared with the carrier or payer)
  • When some crimes have been committed on agency property
  • When a client notes they intend to commit a crime (NASW, 2021; Wilson, 1978)

Depending on the state in which one resides, an obligation known as duty to warn may also apply. If a client makes a specific threat of imminent harm against an identifiable person, your state may legally require you to make a reasonable effort to contact that individual (in addition to informing law enforcement of the threat). Nearly 30 states (including Illinois) have mandated duty to warn policies for mental health professionals, while 16 allow these professionals to do so at their discretion (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013).

               Note that social workers can talk to their supervisors and coworkers at the same agency who are working with a particular client and share information with those coworkers; these communications do not violate confidentiality as long as the information being shared is pertinent to the client’s care and is being shared with people who should know it in order to optimize that care. (It is also likely that the agency has noted this sharing of information in the informed consent documents the client signed in order to receive services.) Should information about a client’s criminal record be shared with the receptionist at the social work agency? It’s not germane to the receptionist’s job, so the answer is no. May it be shared with the social worker’s supervisor in the context of a supervision meeting, or one of the other mental health professionals involved in the program who works closely with that client? In all likelihood, the answer is yes.

            Social workers may discuss their cases in general terms with other colleagues, with students, or even with important people in their own lives, provided there is no sharing of identifying information—data which could make it clear what specific person is involved in a helping relationship with the social worker. For example, your social work professor could talk to you about a former client who had lost his job due to his alcohol use provided there wasn’t enough information provided for someone to recognize the client within the example. If your professor said they had worked with a cashier at a local fast food restaurant, that is far too much information since it significantly narrows the potential number of people to whom your professor could be referring. Obviously, this means data like names, addresses, names of relatives, places of employment, physical descriptions, and more should be omitted from discussion of any client with someone who is not in a position to legally know who the client may be. This is also why workers will change certain details when discussing a case—this makes it even less likely anyone will deduce the client’s identity.


Sexual relationships

            Hopefully, in the earlier discussion of dual relationships, it was clear that a social worker should never have a romantic relationship with a client. It is also expected that social workers will not have sexual relationships or contact (including electronic sexual communication) with close relatives or friends of their clients. Finally, it is expected that social workers will not engage in sexual relationships with any former clients. While no specific guidelines for a time limit exist in the Code of Ethics, if a social worker feels an exception to this guideline should be made in a particular case, the social worker must be able to demonstrate the former client has not been harmed, “exploited, coerced, or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally” (NASW, 2021, para. 63). In actual practice, let us be clear: it is a basic expectation of working in this field that any sexual relationship with a former client is at best ethically questionable and should be avoided at all costs. Despite this, data indicate that about 4.4% of therapists (7% of male therapists and 1.5% of female therapists)—some of whom are likely clinical social workers—at some point engage in sexual contact with a client (Pope, 2001). It is certain that social workers in non-clinical roles also occasionally make this egregious mistake.

            We enter relationships with clients in a very different way than we enter other relationships. We have a position of privilege and power when we meet them, as they open up their lives to us without the reciprocal nature of having us open up to them about our own secrets and problems. This unequal beginning makes a future relationship unfair to the client on top of being unethical. It is understandable why attraction may occur between a client and social worker; the worker generally treats clients with great respect, understanding, and kindness, and those are traits that may seem in short supply in the client’s life. It can be difficult for some clients to see the difference between such behaviors and genuine romantic interest in someone. It would be easy for a social worker in such a situation to use the client’s trust to the worker’s advantage. Doing so, however, not only risks the mental health and functioning of the client, but also the social worker’s own livelihood and career. We must not allow the client’s trust in us to be used for our own selfish purposes.


The Strengths Perspective

            Though not part of the Code of Ethics, the strengths perspective is considered standard operating procedure in social work. It is the default setting from which we must operate in all of our interactions with clients. Failing to do so can not only mean that we struggle to help the client—we may even cause harm.

            Dr. Dennis Saleebey, professor emeritus of social work at University of Kansas, is a prominent writer on the topic of social work’s use of the strengths perspective. While it serves as the closing topic of this chapter, its placement does not indicate its relative importance. This is an essential approach that social workers need to take in their professional interactions with individuals, groups, and systems.

            In general, as people, we do not typically see others from the strengths perspective. We may look at the people we care most about from this point of view, but overall, we often see people’s warts, idiosyncrasies, faults, and “baggage” very clearly, perhaps even more prominently than their assets. In social work, we have to take this common tendency and flip it, choosing to actively see people from the more positive, optimistic, and hopefully empowering viewpoint.

            The whole goal of the strengths perspective, actually, is just that: empowerment. It’s an interesting balance we keep in social work; we recognize that there are many factors beyond individual clients’ control that have a major impact on their lives, but we also know that in order to have a good chance of moving forward in their lives, they need to feel empowered, like their lives can truly improve through their own sincere, concerted effort. Without the sense that they have control, it is totally understandable for a client to feel downtrodden and fail to put in their best work. Without the client’s self-efficacy, we face an even tougher road in our helping efforts.

            In the 1980s, the University of Kansas’s School of Social Welfare strove to use a strengths-based approach in their case management work with a population dealing with prolonged, significant mental illness diagnoses and concerns. Their overwhelming success with the method prompted them to bring together a number of practitioners noted for using similar approaches and to work on defining the strengths perspective more clearly (Saleebey, 2008). Let’s look at some of the principles of this strengths perspective as articulated in Saleebey’s various works (1996; 2008; 2009).


Principle 1: Every client has strengths.

            This is the very foundation of the strengths perspective. It is very easy to say, but perhaps not so easy to put into practice. It could be said that this principle falls in line with the core value of dignity and worth of the person. Do you remember how earlier in this chapter we discussed how every client has dignity and worth and deserves to be treated as such? Well, a big part of that is seeing the positives the client brings to the table—in this case, we’re going to think of those positives as strengths.

            Every client with whom you work will have considerable strengths. Some of those strengths have perhaps not been fully utilized. Some of them may not even be recognized by the client themself. Still more of those strengths may perhaps be perceived by the client or others as liabilities.

How could strengths be perceived as liabilities? Well, many pairs of words describe the same trait (or nearly the same trait) in a negative and positive way. For instance, stubbornness could be seen as determination. What makes a person manipulative could also be what makes one persuasive. The key, perhaps, is the way in which these strengths are directed. If I have the ability to convince you of my point of view, to get you to see things my way, am I being persuasive or manipulative? How you answer may depend on the specific situation and the goal of my efforts. If I’m trying to convince you to vote for a particular candidate, I may be acting persuasively. If I want you to feel badly about something you did to me months ago so you’ll feel guilty and want to take me out for an ice cream sundae, I may be acting manipulatively. (I may also be a 10-year-old kid, but I digress.) However, the skills being used in each situation are really not that different.

It is essential that we make an ongoing effort to identify our clients’ strengths, which should be noted as part of their assessment and their service plan. Even clients who have perpetrated what you might consider to be terribly deviant or immoral acts have strengths within them. If you cannot find the strengths in a client, a) you aren’t looking hard enough and b) you probably will not be able to help that client. If you’re struggling to identify strengths, you may want to look at some of the traits considered particularly challenging about that client and ask yourself, “If those same skills were applied in a positive direction, what would we call them?”


Principle 2: Trauma, abuse, discrimination, tragedy, and other difficult circumstances are opportunities for growth.

            When clients come to social workers for help, even if they come of their own accord rather than being encouraged or coerced by loved ones (or ordered by the courts), they have more than likely endured quite a few challenges in their lives already. People do not often seek out the assistance of social workers when everything is going well. During the course of assessing and getting to know our clients, we will discover many parts of their past and perhaps even their present situations that have been difficult for them to handle.

            These situations are not something we want the client to have gone through, of course; still, the fact that they have been through their personal gauntlet and not yet given up means they are survivors. They have been through circumstances that would have caused some to give up, to quit trying. Yet here they are, in your office, when they could have made the choice not to show up at all. Some may see them as victims, but we choose instead to see them as survivors.

            When a client tells some people about the struggles in his life, it may seem like complaining, whining, or victim-playing. Those events may come off as limiting factors. You may know someone in your life that always seems to have bad things happen to them. People may begin to perceive that they are the reason behind their own struggles, and there may be some truth to that at times. However, as social workers, we would instead use the knowledge of those events, struggles, and misfortunes to identify the strengths in that client’s character. If a client was sexually abused by a stepparent growing up and now struggles with the idea of being in a sexual relationship as an adult, from the strengths perspective, we would recognize that the client has a healthy desire to protect themself. We wouldn’t say, “You’re going to have to get over it eventually,” or “You just need to let go of it and not let it ruin things for you now.” That’s oversimplifying a very complicated issue. If anything, we need to praise the client for considering the ramifications of the abuse and for having a desire to conquer it, even if it’s been difficult. We need to celebrate the fact that they haven’t simply stopped trying to interact with others, that they haven’t sworn off relationships altogether.

            Similarly, other challenges show us what the client is made of, figuratively speaking. Whenever a client survives a difficult situation and comes out on the other side, even with a set of new challenges or struggles to overcome, we can identify within that client strengths that helped them to make it: perseverance, resiliency, determination, grit. Clients may not see themselves that way! If you can see them more positively than they see themselves, you may start to have a positive influence on their self-concept and confidence.

Working together to help Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
Collaboration involves making sure the client's strengths are being put to use. We start learning collaboration at an early age when we are taught to involve others and to appreciate the merits of teamwork.
"Working together to help Syrian refugee children in Lebanon" by DFID - UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Principle 3: Collaboration is best.

            This can relate to the core value of service discussed earlier in this chapter. Essentially, this is about working with the client rather than dictating to the client what needs to be done. From the beginning of the relationship, we establish and reassert the fact that we are not in charge of the client’s recovery or positive growth—the client is.

            Sometimes, a client (and/or a client’s family and loved ones) may expect us to set about on a plan to “fix” the client. They think of social work the same way that some people think of going to a doctor—the doctor gives the patient a prescription, the patient gets it filled and takes the pills, and everything gets better. However, not only is medicine not exactly like that, neither is social work.

            Why is collaboration best? There are many reasons.

  • If the client (as we’ve acknowledged already) has strengths, then we would be foolish not to take advantage of those strengths to help the client find a way to reach the service plan goals. Why use only our own skills as a social worker when the client has considerable skills that would be advantageous to employ?
  • When the client is involved in coming up with the goals and plan in a social work helping relationship, then the client is more likely to take ownership of that plan and want to see it through. If the client feels the plan is something that’s been determined by outside forces with little or none of the client’s input, then it is more likely that the client will find a reason not to buy into the plan at all, or the client will simply struggle to be as motivated as if he had been a part of the planning process.
  • The client knows themself best. A plan you devise on your own as a social worker may not fit the client’s needs, interests, or capabilities, for reasons you may not even recognize. The client is an expert on themself—use their expertise to help guide the creation of a plan and the individual steps of carrying it out.
  • Imagine if you were the single entity in charge of determining the service plan for every client you had, and no one else had any input. You’d get a lot of credit when things went well, but what about when they didn’t? There would be no one to blame but you. It’s too much responsibility to take on the success or failure of each client that enters your office. You would burn out very quickly from the pressure alone.

The client has the ability to have a major positive impact on their own life. If we don’t collaborate with the client, we aren’t using all the resources at our disposal, and we are limiting our chances for success.


Principle 4: Do not assume you know the limits of a client’s capacity for change.

            As noted earlier, clients generally do not come to social workers because everything is going well. Because they may have been struggling for some time now, they may also have encountered many people in their lives who have been an additional source of discouragement. Many people may have clipped your clients’ wings, telling them they aren’t capable of reaching their goals, that they should just stop trying, that they’ll never amount to anything anyway.

            Since clients have already heard a lot of negativity about themselves from various sources and angles, it is crucial that we do not become another cog in that same discouragement machine. It may be true that we do not even know our own ultimate capacity for change and improvement. How could we ever know that about a client?

            If you are a limiting presence in a client’s life, again, you are decreasing the chances of a successful helping relationship. Don't be that person. If a client has big goals, that’s great! We want our clients to think they are capable of great things. We do not want to be another voice telling them what they cannot do. If we show them that we believe they are capable of great work, then they will be more likely to believe the same things about themselves.

            Have you ever had the experience of working with someone who didn’t have a very high opinion of you? They probably didn’t even have to tell you that—you were simply able to pick up on it through clues like tone of voice, body language, and word choice. Our clients can read us in the exact same way. We can subtly discourage them in ways we don’t intend if we aren’t careful about the way we communicate. Imagine for a moment what it would feel like for a client: they come to a social worker for assistance getting their life in order. After some time building a rapport, the client feels comfortable enough to tell their social worker they're thinking about going back to school and changing careers, and they eagerly await the social worker’s response. If the social worker seems to question the necessity of that change, or indicates a belief that the client may really struggle with that, then how will that feel to the client? The social worker—the one person who is supposed to see them positively and be a source of encouragement and support—seems to doubt the likelihood of that plan working out. If the social worker doesn’t believe in it, who will? That worker, in an effort to temper the high expectations of the client, may instead have thrown the client into significant self-doubt, even despair. It would have been far better to help the client look at ways to break down that large goal into small, manageable chunks so that they could experience small successes along the way.

            This doesn’t mean a social worker should just blindly accept every goal a client has—some literally may not be possible to achieve (e.g., a 65-year-old client with no criminal justice experience cannot get hired as a police officer, even if they go back to get a degree). Even in cases like that, we should use the client’s motivation and enthusiasm to help them identify a goal that will give them a similar sense of satisfaction. For example, that 65-year-old client may simply want to help make the streets safer for their family and neighbors. There are more than likely many ways to accomplish the same end.


Principle 5: Every environment has resources.

            It logically follows that if every person has strengths, every environment must have resources, since every environment has people living and/or working there. It is easy to look at an environment as a problem rather than as a resource. Sometimes, a parent of a teenage client might say something like, “If we could only get him out of this community and away from these bad influences, everything would be different.” There may be an element of truth to that in some cases; however, it is also true that just as people have strengths and areas in need of improvement, communities have their own challenges and resources.

            One of us worked in rural Alabama for his first year as a professional social worker and was struck both by the incredible sense of community in those sparsely populated areas and the interest in helping each other through difficult times. It seemed that people in these small towns knew more about what was going on with a fellow resident who lived three miles away than we knew about our suburban neighbors growing up, or than people who share an urban apartment building may know about their next-door neighbors. Although those rural communities no doubt struggled with great amounts of poverty, unemployment, and other considerable obstacles, they still had major strengths. They looked out for each other. They could quickly rally to provide a helping hand if, for instance, the breadwinner in a home took ill and had to be out of work for an extended period of time. People would share what extras they had, even if they weren’t truly “extras” at all. They came together in times of crisis.

            A high-crime inner-city neighborhood may look like it doesn’t have a lot of resources to offer its residents, but the fact is that environment also has strengths. There may be community events aimed at discouraging school dropouts. There may be informal low-cost (or even free) child care options among single parents who have a system of making sure their kids always have supervision from someone in the neighborhood. There are pillars of strength and resiliency in every community. While the wealthier communities may have more obvious and attractive ones, all communities have something to hang their hat on, something that is a source of pride and fortitude for their residents.


Principle 6: Language is key.

            Social work is often accused of being too “politically correct” and stifling in its expectations of the use of language. Social workers are among the driving forces in getting people to look at their use of some common terms of the past that have come to be recognized as offensive to particular groups. However, our language both reflects the world we live in and continues to shape it through the way we use it.

            I already introduced you to one such idea of language—using the word survivor rather than victim. The latter feels final and negative, the former like a badge of honor and an acknowledgment of great abilities. You may also notice as you move through your social work studies and into your internship and professional career, other specific terms that are favored for various reasons:

  • Areas for improvement rather than weaknesses
  • Challenges rather than problems
  • Slip rather than relapse
  • Setback rather than failure

Do you see a pattern? (Can you think of any examples of your own to add?)  Language has the power to “lift and inspire or frighten and constrain” (Saleebey, 1996, para. 11). We don’t tend to see our clients in terms of weaknesses (at least, we should strive not to); after all, that would be antithetical to the whole purpose of the strengths perspective! Instead, we strive to empower them, and part of that is acknowledging their right to be seen in a positive light. We should not only use more inspiring, less constraining language toward our clients, but we should encourage them to do the same for themselves. When a client routinely uses negative words or phrases in self-reference, that is a pretty good reflection of how the client feels about themself, and it continues to keep the client in that same sort of self-doubting, perhaps even self-loathing mindset. Encouraging the client to change the words they use may at first be met with skepticism, but is an important part of getting the client to see themself the way they ultimately would want to be seen by others—as someone fully capable of reaching their goals.    

            When you approach your work with clients through the strengths perspective, you will find yourself believing in their capacity for change, and hopefully getting them to buy into that same belief. Without using the strengths perspective, you are at best a recorder of events—certainly not a catalyst for change. We should strive to treat our clients even better, with more optimism, than we treat people in our own lives. If you are working with a client and you can’t identify at least as many strengths as weaknesses, you just need to keep looking. Ask a colleague for help if necessary. They’re there, and you need to find them to help that client take healthier control over his circumstances.



Curwen, T. (2015, January 24). State high court’s vote affecting Scout affiliation stirs debate

anew. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Gray, P. (2002). Psychology (4th ed.). Worth.

Guo, J. (2015, February 23). Everything you need to know about the gay discrimination wars in

2015. Washington Post. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (n.d.) History of the NASW code of ethics.

Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (1960). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (1967). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (1979). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2005). Social workers mobilize in wake of Hurricane Katrina [Press release]. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2021). NASW Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Illinois Chapter (2021). CEU requirements. Retrieved


National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) (2013). Mental health professionals’ duty to warn. Retrieved from warn.aspx.

Palazzolo, J. (2013, February 14). Racial gap in men’s sentencing. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Pope, K. (2001). Sex between therapists and clients. In J. Worrell (Ed.), Encyclopedia of women and gender: Sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender, pp. 955-962.

Roth, S. (2015, February 3). Bakery risks large fine for anti-gay discrimination. USA Today. Retrieved from cake/22771685/.

Saleebey, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: extensions and cautions.

Social Work, 41(3), pp. 296-305.

Saleebey, D. (2009). The strengths perspective in social work practice (5th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Saleebey, D. (2008). Commentary on the strengths perspective and potential applications in

school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), pp. 68-75.

Tennessee Department of Health (n.d.). Board of Social Workers: continuing education.

Retrieved from

Terrero, N. (2011, August 11). N.J. bridal shop refused to sell wedding dress to lesbian bride:

Owner says: “That’s illegal.” ABC News. Retrieved from shop-refused-sell-wedding-dress-lesbian/story?id=14342333.

Totenberg, N. (2020, June 15). Supreme Court delivers major victory to LGBTQ employees. National

Public Radio [NPR]. Retrieved from


Wilson, S. (1978). Confidentiality in social work. Macmillan.

Chapter 4: Generalist Practice

So far we have provided a basic understanding of what social work is, how it has evolved, and what social workers value.  As you may have realized, social work is a broad field that can address many different concerns in many different ways in our society.  This chapter will discuss the fundamentals of generalist social work practice, including how and where one can practice it.  By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Outline and explain the steps used to implement change;
  2. Define the different levels of social work practice;
  3. Identify various settings and their foci for social workers;
  4. Understand the multiple roles practitioners can utilize with client systems;
  5. Summarize the education and licensure process for professional social work.
Person sitting at a desk talking to two other people.
"Social Work Students' Accreditation Visit 3.26.13" by Southern Arkansas University is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Social Work as a Career

Choosing a career takes a lot of thought, and one needs to consider several different aspects of an occupation before deciding what path to pursue.  While often our own experiences can draw us to a specific field, like social work, our values also help guide us to choose those careers that will be fulfilling to us not only professionally, but personally as well.  The last chapter reflected on the various values and ethical perspectives of the social work field; and if you are pursuing this line of work because you also believe in the importance of helping others and giving back to society, you are in good company.  Social work can often be a thankless job and, as a true helping profession, less importance is placed on income than on intrinsic rewards when one helps parents adopt a child, works with family members to prepare for and grief the loss of a terminally ill relative, or teaches a student stress management skills that allow her to effectively take her math tests.  However, values alone are not going to guarantee career congruence if you are thinking about social work.

When it comes down to it, social workers are helpers, plain and simple.  How they help, the clients they work with, and where they perform their duties, can vary a great deal.  It is important for social work students to have at least a basic understanding of the different roles they could play in different practice settings so they can find the employer and job that will fit them best.  It is just as key to know your own limits and boundaries so that you are not entering a position in which you will be ineffective due to your own uneasiness or inability.  This chapter will focus on generalist social work practice and roles, main settings for social workers, and the educational paths to joining the social work profession.  While you read the chapter and gain an understanding of what social workers do in the most basic form, take time to imagine yourself performing the various roles in the numerous settings.  This will give you a greater understanding of how and who you want to help. 


The Generalist Social Worker

The generalist social worker is the greatest common denominator when it comes to social work practice.  The Council on Social Work Education (2015), or CSWE, the accrediting body for social work education, describes generalist social work practice this way:

Generalist practice is grounded in the liberal arts and the person-in-environment framework.  To promote human and social well-being, generalist practitioners use a range of prevention and intervention methods in their practice with diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities based on scientific inquiry and best practices.  The generalist practitioner identifies with the social work profession and applies ethical principles and critical thinking in practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.  Generalist practitioners engage diversity in their practice and advocate for human rights and social and economic justice.  They recognize, support, and build on the strengths and resiliency of all human beings.  They engage in research-informed practice and are proactive in responding to the impact of context on professional practice. (p. 11).

In order to conceptualize this definition of generalist social work practice, the CSWE  (2015) outlines core competencies, which they update every seven years, that all accredited Bachelor of Social Work programs are required to instill in their graduates.  They are: 

  1. Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
  2. Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
  3. Advance Human Rights and Social, Racial, Economic, and Environmental Justice
  4. Engage Practice-informed Research and Research-Informed Practice
  5. Engage in Policy Practice
  6. Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  7. Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  8. Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
  9. Evaluate practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities (pp. 7-9)

The only change currently drafted for the 2022 update is "Competency 2: Engage Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Practice" (CSWE, 2021b).  These competencies give social workers a solid foundation upon which to build their practice and how they carry themselves as a professional.  The last of these can further be broken into a four-part process social workers use when engaging in direct work with their clients to affect change.  Let us look at how one social worker uses this change process in her work in a women’s correctional facility.



             Paula Wright is a social worker at a women’s correction facility, and Janice Smith is a new inmate on her caseload who has been incarcerated for drug possession.  Janice has been mandated to meet with Paula on a weekly basis.  All social work begins with engagement.  In this instance, engagement begins before Janice comes in for her first visit.  Having an understanding of the background of the client is important even before you meet with the client.  What are the concerns being identified?  What are some of the demographics of the client?  These can be useful in preparing an approach for working with the client.

Once Janice comes in, Paula then needs to build a relationship with her before even beginning to help her work on any goals.  If Janice does not feel connected to Paula, feels Paula is not invested in the relationship, or senses Paula does not care about her, she will not be able to work toward any change she wants to achieve.  Getting Janice’s perspective on the issues that lead her to be incarcerated, showing empathy, and being genuine are all basic skills Paula will use to build the connection between the two of them.  Allowing the client to direct the focus of the helping relationship will further allow the relationship to grow.  Often in mandated situations, some of the focus of the helping relationship is dictated by outside entities, making it difficult to allow clients to be directive in what they want to accomplish.  However, a social worker can still, and truly need to, help clients establish their own goals and create the change they want to see in their own lives.

It is important to note at this point that since Janice is being mandated to work with Paula, the whole process can be difficult to get through.  In fact Paula may never be able to truly connect with Janice and work toward helping Janice make any significant change in her life.  Clients are not always going to be invested in the process, even if they are self-referred, through no fault of the social worker.  Yet it is still important to continue to work on engaging clients before trying to help them create change in their lives.

Drawing of two people with speech bubbles overlapping.
Building rapport with our clients is an integral part of establishing an effective helping relationship.  Without a connection, clients are not as invested in the change process.



            In the assessment part of the process, it is important for Paula to get a better understanding of not only how Janice came to be on her caseload, but also the state of affairs in Janice’s life and Janice as a person.  This includes not only knowing the details of her arrest, her emotional state of mind at the time, what was going on in her life that led up to her possessing drugs, and how she feels about the situation, but we also need to have a better understanding of who Janice is as a person, especially her strengths.  As was talked about in Chapter 2, the strengths perspective is a very important part of social work.  This is the time when we can utilize that perspective and assess what the strengths of our clients are while understanding what their limitations might be.

After building rapport by establishing a connection with Janice and talking with her a few times, let us say that Paula found out Janice was pulled over for speeding, suspected of driving while intoxicated, and the drugs were found in her car because her husband, Frank, had left them there when he used her car to make a deal.  She is currently very angry at Frank, and wants very much to get back at him for allowing her to go to prison.  Janice also told Paula at one point that she does not believe in divorce and wants to still try to make her marriage work.

Paula has to be careful here in how she works with Janice to choose goals of the helping relationship.  Paula may be inclined to think Frank is not good for her and want a goal to be helping Janice understand the usefulness of and work toward a divorce.  However, it is Paula’s duty to help Janice identify goals and what she wants to change in her own life, Paula cannot dictate that Janice needs to leave her husband.  It may seem as though Paula is the expert here, but Janice is the expert on Janice; she knows better than anyone what she wants from life.  The goals should be something that Paula and Janice agree will be positive in Janice’s life, not something that will be harmful to her.  If she wants to work on her marriage, getting back at Frank by, say, beating him with a baseball bat is counterproductive and could cause more problems in her life.  In this way, Paula’s professional assessment of the data can help with interpreting the efficacy of Janice’s goals.

Once initial goals are established, Paula then needs to identify appropriate intervention strategies that will allow Janice to meet these goals.  Where Janice is the expert on what she wants to accomplish, Paula will work with her to come up with different strategies to achieve these goals.  In their discussion on generalist social work practice, Morales and Sheafor (1998) state, “The social worker is required to have a broad knowledge and skill base from which to serve clients or client systems and to have the ability to appropriately select from that base to meet the needs of the clients.” (p. 39) Janice will still be an important part of determining which strategies will be implemented, again relying on the fact that she is the expert on herself, but Paula brings the options to the table.



This is the stage of the process in which the bulk of the work is done in the relationship.  Depending on the client, the first few stages may not take as much time to get through.  This stage, on the other hand, will make up the majority of what social workers do with clients.  In the previous stage of the process, Janice and Paula decided that one of Janice’s goals was to work on better managing her anger.  In order to do so, it was decided that Janice would keep an anger journal and would attend an anger management group in the prison.  In the intervention stage, these strategies are implemented and monitored.  Paul and Janice can process the entries in Janice’s anger journal and discuss her anger triggers consequences, and coping skills.  They can also discuss how the group is going for Janice and what she is getting out of it.  At this stage, Paula is focused on helping Janice resolve the problems she identifies and works on the behalf of the client.

It is important to note that all the work done during intervention is not just when the social worker and the client are together.  There will be times when we have to connect with others to help get the needs of the clients met.  In order to get Janice into the anger management group, Paula may have to touch base with the social worker that runs that group and advocate for Janice to be able to join.  There may be other times that Paula will have to interact with the prison system, other case managers, even her supervisor, on behalf of Janice.  As generalists, our work is not confined solely to the space in which we interact with our clients; that is just where it starts.

african american, african descent, afro, analyzing, black people, brainstorming, business, businesswoman, colleagues, communication, computer, digital device, discussion, diverse, focus, helping, ideas, laptop, meeting, note, notebook, notepad, office, partnership, people, planning, preparation, strategy, stressed, talking, team, teamwork, technology, togetherness, training, wireless, women, work, working, writing, electronic device, vision care, eyewear, job, conversation, glasses, girl
The evaluation piece of the change process is an integral part of serving others.  It is needed to inform the work done at any level.



            While the evaluation stage is separate from the intervention stage, it is important to acknowledge the close interplay between the two.  In order to best inform our work with the clients when it comes to the interventions we utilize, it is important for us to evaluate their effectiveness not only on a case by case basis, but as an intervention strategy in general.  Therefore the evaluation stage can be broken down into two distinct parts.

The first piece is evaluating the current work we are doing with our clients.  In the case of Janice, Paula can determine, while processing with her, how effective the strategies are in helping Janice manage her anger.  If Janice reports that she does not like the anger journal, Paula will try to get a better understanding of why that is so she can determine if the anger journal is really a strategy that should still be pursued.  If Janice states that she writes in it but feels even angrier once she is done, the two of them need to process why this is and determine how to proceed.  If the intervention is not being done correctly, the two of them can revisit how and what to write in the journal.  If it is determined that the intervention is not working, they can implement a different strategy.  In this sense, it is easy to see why the evaluation is critically important to the intervention part of this process.

            The second piece of evaluation comes when Janice is no longer on Paula’s caseload.  At the end of the helping relationship, Paula should be evaluating how effective the strategies were for helping Janice reach her goals.  This will help bring an understanding of how useful strategies are with different clients or with different goals.  While journals can be utilized to help clients achieve a variety of goals, not just anger management, Paula may need to improve how the strategy is introduced to clients to make sure they know how to utilize it.  If Janice stated that the journal was not helpful, Paula may want to look into other strategies that are useful in helping manage anger.  This will allow her to build her knowledge base of effective interventions and, in the end, help her become a better social worker.  While distinct, both parts of the evaluation process are necessary and important in informing our work as helpers.


Fluid Process

            The four-part process outlined above should be thought of not simply as a step-by-step procedure that needs to be followed in a specific order to make change happen, it is important to be aware that the whole process is fluid in nature and parts may be repeated.  While there is always a beginning and end to any helping relationship, and therefore an engagement stage and an evaluation stage, each relationship is unique and may not follow a preordained path to change.  Social workers do not get to work with clients in a closed system, even when someone is incarcerated like Janice.  The interchange between the various systems in a client’s life can lead social workers to revisit the assessment phase and rework goals or plan new interventions, back to the engagement phase to rebuild a broken connection between practitioner and client, or jump forward to the evaluation phase if a helping relationship ends before expected.

While Janice is incarcerated, she is still interacting with a number of systems.  Her husband may or may not be visiting her, either option having significant impacts on Janice’s state of mind.  She may not be getting along with some of the other inmates, resulting in physical altercations and further punishment.  Janice may even have been transferred before she and Paula had a chance to implement intervention strategies.  No matter what happens with clients outside of the direct interactions within the helping relationship, generalist social workers are prepared to apply the most appropriate stage of the four-part process.


Levels of Social Work

Other than the processes the tenth competency outlines for generalist practice, it also mentions the spectrum of clients with whom social workers have helping relationships.  In our case example, Janice Smith was the individual client with which Paula Wright was directly working.  However, Paula may have to expand her understanding of who the client is to the entire inmate population in her prison or even the entire state correctional department.  Miley, O’Melia, and DuBois (1998) state that:

Generalist social work practice provides an integrated and multileveled approach for meeting the purposes of social work.  Generalist practitioners acknowledge the interplay of person and collective issues, prompting them to work with a variety of human systems – societies, communities, neighborhoods, complex organizations, formal groups, families, and individuals – to create changes which maximize human system functioning (p. 9).

Generalists can utilize the four-part process with any client.  While it might involve more people, the basic ideas of engaging, assessing, intervening, and evaluating are not only easily applied to larger systems, it is necessary to apply them in order for change to happen.

Community Worker holding a service brochure called "Aged and Disability Services."
Caption: Community agencies can provide a number of programs for individuals and groups, as well as work to address policy concerns for their clients.  Social work is performed on different levels, with each level impacting a different size of system, anywhere from the individual to a whole society. "CEH - Aged Care Community Workers" by Eva Collado Molleda is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Social work can be divided into three distinct levels of practice, each focusing on the size of the system or systems in which the change is trying to be affected.  DuBois and Miley (2011) state, “Generalist social workers define client systems’ difficulties in the context of person:environment transactions.  Likewise, plans of action potentially create changes at a variety of system levels.  Social workers consider any system as containing options for change,” (p. 67).  The point is that generalist practitioners serve a wide range of different client systems, from the individual to families, community groups to school systems, American society to our global community.  Generalist practice seeks to affect healthy, positive change in varying systems affecting human functioning.  Ideas vary among social work educators which systems are addressed at which level of practice.  For instance, Zastrow (2008) identifies micro practice as working specifically with an individual, while the family system’s needs are addresses in mezzo level work.  DuBois and Miley (2011) place family work as part of the micro level, but list mezzo systems as being formal groups and complex organizations.  Still, the Encyclopedia of Social Work (Mizrah & Davis, 2008), in its Macro Social Work Practice entry, cites Rothman, Erlich, and Tropman in stating that macro level interventions are performed within communities, organizations, and small groups.  While there may be some crossover between what systems are worked with at each level, a useful way of looking at the different levels of social work is to understand the focus, rather than the specific systems, the level addresses.


Micro Level

            The most basic system of human functioning is at the heart of the micro level, and that is the individual.  The work done by practitioners at the micro level is focused on change within the individual.  While at times it may involve other people and working with other systems in a person’s life, such as the family unit, a friend group, or even the school district, it is still focused on impacting change within the individual members of these smaller groups.  A practitioner’s focus at this level is a particular individual with whom the social worker has a direct helping relationship.


Mezzo Level

            Social workers working at the mezzo level will definitely work with groups of individuals, rather than individuals themselves.  The focus of the efforts for change is directed at helping the individuals function as a cohesive unit rather than focusing on their own needs.  In this sense, mezzo level practice can be a team of employees, a school board, or a community task force, as long as the social worker is not working one-on-one with the individual members or in conjunction with the group to create larger social change.  Families are often considered to fall in between mezzo and micro levels; they are certainly small groups, but family work also often involves intensive work with individual members of the family.


Macro Level

            Macro level social work is focused on changing the largest systems of human functioning.  In the article “The Future of Macro Social Work,” Netting (2005) talks about how macro level practice is at the heart of social work in that it works with systems to sustain or improve the quality of life.  The focus at this level is to create change in the largest level of systems in which people exist.  Neighborhoods, communities, societies, even the world, are systems that are targeted by macro social work.  Oftentimes focused on social policy change, targeting both legislation (formal societal policy) and informal social policies that may have no physical or legal existence, macro level social work seeks to improve the quality of life for all individuals existing within the systems.


Box 4.1: Skill Levels

Social work practice at each level can be done by generalist social workers.  However, it should be pointed out that not all levels use the same skill sets to implement the change process.  With any skill, these can be nurtured and strengthened through your training as a social worker, so don’t worry if you don’t feel comfortable with all of these skills just yet.  Practice and experience will help.  For now, take a look at the varying skills needed at each level and think about what area you might want to focus on.

Micro level skills focus on being able to connect with individual clients on a more intimate level, as the work is done between two people.  The work done is built on a good connection with the client.  Some skills are:

  1. Empathy for what the client is going through, even if you have not experienced it yourself
  2. Interpersonal communication skills to be able to talk with and connect to the individual
  3. Flexibility and being able to change plans and focus of a session if needed
  4. Genuineness in how you interact with the client and what you say
  5. Understanding of problems they are experiencing and their background
  6. Being non-judgmental toward what is shared and the choices the client has made

Mezzo level skills can incorporate some of the micro skills, but involve working with a number of people as part of a bigger client system.  In this instance you cannot favor one group member over the other.  These skills include:

  1. Ability to unite group members for a common goal
  2. Mediation skills to handle conflict between group members
  3. Ability to switch focus rapidly from one issue to the next for each member
  4. Being comfortable with conflict between group members and understanding its usefulness in working toward change
  5. Good memory for recalling information shared by the different members as well as their personalities and experiences

Macro practice skills are more about accomplishing a task and moving people to action.  Your client is a locality, society, or the global community.  Some skills macro workers need to be strong in are:

  1. Leadership skills that motivate others and get them working toward a common goal
  2. Oratory skills to be able to clearly convey your intent and get your message across
  3. Social skills and proper etiquette to be able to connect with people in power
  4. Ability to “play the game” or knowing how the system works while using it to your advantage to get your needs met.
  5. Public speaking skills in order to be comfortable in front of large groups of people who may very well be judging you.
  6. Dedication, perseverance, and patience in order to stay with your goal despite the many obstacles that may get in your way.


Social Work Settings

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) acknowledged three significant concentration areas for the social workers 713,200 in the field in 2019: child, family, and school social workers; healthcare social workers; and mental health and substance abuse social workers. For the purpose of gaining a better understanding of social work, we can outline seven different common practice settings that social workers are employed in:

  1. Short and long-term healthcare facilities, including hospitals (civilian and military), primary care settings, clinics, and nursing homes.
  2. Community mental health agencies
  3. Schools, including primary, secondary, and higher education
  4. Federal, state, and local governments
  5. Correctional facilities
  6. Child welfare agencies
  7. Private practices

We will explore each of these settings further to get a better understanding of who the clients may be and what social workers may focus on when working in these arenas.  In this way we can see how each of these settings allows practitioners to practice at the different levels.


Healthcare Facilities

            Healthcare facilities employ a large number of people in general.  Pair that with the main function of helping people get better and the one can understand why this is one of the most popular settings for social workers.  Healthcare covers a wide array of services to improve both physical and mental health and, as such, facilities for these services vary greatly in form and function.  From smaller community clinics to nursing homes to large university hospitals, social workers can be found throughout the healthcare system.  They work with patients that have both physical and emotional/cognitive ailments, as well as families of patients.  Many patients, though not all, benefit from the help a worker provides in crises intervention, grief counseling, connecting them to resources, and helping them create a plan for dealing with their specific situation after they leave inpatient services.  Their function is often secondary to that of the nurses and doctors, but a vital part of the patient’s progress toward release.  For patients who are in long-term care and those who may never leave, like those in nursing homes, the social worker has a more lasting relationship with them and provides the mental health services the other patients would seek from outside agencies.  Actually, some healthcare facilities provide only mental health care services, both short- and long-term care, in which social workers play a primary role in addressing the patients’ health needs.  Some of the smaller clinics may even have this emphasis, but more closely resemble mental health agencies which will be the next setting discussed.

            More recently, social work has seen an increase in employment in military settings.  Specifically, because the number of service personnel who return from war with some kind of traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has increased, the government has amplified its hiring of mental health professionals, specifically social workers.  They can be found on military bases and in military hospitals, providing mental health treatment.

Social worker in the background facing the camera and talking with a client who is a veteran in the foreground.
One of the biggest areas in which social workers are employed is mental health.  Community mental health agencies do more than just individual therapy, and social workers can serve a number of different functions to clients in this setting. "Social Work" by Army Medicine is licensed under CC BY 2.0




Community Mental Health Agencies

            The mental health field is focused primarily on working with individuals to help them deal with concerns in their lives that have a negative and overwhelming impact on them.  There are many different specific reasons clients seek the help of a mental health professional, for instance, divorce, death of family member, domestic abuse, depression, addiction, even mental disorder are just a few.  However, there does not need to be a more specific reason for clients to seek out help other than the fact that they are not happy with something in their lives, even if they are not sure why, and they want help in addressing the issue.  Most employment opportunities in mental health are in mental health agencies, although, as was mentioned, some of this can be done in a healthcare setting as well.  Community mental health agencies can be either public or private, but almost always provide a variety of individual and group services to meet a wide range of needs.

Most often the work social workers do at this level is focused very much on the individual, usually one-on-one therapy, to address specific issues.  However, caseworkers are often in the mental health setting as well.  While they may not directly treat individuals who come in for help, caseworkers are often part of the team working with the clients and connect them to resources in the community to address other needs.  Moving up a level, mental health counseling can be done with couples or families as well.  A couple may seek help in their marriage after it is discovered that one of them has a gambling problem in order to repair the marriage.  Each of them may also seek help individually to work on issues specific to them, but in couple’s therapy, the focus is on repairing the relationship.  Finally, at the macro level, mental health work can be done in terms of impacting policy or changing societal views.  Fighting the stigma of mental health is something that needs a broader focus on what strategies to use.  In the same sense, increasing ease of access to mental health resources can take a lot of manpower and is aimed at changing a larger system to better serve individuals.



            Social workers can be found in all levels of education, from pre-school settings to primary school, high schools to post-secondary.  In a later chapter we will delve deeper into school social work, so for now, we will briefly discuss some of the functions practitioners have in this setting.  Is important, however, to know that social workers in school settings do not just work directly with students (and their parents at times), but an essential function of educational practice is to work with the school system itself.  The focus is always on working with the students as they relate to and interact with the school system, yet there are times the students are not even part of the work being done.  Some of the duties of social workers in school settings include running process groups, serving on threat assessment teams, individual crisis intervention, facilitating academic strategy workshops, and creating individualized educational plans (IEPs) for students with documented needs.  Collaboration with other stakeholders in the school and in the students’ lives, such as parents and teachers, is paramount in fulfilling these roles.  Practitioners need to help create the best learning environment for students so they can more effectively focus on their education.

            One role of social workers in a school setting that really stands out and warrants special mention is that of social work educators.  In order to teach social work in higher education, one must have a master’s degree to work at the community college level and usually a Ph.D. to teach full-time at the university level, so this is not necessarily a role a bachelor’s level generalist will take on.  While they may not carry out the duties we typically associate with social work, they are an integral part of the social work profession, by educating future practitioners and conducting research to inform social work practice.  Some social workers in this setting may even have a dual role of instructor and practitioner in the school.  However, the duties of each are very different and workers need to be careful how they manage both.



            Government settings are a little tricky to discuss when it comes to social work practice because many government-run or government-funded agencies are in all the other settings, except for private practice.  Therefore, we will not discuss the whole gamut of services that are provided by government agencies, but rather concentrate on the work social workers can perform directly for the government.  Social workers can be employed by all levels of government with expressed directives of practicing at the macro level.  Practitioners can influence new policy, reform old policy, set standards of care, oversee various agencies or programs.  The work they do is intended to guide how various other government agencies, social systems, even individuals interact with intended beneficiaries of these systems.  A local government can decide to implement school lunch programs in their district for students from low-income families or the state could consider options for admission and treatment of those presenting with self-harm in order to lower suicide rates.  As we will see, one of the roles we can play is that of community change agent.  Working in government can afford social workers greater opportunity to take on this role.


Box 4.1: Career Choice

    When one of your authors was going through his Master of Social Work program, he was interning with a youth mentoring program where high school students paired up with middle school students, participating in various after-school activities.  One of the regular activities we did was to visit different nursing homes and participate in activities with the older adult residents there.  Every time they went, he could not wait for the event to end.  He spent most of the time feeling uneasy, being uncomfortable, and counting the minutes until they left, clearly not focusing on the students or the interactions with the residents of the nursing home.  It wasn’t what his group was doing or the population they were interacting with.  What bothered him the most was the smell in the air when they got inside the homes.  It all could have been in his head, but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t handle it.  He knew that he would never be able to work in that sort of environment.  When thinking about these different work settings and trying to imagine where you would fit best, answer the three following questions:

  1. What would I like about working in this setting?  Is it the clients I would interact with, the type of roles I would play, the problems I would be dealing with?
  2. What about this setting would be hard for me to deal with?
  3. With how I am now, is it something I can realistically move past in order to focus on the clients?

There is nothing wrong with admitting when you are not going to be a good fit for a specific environment.  Not doing so would be neglecting the well-being of our clients.  Don’t expect that you will eventually be able to deal with those things that bother you.



Prison systems may not be what we typically think of in terms of social work environments.  Yet when you really get down to it, having social workers in corrections actually fits with social work values nicely and makes a lot of sense.  In valuing human worth and dignity, we help them make changes for a more productive and positive quality of life.  The clients in this case are mainly people who have been convicted of a crime, although family members may also be a part of the client system.  As seen with Paula Wright and Janice Smith in our case example earlier, the main function of social workers within the actual prison is centered on the rehabilitation of the person who has been incarcerated.  Family members may be a part of the work done, but the focus is on the person in prison.  Social workers can function as case workers and perform a variety of roles, but this will include mental health or substance abuse counseling with the inmates either individually or in a group setting within the prison.  Another possible route within the corrections environment, but not necessarily housed in the prison itself, is that of parole officer/probation officer.  These positions can help those who were in prison make and sustain positive changes in their lives that will keep them from returning.

This work can be done with adults and juveniles alike.  Services for juveniles become more involved with the family, at times with a child welfare twist, and need to include an educational component to them as well.  Since juvenile centers tend to be more concerned about preventing repeat offenders than adult facilities, there is more work done with the various environments in the client’s life.


Child Welfare Agencies

            In the beginning of their book on child welfare, Mather and Lager (2000) said, “Child Welfare is not just about the welfare of children, it is about the welfare and future of humankind.  As we touch a child in any way, we influence tomorrow and the tomorrows to come.” (p. 1).  The prevalence of this practice setting, although a little disconcerting, should be seen as a strong dedication to working for those who have little authority and may feel as though they have no voice.  Arguably the most recognizable function in child welfare agencies is child abuse and neglect investigation.  However, social workers in these agencies are not working only with children in these situations.  At times, workers will work with various other domains that are a part of the child’s life such as the family setting, the child’s school, a place of worship, or even their park district.  They can even work with families that do not have abuse in the home, but are struggling to provide their children with basic needs such as food, shelter, and education.  The idea is to work to provide children with the proper safe and loving environment that will nurture their growth through adolescence into adulthood.

            This can be done in many ways depending on the specific issue.  Some new parents may need basic child care instruction, or a school district wants to train their staff on how to identify signs of abuse and neglect, and how to intervene.  Abused children might need mental health treatment to deal with trauma, whereas a community may benefit from implementing an afterschool program for children from single-parent households.  Let us not forget about the social welfare policy work that can be done in influencing legislature to better address the needs of the families and children working with these agencies.  These are all activities that child welfare agencies can address.  The work they provide is not only about removing children from unsafe and unhealthy environments, it is about providing for the whole spectrum of needs a child may have and helping the environments they interact with nurture them.

Child alone playing in the dirt.
We often equate child welfare to child abuse and neglect, but it more than that.  It covers anything related to providing a nurturing environment for children to grow into adulthood.  Social workers in child welfare work with families, schools, mental health agencies, and juvenile justice systems to name a few.  
(This photo can be found here on pxfuel and is free for commercial use according to DMCA.)



Private Practice

            Working in a private practice setting can be very different from working in a community mental health agency, despite the fact that both focus on mental health.  Private practices cater to individuals and smaller family units, and often the practitioners are contracted, masters-level licensed social workers, or professional counselors, who do not work for the practice full-time.  At times these professionals may even need to solicit clients on their own in order to get appointments and earn money.  The services they provide these clients are usually focused during the regular weekly hour appointment, with responsibility to implement the different interventions or strategies lying with the clients.  Social workers may help plan for and provide an environment for the change process, but it is really up to the client to move forward and actually make the change. 

Other than the macro/mezzo level work they do, helpers' roles in private practice settings usually do not allow for anything more.  While social workers who work in these settings may be involved in higher level practice, it is usually part of another job they have or on their own time.  Even in terms of the working environment, those that work for the practice may not engage in professional activities or efforts as a team.  In fact, they may not even interact much with each other in the office setting.  In this sense, private practice very much revolves around creating change on an individual level.


Social Work Roles

            No matter what practice setting they are in, social workers will need to take on a number of different roles to address the varying issues they will be faced with when working with different client systems.  Oftentimes, we might be called to play a number of roles when working with one specific client.  So it is imperative for the generalist practitioner to not only understand each role, but know which one is appropriate with each client, given any situation.  While the list we will discuss is by no means all-inclusive in terms of the functions social workers might have, we do want to stress those roles that are basic to the foundation of generalist practice.

            Colorado State University (2015) identifies six practice roles for generalist social work that students going through their BSW program will master: Advocate, Broker, Community Change Agent, Counselor, Mediator, and Researcher.  To supplement this list, we will add mentor/teacher.



            The Encyclopedia of Social Work stated that the advocate role of social workers has been a part of the profession since 1887 (Mizrah & Davis, 2008). Today it continues to be one of the most vital and consistent roles social workers play at all levels of practice.  Advocacy is at the heart of social work values.  Being an advocate allows a worker to fight for social justice when it comes to their client system.  In the most basic form, advocacy is simply being a voice for the client system with which you are working.  However, there is much involved in being an advocate for your client.  It is more than just understanding the needs of the client system, injustices the client may be facing, or and how you can intervene.  At times, advocating for a client takes tact and patience in order to bring about the desired result.  It takes knowing the client system, knowing the system in which the client is not getting needs met, and being assertive in communicating in a matter-of-fact way rather than a blaming or demeaning way.  Whether it is helping parents of a child with autism obtain the appropriate accommodations for their child in a school setting, or lobbying a government body for monies for a homeless shelter, advocacy can be seen at all levels of social work practice.  If we revisit our social worker, Paula Wright, and her client, Janice Smith, we can have a better idea of how this role plays out.

Advocate spelled out in Scrabble tiles with other tiles laying around the word.
Advocate is one of the main functions social workers take on when working with clients.  As an advocate for those we help, we are their voice when they have been silenced by injustice, marginalization, discrimination, or personal crisis.  
“Advocate” by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


During one of their sessions, Janice reports that her husband has not brought her kids to visit her in prison during visiting hours.  She tells Paula that Frank had promised to bring her kids at least once a month but has not seen them for several months now.  She states that whenever she talks to Frank about it, he changes the subject and ends the call quickly.  Janice starts to cry and Paula can tell she is feeling dejected and lonely.  She had said her children were everything to her.  Understanding the situation, Paula prepares a plan to advocate for Janice.

            At times, there is a fine line between advocating for a client and enabling a client to continue with a behavior that has a negative impact on her life.  In this situation Paula may need to help Janice use her own voice in advocating for herself by helping her be assertive in her conversations with Frank about her children.  However, this is where understanding your client is so important.  When Paula advocates for Janice, she would want to talk to Frank – with a signed consent from Janice – about the importance of seeing her children.  If it is a case of Frank not having adequate transportation or that his new job requires him to work during prison visiting hours, then there is something else that Paula can address.  If Frank states that he simply does not want to bring the kids to see his wife, then Paula can continue to advocate and get other systems involved, such as different family members or even a lawyer.  Either way, Paula is working to give Janice a voice in a time when she needs one, when she may not feel like she has one, and when she has been on the receiving end of some level of injustice or unfairness.



            The broker role is another role that has been around a long time in social work.  It too relates to valuing our clients and their worth, because we know that they are deserving of a high quality of life and we want to be able to help them get the services and goods that will allow them to have that life.  The broker and advocate often go hand-in-hand because when we are helping our clients have a voice, we are often helping connect them with resources they may not have known about.  It is our duty as social workers, then, to be well-informed of the resources available locally, throughout the state, and at the federal level that will address a multitude of needs for the client systems with which we may work.  This of course is a basic tenant of generalist social work practice and is something that needs to be continually updated, as social service agencies may add new programs, stop offering other programs, or close their doors altogether.  Funding sources can drive program needs, so it is important that, as brokers, we reacquaint ourselves with resources to identify new ones and stop referring to those that are no longer around.

            As Janice gets closer to the end of her sentence, she and Paula discuss the progress she has made with her anger management and what is going to happen once she leaves prison.  Janice admits it will be tough for her to not fall back into old habits and wants to be proactive about it.  Paula does some research for anger management support groups in or around her hometown.  During their visits, Janice had admitted that, although she did not use illegal drugs, she had a problem with alcohol and wanted to continue her sober ways once she got out.  Paula can provide Janice with meeting times for Alcoholics Anonymous, numbers for 12-step programs in her area, as well as Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon information that may be helpful for her husband, her children, and her.  Janice is also interested in holding a steady job, but is not sure where to begin to find one, especially with her criminal record.  Paula works to locate any agencies that help formerly imprisoned individuals secure gainful employment, such as Goodwill Industries, or possibly connect Janice to her local community college for job skills training.  Being able to identify the needs in clients’ lives and link them with resources that can help identify those needs can truly make a difference for them.  What could seem like a very overwhelming situation to be in, and not knowing how to obtain even basic needs, is eased by a generalist’s knowledge of what programs to look for, what agencies are out there, and how to hook clients up with those resources.

Person speaking at a podium during a Black Lives Matter rally.
Social workers, as community change agents, work to educate the community and fight against injustices of any kind.  Helping bring awareness to social issues, such as anti-Black racism, can include peaceful protests and marches. 
"Black Lives Matter Protest Times Square New York City June 7 2020" by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Community Change Agent

            Whether it is a result of the work done with an individual client or as part of a larger organization, social workers are often called to be agents of change within communities of various sizes.  At times our work with an individual client may prompt us to address a bigger issue within the community in order to help all those negatively impacted by social perception, behavior, or policies.  This role is most closely related to macro level practice because of the clear focus on changing formal and informal social policies.  Wherever injustice is found in how a community, large organization, or society at large functions, generalists should be confronting it and working for change.  Social workers can strive to create positive change in communities in many ways such as:

  • Helping to secure additional funding for schools that serve primarily low-income neighborhoods
  • Working with an organization to train various agencies and businesses in how to become compliant with non-smoking laws
  • Creating a social media campaign in a school district aimed at anti-bulling education
  • Organizing a coat drive to provide individuals who are homeless with proper winter protection

Identifying the needs of various communities with which we have contact will better guide us in what kind of change we should be working for.

            The prison setting itself is a large community that may have its own issues that need to be addressed.  Paula may realize a large number of inmates may benefit from job skills training, including Janice.  She may be a part of a committee in the prison that identifies needs and finds resources to address them or she may have to recruit other caseworkers to help her in finding different agencies, funding sources, or training to facilitate a job skills curriculum with the identified inmates.  In the process, Paula will still be working for the benefit of her clients, but is imparting change on the much larger prison system to be able to function better as an institution of rehabilitation.  community change agents want the communities they are working with to provide the best environment for all members, without neglecting anyone.



            As an occupation, a counselor is often a title given primarily to professionals who possess a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field and hold a state license to practice counseling.  At times when master’s level social workers are doing one-on-one therapy with clients, this is often considered counseling as well.  However, when using it here as a social work role, we want to differentiate between the specific title of counselor and what we mean as the counseling function generalist social workers perform.  Counseling is most often associated with going to an office and talking to someone about your problems and in return they give you advice on how to approach those problems.  This is a common misconception because counseling is not about giving advice at all. In reality, when counseling, practitioners help clients understand their concerns better, work with them to create a solution to address the concerns, and help them gain skills and modify behaviors that will better equip them to deal with similar concerns in the future.  Why this role can be distinct from the others is that, unlike brokering or advocating through connection with outside entities or resources, counseling is working to build clients' capacity for change within themselves.  This can be done at both the micro level with individual counseling, or at the mezzo level with families or support groups.

            Since Janice talked about wanting to manage her anger better, Paula was able to connect her with an anger management group in prison that met on a weekly basis.  The two of them also addressed her anger management in session by processing what happened in group, discussing progress through the use of other strategies such as her anger journal, and building behavioral skills to address her anger when needed.  In this way, much like a professionally titled counselor might do, Paula is helping, not directing, Janice to create the capacity within herself to manage her anger in a more positive and constructive way on her own.  In her anger management group, the social worker leading the group is doing much of the same in helping the group members work with and support each other in improving these same skills.  Counseling is a unique role because the main resource used to help clients change is each individual client.



            While advocacy allows us to give our clients a voice, mediation can allow us to help our clients hear each other.  As mediators, social workers are often called to help bring resolution to a situation between two or more parties that is equitable to everyone.  Mediation can help divorcing spouses more amicably divide possessions, parents disputing custody come to an agreement about visitation rights, even school systems and family systems come to agreement on educational accommodations for children with special needs.  However, in this role, our client is everyone who is involved; we do not side with any one party and must remain neutral.  That way we can guarantee that there are no favorites and we are not finding a solution that is more beneficial for one person or party than another.  There may be times when the groups involved in mediation have their own social workers with them, but this is more as a means to advocate for their client and to protect them from being taken advantage of or unjustly treated.  As mediators, we should view the client as being the system in which those represented are a part; a great example of mezzo social work.

            In the case of Paula and Janice, Paula would not be able to mediate the dispute between Janice and Frank in regard to bringing her children to visit.  Paula has built a counseling relationship with Janice.  If Paula were to become a mediator, Janice might see this as siding with Frank because Paula has to look out for Frank’s rights as well, and Frank might feel like Paula is helping out Janice more because she is Janice’s caseworker.  Ideally, another social worker would be brought in to mediate between Frank and Janice and set up an agreement about visitation that was beneficial to both of them and did not demand more from one or the other.  Paul would be able to mediate a similar situation between inmate and spouse or even a situation in which there was a property dispute between two inmates that were not on her caseload because both parties have no formal connection to her.  Mediation allows us to hold true to our social work values by not helping one person or group have an unfair or unjust advantage over another person or group, thus treating everyone as deserving.



            Not everything that we learn as children is taught to us by our classroom teachers.  Parents, siblings, even friends teach us how to function in the social setting when we are younger.  Unlike formal education in which schools need to meet state standards in order to ensure children are progressing at the appropriate level, there are no formal assessments when it comes to social-emotional learning and other learning done outside the classroom.  There is really no assurance, is there, that all humans are learning or have learned social mores, what others assume is common sense, and how to behave in various situations.  When we work with clients who are having a hard time navigating environments they are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, we have a duty to help them gain the skills they need to effectively deal with these and other situations.  Whether it is teaching someone how to budget their money, lending support as they enter a new job, or teaching them how to engage someone in a conversation, skill-building is often an integral role practitioners play in empowering clients to gain control of the stressful and anxiety-provoking situations they come up against.

            While mentoring and teaching can be two distinct roles, in a social work view they should be thought of as interrelated.  Counseling professors often pass along information in a formal way, with the information being fact-based or accepted knowledge, and expect the students to take on a responsibility to learn it.  Any follow-up to clarify confusion, address questions, or get additional help with the material is primarily the responsibility of the student.  Mentoring is much less formal and often more advice giving or guidance that is based on the mentor’s experience.  It is caring about the mentee, being a support and providing direction for the person along the way; taking a more proactive approach to addressing confusion and not just leaving it up to that person to tell you when they need help.  In social work, we are trying to combine these two to make the “learning environment” one in which we can give our clients knowledge or skills needed for their situation and be there for them.  Since we are invested in the success of our clients, we do not want to just teach them and leave them.  We need to be there as they try the skills out and learn how to use them properly.

            In a prison setting, there is a lot that can be new for someone, even if they have been in prison before.  Different prisons may have different social rules one must follow.  Paula can work with Janice to help her understand her daily routine.  She can advise Janice how to deal with the guards and the other inmates as different situations come up.  In terms of Janice’s anger management, Paula can instruct Janice on specific meditation techniques she herself has used to help Janice keep calm in times of high stress and work with her on improving her emotional intelligence so her anger does not translate into aggressive and destructive behavior.  Being attuned to Paula’s needs, even if Paula does not bring them up, and helping address them is an important aspect of mentoring.

Person sitting at a desk in front of a laptop with a notebook on the side.
Research is an integral part of social work.  It helps with evaluation of interventions and overall work done with clients.  Staying current as a professional also requires researching effective strategies for addressing the various needs our clients bring to us.  
This photo can be found here on pxhere and is licensed under CC0 1.0.



            All social workers are called to be researchers in a number of ways, all of which will help inform other roles they play with clients.  While university faculty members are often on the forefront of conducting research studies, the type of research in which generalists partake is not necessarily completing research to be published in professional journals.  Research can be done to find the most effective intervention strategies for working with children who wet the bed, at the end of a drug education program to evaluate student learning, while working with a taskforce to assess the community’s understanding of their homeless population, or even with individual clients to gain a better understanding of our work with them and the effectiveness of the strategies we implement during treatment.  The purpose of researching is to make sure we are informed professionals directing efforts in an effectual and valuable way.  As we saw earlier in the chapter, the core competencies specifically address utilizing practice that is backed by research and by using our practice to better direct research.  Others are expecting this proof of usefulness as well.

            More and more practitioners are needing to provide some evidence that the work they are doing with various clients is effective.  Depending on the setting in which the generalist is practicing, various funding sources, boards of directors, or even client systems themselves are looking for proof that they are not wasting time and resources on directives or programs that are not making a big enough change.  Before, reports of positive changes, improved mood, and better quality of life were sufficient to justify the work being done.  Yet, as our field relies a greater deal on outcome-based funding, we also need to continue to make our client systems a priority.  We have a duty to provide the best services we can and research helps us do that.

            Prisons often deal with issues of overcrowding and underfunding.  Other than the continuous process of evaluating how well the interventions she and Janice have implemented and researching best-practices and evidence-based interventions for anger management, Paula may have to collect quantitative data from Janice and others on her caseload to show how much improvement is being made.  Depending on the political climate and public policy, governments are often looking to see where they can save money and make budget cuts.  Paula has been working under a three-year grant that is currently up for renewal.  As a result, Paula has to provide detailed results of how they have used the money, what kind of changes she sees in the inmates with whom she works, and a plan for how the grant will be utilized for the next three years.  At times this can seem tedious and distracting from the direct practice Paula is doing with the inmates, including Janice.  Still it is important to remember this is a part of the greater effort to provide Janice, and the other women who are incarcerated, with the most up-to-date, efficient, and helpful service Paula can give them.


Box 4.2: Case Management

The NASW Standards for Social Work Case Management (National Association of Social Workers, 2013) state, “Case management dates its development to the emergence of the social work profession and remains integral to 21st-century social work practice.”  With the importance case management plays in social work practice, NASW has outlined the following 12 standards for case management:

Standard 1. Ethics and Values – The social work case manager shall adhere to and promote the ethics and values of the social work profession, using the NASW Code of Ethics as a guide to ethical decision making in case management practice.

Standard 2. Qualifications – The social work case manager shall possess a baccalaureate or advanced degree in social work from a school or program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education; shall comply with the licensing and certification requirements of the state(s) or jurisdiction(s) in which [they practice]; and shall possess the skills and professional experience necessary to practice social work case management.

Standard 3. Knowledge – The social work case manager shall acquire and maintain knowledge of current theory, evidence informed practice, sociohistorical context, policy, research, and evaluation methods relevant to case management and the population served, and shall use such information to ensure the quality of case management practice.

Standard 4. Cultural and Linguistic Competence – The social work case manager shall provide and facilitate access to culturally and linguistically appropriate services, consistent with the NASW Indicators for the Achievement of the NASW Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice.

Standard 5. Assessment – The social work case manager shall engage clients—and, when appropriate, other members of client systems—in an ongoing information-gathering and decision-making process to help clients identify their goals, strengths, and challenges.

Standard 6. Service Planning, Implementation, and Monitoring – The social work case manager shall collaborate with clients to plan, implement, monitor, and amend individualized services that promote clients’ strengths, advance clients’ well-being, and help clients achieve their goals. Case management service plans shall be based on meaningful assessments and shall have specific, attainable, measurable objectives.

Standard 7. Advocacy and Leadership – The social work case manager shall advocate for the rights, decisions, strengths, and needs of clients and shall promote clients’ access to resources, supports, and services.

Standard 8. Interdisciplinary and Interorganizational Collaboration – The social work case manager shall promote collaboration among colleagues and organizations to enhance service delivery and facilitate client goal attainment.

Standard 9. Practice Evaluation and Improvement – The social work case manager shall participate in ongoing, formal evaluation of her or his practice to advance client well-being, assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of services and supports, ensure competence, and improve practice.

Standard 10. Record Keeping – The social work case manager shall document all case management activities in the appropriate client record in a timely manner. Social work documentation shall be recorded on paper or electronically and shall be prepared, completed, secured, maintained, and disclosed in accordance with regulatory, legislative, statutory, and organizational requirements.

Standard 11. Workload Sustainability – The social work case manager shall responsibly advocate for a caseload and scope of work that permit high-quality planning, provision, and evaluation of case management services.

Standard 12. Professional Development and Competence – The social work case manager shall assume personal responsibility for her or his professional development and competence in accordance with the NASW Code of Ethics, the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education, and the licensure or certification requirements of the state(s) or jurisdiction(s) in which the social worker practices.


Case Management

            In a sense case management is not really a unique role, but a function that needed to be addressed all the same.  It was purposefully left for the end of this section because case manager or caseworker are often specific jobs social workers can have.  Case management is a collection of the many different roles which social workers regularly do.  In whatever setting, they need to be working in many different ways for their clients.  Whether it is to connect them with housing assistance, work with school officials to obtain better accommodations for a child who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, or help build time management skills with the client, they will need to utilize their generalist social work knowledge base.  They need to understand their clients and their clients’ needs, and tailor the services they provide to facilitate the desired change.


Social Work Education and Professional Regulation

            As mentioned earlier in the chapter, generalist practice is the central foundation for any social worker, and we visited the nine competencies set forth by the Council of Social Work Education.  The CSWE created, and regularly evaluates and updates, the competencies in order to ensure graduates from accredited programs have gained the knowledge needed to be competent social workers.  Currently, the CSWE accredits programs at both the bachelor and masters level.  While there are various programs at the associate level and many universities offering doctoral programs, the CSWE does not offer accreditation at these levels of education for various reasons.  In the frequently asked questions section of their website, the CSWE (2009) addressed this by stating:

CSWE limits its accreditation function to programs that prepare students for professional social work practice, i.e., baccalaureate and master’s degree programs. In general, associate degree programs prepare students for paraprofessional-level positions in social service agencies.  Doctoral degrees in social work are typically research-oriented and primarily prepare students for academic, research, or administrative positions. In most instances, persons seeking a doctorate in social work already have a master's degree in social work. (online)

Following this reasoning, we will further discuss the two levels that are accredited by the CSWE.


Bachelor’s Programs

            There are currently 533 baccalaureate programs of social work accredited throughout the United States, with another dozen in candidacy (CSWE, 2021a).  Each of these programs, with their curriculum designed to address the core competencies, will allow graduates to enter the field of social work as a generalist practitioner and work under the title of “Social Worker”.  As previously stated, these programs help students gain a broad knowledge base to be able to provide an array of functions, and to do so at each of the three levels of practice.  While the mandates of the CSWE direct curriculum design, there is some autonomy in what courses colleges and universities use to achieve those goals.

Aside from the liberal arts foundation mentioned previously in the chapter, specific social work courses may include topics such as introduction to social work, generalist practice, social welfare policy, human behavior, research methodology, diversity, and practice methods.  Other than course work, both bachelor’s and master’s accredited programs provide students with field experience working in a human service organization setting.  Larrison and Korr (2013) refer to Goldstein in identifying field practice as a very necessary part of generalist education.  As a result, recently graduated social workers join the workforce with a solid knowledge base in social work theory, concepts, and practice methods, as well as real field experience applying what they have learned.

Person dressed in graduation regalia with a paper in her hand and other graduates in the background.
All students graduating from an accredited social work program have the knowledge and skills to be generalist social workers.  You can continue for a master’s degree to specialize in a specific concentration.  Even with a degree, all states require professional licensure and continued education if you want to practice as a professional social worker.  
(This photo can be found here on pxfuel and is free for use under DMCA.)



Master’s Programs

The Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) set forth by the CSWE (2008) view master’s programs as educating the advanced practitioner, stating, “advanced practice incorporates all of the core competencies augmented by knowledge and practice behaviors specific to a concentration.” (p. 8).  In other words, aside from the generalist foundation bachelor’s level graduates gain in their education, master’s level students receive both training in generalist practice and advanced training in an area of specialization, such as mental health, child and family, school social work, policy and evaluation, and community leadership.  While Colby (2014) points out that there is no EPAS requirement that outlines how graduate programs are organized, these programs typically utilize the first year of the program to build the generalist foundation students would have received in a bachelor’s program and second year to hone in on the students’ chosen specialization.  Naturally some programs may impose additional courses on graduate students whose undergraduate coursework may not have included key foundational ideas and knowledge for social work practice.  In the same way, many universities offer advanced standing programs for qualified individuals entering master’s programs after graduating from an accredited bachelor’s level program.

With the election of a specialization, as well as the foundation of generalist practice, graduates of accredited social work programs are much more prepared to effect change in their selected concentration.  Since the generalist approach is, by necessity, broad in theory and practice, the advanced practitioner training allows students to learn more in-depth skills and knowledge in their chosen concentration.  As a result, master’s students are situated to enter the field in higher level jobs.  While bachelor’s level graduates should still be seen as very capable and able to perform as generalists, master’s level graduates should be acknowledged as having more expertise in their selected field of practice.  Once in the field, the experience all graduates receive will allow them to continue to grow as professionals.



            Graduates from accredited master’s and bachelor’s programs should be able to perform the functions needed of professional practitioners, not only upholding the values and working toward the goals of the occupation, but demonstrating the knowledge and skills they developed over the span of their education.  However, passing grades do not always translate into competency.  There are many professions that require licensure in order to legally perform the duties of their chosen line of work, and social work is one of them.  The Association of Social Work Boards (2015), or ASWB, a non-profit organization created solely to regulate social work, states:

The purpose of licensing and certification in social work is to assist the public through identification of standards for the safe professional practice of social work.  Each jurisdiction defines by law what is required for each level of social work licensure. (online)

While the ASWB has tests for five different levels of practice, Associates, Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical, states may not offer licenses at each level.  It is important for future social workers to understand which licensure is required for the career path they want to pursue and what exam they need to take.

Many colleges and universities only focus on relating specific information to their students about licensure as a professional in the state in which the school is located.  For students who plan on living and working in a state other than the one in which they are getting their education, they need to do research on their own.  This tool on ASWB's website will generate the official website for any state's official regulating body.  And though the requirements may differ from state to state, there are some standard conditions candidates must meet:

  1. Education from an accredited generalist or advanced practice program
  2. A passing score on the state licensing exam
  3. Supervision for clinical or advanced licensure

In rare cases, those who have not earned an accredited social work degree may be able to get licensure in some states, but these instances are most definitely exceptions, not the rule.  That is why the best educational path to state licensure is through an accredited institution.  Once a worker has her or his license, the work is not over.  Social workers are required to engage in continue education opportunities regularly, based on state of licensure, to make sure social workers are up-to-date on important legal, practical, and theoretical aspects of the field.  This ensures social workers are providing effective, ethically sound, and professional services when working with their client systems.



            As we have seen, generalist social work practice is, by definition, broad in how it works with client systems, what kinds of concerns it deals with, even in what settings it can be found.  As a student of this class, it will be imperative that you start to get an understanding of what will be required of you in various settings and how you become a practicing professional.  Understand that you will be required to take on all of the roles discussed in this chapter, as well as others that may not have been highlighted; this is true of any social work setting.  However, it is also important for you to compare all this with your values, ideas, and limitations.  Not all social workers can work in all settings, and it will save you a lot of time, money, and stress if you are able to identify those arenas in which you cannot work.  There is nothing wrong with knowing what your boundaries are.  If you would not function well in a particular setting, you would not be an effective worker for the clients.  When all is said and done, this is a central tenet of being a social worker: making sure you do what is best for those you serve.



Association of Social Work Boards (2013). About licensing and regulation. In Licensees. Retrieved from

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). Social workers. In Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved from on July 21, 2021.

Colby, I. (2014). Challenging social work education's urban legends. Journal Of Social Work Education, 50(2), 206-218. doi:10.1080/10437797.2014.885239.

Colorado State University, College of Health and Human Sciences (2015). B.S.W. practice roles. In School of Social Work. Retrieved from

Council on Social Work Education (2009). Accreditation. Retrieved from

Council on Social Work Education (2015).  2015 educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master's social work programs. Retrieved from

Council on Social Work Education (2021a). Accreditation. Retrieved from

Council on Social Work Education (2021b). 2022 educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master's social work programs. Retrieved from

DuBois, B, & Miley, K. K., (2011). Social work: An empowering profession (7th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Larrison, T. E., & Korr, W. S. (2013). Does social work have a signature pedagogy?. Journal Of Social Work Education, 49(2), 194-206. doi:10.1080/10437797.2013.768102.

Mather, J. H., & Lager, P. B. (2000). Child Welfare. Brooks/Cole.

Miley, K. K., O’Melia, M., & DuBois, B. L. (1998). Generalist social work practice: An empowering approach (2nd ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Mizrah, T., & Davis, L. E. (Eds.). (2008). Encyclopedia of social work (20th ed.). doi:10.1093/acref/9780195306613.001.0001

Morales, A. T., & Sheafor, B. W. (1998). Social work: A profession of many faces (8th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

National Association of Social Workers. (2013). NASW standards for social work case management.

            Retrieved from


Netting, F.E. (2005). Future of macro social work. Advances in social work, 6(12), 51-59. (2015). Social work licensure requirements. In Licensure resources.  Retrieved from

Zastrow, C. (2008). Introduction to social work and social welfare (10th ed.). Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Chapter 5: Social Policy

One of the most identifiable methods of macro social work is social policy reform. In fact, the Council on Social Work Education (2008) lists policy practice as one of the core competencies all generalist social workers should have. In terms of social justice, it can offer the largest amount of change, impacting the greatest number of people. Upon completion of Chapter 5, students should be able to:

  1. Define social policy;
  2. Explain how social policy practice addresses social welfare and social justice;
  3. Understand and analyze political ideologies in relation to formulating policy;
  4. Identify past social welfare policies;
  5. Distinguish the various arenas and efforts political social work can encompass;
  6. Apply the four-stage change process to policy practice;
  7. Analyze policy for effectiveness.
A picture of the beginning of the US Constitution, "We the People."
"We the People" by StevenANichols is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Social Work and Social Policy

            The U.S. Constitution, and essentially the United States, were created, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Prosperity.” (U.S. Constitution, 1787, p. 1). With the foundation of our nation, the groundwork for macro social work, as it relates to affecting policy implementation and change to provide for the well-being of those who live and work in this country, was laid. The problem is the United States has not always been able to adequately or justly provide for the inalienable rights all humans have. Thus, social policy focuses on addressing the needs, oftentimes at the most basic level, of all humans through programs, procedures, legislation, agency, and environmental factors by filling the gaps not met or ineffectually met by current services. Policies are created for the good of everyone, however, social policies and programs address specific populations of people, especially those who do not seem to have even the most basic of rights. This makes it easy to see exactly how the value of Social Justice, in terms of social work, applies to social work policy practice, or political social work as it may be called. In this chapter, we will look at what social policy is, various political views and how they relate specifically to policy, historic and current social welfare policy, and engaging in policy practice.


What is Social Policy?

           In understanding what social policy actually encompasses, it is important for us to be aware of how it fits in with general federal legislative policies. Dear (1995) makes it a point to differentiate between three terms that have often been used interchangeably in social work policy practice literature: policy, social policy, and social welfare policy. He states that social welfare policy is a subset of social policy, which itself is a subset of general policy. So while general policy in the United States might encompass goals, principles, and means of all legislative processes, and social policy focuses in on issues of social well-being, including education, transportation, and health care for the general public, social welfare policy further zeroes in on meeting the basic needs of families and individuals (Dear, 1995; Katz,

2000). Still, many would argue that social welfare policy itself is so broadly defined, that meeting the most human of needs can encompass a lot, and therefore should be identified as almost anything done by the government to improve the quality of life (DiNitto, 2000). Political social work primarily affects change in social policy, including in a very big way social welfare policy, no matter what the definition is.

Social workers are often called to engage in discourse on various topics related to social policy. Much social work literature dedicates time to discussing the implications for practice at all levels, including how the knowledge can help guide policy advocacy. As the frontline of interacting with those who are utilizing social service agencies and government-directed programming, many social workers are the experts on what is working, what needs improvement, and what or who is being neglected. Political social work is not just about creating policy, either. Practicing macro social work also includes interpreting and evaluating various social policies and the programs with which they intersect, very vital pieces to social policy work. As social workers, we should be able to recognize where policy falls short both in what issues are covered and how they are addressed. We ought to understand the letter and intent of legislation to ensure policies and their programs are implemented correctly. As mentioned in Chapter 1, critical thinking is an important part of social work. The advocate in us must utilize this skill to move beyond simply accepting the way things are for our clients. For social work practitioners, questioning authority is not about being a rebel. It is about being an activist and creating the best conditions for everyone in our society, including the clients we work with directly, to become self-actualized.

Social Welfare Policy

Reaching your full potential and truly getting the most out of life is a wonderful thing. When we help our clients improve their own situation to the extent that they feel like a contributing member of society, it is a wonderful thing. What about those clients, though, who are not even concerned about reaching their potential? What happens when we work with a person or a population of people just trying to make it to the next month, the next week, or even the next day? Some of those more ethereal goals are unrealistic in those times our clients are just looking to subsist. This is where social welfare policy comes into the picture. In relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social welfare policy directs efforts to attend to the physiological, safety, and, sometimes, belonging needs people cannot fulfill on their own, for whatever reason (Maslow, 1970). Social welfare can allow for income assistance or food subsidies to help with paying for groceries, housing supports to provide basic shelter, or even foster placements for abused or neglected children where they can feel safe and loved. These programs not only help people survive but also, when effective, can empower them to persist and thrive.

Box 5.1 – Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.
Abraham Maslow described his hierarchy of needs in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality.  It talked about how people can work to meet higher-level needs without first meeting lower-level needs.  Social policy helps people meet their physiological and safety needs, the lowest two levels.  
"File:Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid.png" by Saul McLeod is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

It is true that political social work itself is not just about providing for the basic needs of those with who we work. We do need to go beyond that, and social policy advocacy should definitely be a part of how we work for and with client systems at the macro level, as a way to help them get the most out of life. However, working for education reform to help a young, single mother take college courses to build her future does no good if that same mother has no income and cannot afford to feed her children; we would be putting the cart before the horse. Granted having a college degree will allow her to better provide for her family in the long run, but that does nothing for her current situation. It is essential, therefore, that social workers place emphasis on macro-level work to meet our clients’ most basic needs. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2008) Code of Ethics even addresses this in two specific areas:

Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice. (sec. 6.02).


Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. (sec. 6.04a).

These two sections refer to the importance for social workers to advocate for our clients for the most fundamental requirements of life. One thing that stands out, of course, is the need to promote and realize social justice through social welfare policy.

Social Justice

These parts of the NASW Code of Ethics also refer to working with those who are often neglected or completely ignored by society at large, as often working for social welfare reform includes working for social justice. Those groups that tend to be forgotten or targeted in the United States deal with much injustice as a result and are relegated to lower statuses. Too frequently, people tend to attribute the problems these groups deal with to personal attributes of the group instead of recognizing the problems as a result of being disenfranchised. When we think of social justice, we have a tendency to equate it with advocacy, working for our clients and giving them a voice when they feel that they do not have one. Steele (2008) identifies the common practice of using the two terms interchangeably or even combing the terms into one. As a result, he provides a definition of social justice advocacy as working for marginalized clients whereby the change agent understands, identifies, and confronts barriers to positive, healthy functioning. Hong and Hodge are cited as also defining social justice in a way that requires action to be taken in addressing the injustices we see in our society (Kilbane, Pryce, & Hong, 2011). Social justice is not just about understanding there are groups that are discriminated against, either overtly or unknowingly, it is about using that understanding to address the deficits in providing for these groups. Social workers actively pursue change in order to deal with oppression at the institutional, cultural, and individual ranges (Hackman, 2005), at all levels of service. Social justice at the macro level is embodied in social policy improvement directed at correcting various systemic problems that prevent certain groups from moving beyond trying to meet just their basic needs.

Advancing social justice through policy practice can be a large undertaking. There are many different problems out there with inadequate policy abounding; it can be overwhelming realizing how much work needs to be done. However, framing social justice into target areas can help us identify what policies need to be changed—or implemented—and how to work for that change. In their book Social Welfare Policy, Programs, and Practice, Segal and Brzuzy (1998) outline five particular emphases as a means to fight for social justice and reform welfare policy. Specific chapters in our book will address some of the issues in these areas further, so for now let us take a quick look at what each entails. As you read, bear in mind the possibility of overlap between some of the following categories.

Children and families: Providing children with the best opportunity to grow and mature as a functioning member of our society, which includes providing a loving and nurturing home life, a good education, and a safe environment overall. Policies here can include providing for children who are without parents, removing children from abusive homes, assisting single mothers in need, and providing access to contraceptives.

The poor: Addressing housing, food, and employment/income needs of those at or below the poverty line. This can include minimum wage increase, income assistance, housing subsidies, and financial aid grants for college. Being poor has a lot of interplay with race/ethnicity, immigration status, and the makeup of the family unit.

The elderly: Focuses on health-care and income assistance. As we age, our health-care needs, and costs, rise even though our ability to earn an income falls. Both Medicare and Social Security are programs that have been around a long time to help those of us who are advanced in years.

Healthcare: Increasing access to affordable and adequate healthcare. Medicaid, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and even policies to curb litigations against doctors to lower malpractice insurance costs, and doctors’ fees in relation, are ways to deal with this problem. Many of the issues stemming from this lack of access usually accompany one of the other five areas of social justice.

Civil rights: Providing equal access to education, housing, employment, income, marriage, and adoptive rights, to name a few, for those who have been directly or indirectly marginalized and discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, age, disability, and socioeconomic status. When it comes to civil rights, there are simply so many systemic issues and societal beliefs that continue to ostracize groups of people. Historically, the abolition of slavery, the repeal of Jim Crow laws, and allowing women to vote have been policy reformation that has addressed civil rights.

Side-angle photo of the U.S. Capitol building.
American policy is definitely influenced by the political ideology of those creating and implementing it.  Different ideologies view social welfare policy differently.  Where do social work values fit?


Policy & Political Ideologies

            The first chapter in this book addressed various political ideologies, main tenets of each, and how their views aligned with basic social work values. These political stances are reflected in the ways each addresses social policy and social welfare. Keep in mind that these viewpoints are general ideas and that political ideologies should be thought of as a part of continuum, with the left generally thought of as liberal, or in alignment with Democratic approaches, and the right as more conservative, aligning with Republican approaches. By no means should we assume that all people claiming to be part of one party or another espouse the stereotypical approaches of that party (e.g., Bill Clinton and TANF). One study even shows that while people identify with a particular party, they do not necessarily hold all the same ideological beliefs of that party (Malka & Lelkes, 2010). As social workers, it is also important for us to remember this and not just blindly accept and follow the value system of one party or the other. No matter which group we affiliate with, we need to understand their stances on important issues and see if they mesh with our own values and beliefs, as we fight for social justice.


            When it comes to social policy position, conservative values encourage minimal government involvement when it comes to policy creation. In essence, they espouse ideas that people and companies will benefit greater from being able to make decisions with little interference from government regulation. With hard work and dedication, any obstacle should be able to be overcome and can lead to greater independence and stronger country as a whole. When it comes to social welfare, those that need additional help should be served by governmental policy with requirements and limits as a way to empower them to improve and thrive in their own lives. For instance, if a single-parent is receiving food stamps, the program should limit how long they can get food stamps and require them to actively search for work. They also believe in the traditional family as the foundation of our society, a way to properly raise and educate the future of the United States. Thus, social policy should encourage, promote, and reward this structure (GOP, 2012). The Defense of Marriage Act and banning adoptions by gay couples are policies that protect the heterosexual family unit. Finally, faith and religious freedom is a third overarching focus for the Republican Party. They are in favor of policy practice that does not force citizens to go against their religious beliefs, like children not being allowed to pray before eating their lunch at school or faith-based companies having to pay for birth control for their employees. The idea is to keep true to the ideals that the founding fathers built this country on, those ideals of allowing people freedom and protecting our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


           The Democratic National Party also wants to protect the freedom and rights of citizens here in the United States. Similar to those on the right, Democrats believe, “hard work should pay off, responsibility should be rewarded, and each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us.” (Democratic National Committee, 2012, p. 1). However, their belief is that this does not happen in our society. While they also address issues like work, family, and religious freedom, they believe that these can all fall under the umbrella of equal rights. Unlike the conservative Republican opinion arguing that our policy has created a dependent, welfare state, liberal viewpoints on policy reflect the idea that we do not do enough for those marginalized and favor policy creation and implementation that will more effectively provide everyone equal rights. These policies look to provide for those who currently are being or historically have been mistreated, such as providing equal pay for women, marriage equality for same-sex couples, and providing income services for those experiencing poverty. Liberal policy also looks to attack the institutional and societal schemes that perpetuate the relegation and discrimination of certain groups. Hate crime laws, Affirmative Action, and ending tax breaks for the wealthy are examples of policies that force people to consider the racist and discriminatory aspects of actions others take, both consciously and unconsciously. The liberal view of Democrats believes that policy is needed in order to ensure these things for all of us in the United States, that without it, these groups will continue to be neglected or forgotten.

Three public train station turnstiles with "Republican?" "Democrat?" and "Undecided?" signs on them.
The Democratic and Republican parties win most of the major federal and state elections. However, as was mentioned earlier in the book, politicians from other parties or who are independent have won big elections and possibly a number of smaller, more local elections. We need to understand their views in order to address policy more effectively.  "Republican? Democrat? Undecided?" by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Radical views

            Chapter 1 addressed several other parties, many of which had views on social policy, including social welfare policy, similar to those outlined above. However, there is a different view on social and social welfare policy that should be addressed, and that is the radical view. Radicals, who have no substantial political representation (Katz, 2000), are similar to liberals in that they support governmental intervention. However, Radicals want to take it even further. They favor governmental influence to create an equal economic balance for all those in the United States, through governmental redistribution of power and wealth, and programming to provide the same opportunities for everyone (DuBois & Miley, 2011). Their policy approach, therefore, provides big governmental change to give everyone equal footing economically and socially.

Box 5.2 - Political Allegiance

When one of your authors was in his Intro to Social Work course in college, he remembers the day they discussed political ideologies and how they lined up with social work values.  What was interesting was that values social work embodied were the same values he had - seeing the worth of every individual, wanting to help others have a high quality of life, equality for everyone.  These were the reasons he chose social work as a career to begin with.  However, when the instructor told him that social workers line up with Democrat values, he had an internal fit.  There was no way he was going to be a Democrat!  Your authors were raised as Republicans and believed Republican was the better party; history told us so.  Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and he was Republican.  How could social work not be aligned with those values?  His instructor then proceeded to show the class exactly how social workers' values lined up with views of the Democratic Party.  It made sense but your author was just too connected to the Republican identity.

It is important that social workers connect the values of the field with political practices, not necessarily choose allegiance to one party or another, and understand what parts of a political ideology are in line with social work goals.  What are your political views?  How do they compare to the values of social work and why you are considering the profession?


As social workers, it is up to us to understand how these ideologies impact policy creation so that we can better serve our clients in addressing the deficiencies we find. In an ideal world, we would not have to worry about creating policy to help the needy because, if there were needy or disadvantaged individuals or groups, society would take it upon itself to help these people. However, we are not living in an ideal society and there are still many problems in the world in which we live and how we view those who need help. One can find pros and cons with any political viewpoint, mainly because there is no blanket set of rules to govern how policy is created. For instance, while liberal views do tend to meld best with social work values, conservatives may have a valid argument about not regulating income assistance to families. How can we empower those who need aid efficiently in order for that need to no longer be there? Still, putting in specific regulations and requirements with the assumption that everybody’s situation can be handled the same way denies the unique struggle that individuals have. All these ideologies can add perspective to what we are doing (Miley, O’Melia, & Dubois, 1998). Again, it is not about blindly accepting one view or the other, but about effectively evaluating the objective and understanding the motive behind the policy. We need to be open to differing angles of looking at how to solve a problem, acknowledge the merits others have in their approach, and incorporate those things that are going to lead to positive changes for those we serve.

Furthermore, we need to understand these ideologies and how the role they play in the political climate of wherever we are working for change. It will help us better understand how to formulate policy and how to better persuade those with who we will be working. If we want to advocate for more money to be given to unemployed single mothers but our state has a republican majority, we should highlight the negative effects on the rest of the state if the current practices are not amended since a conservative viewpoint places a lot of personal responsibility on individuals. Similarly, if we are aware that people are taking advantage of the local food pantry, but the area has a strong liberal presence, our focus should be on how those taking advantage of the service are negatively impacting those who need to use the food pantry in order to help add restrictions to the process of getting food. Social workers should always understand how the political and social climate of the times and in the community in regards to social welfare and governmental responsibility before trying to pass any kind of policy reform.


U.S. Social Policy

            Beginning with the idea of the deserving poor, social welfare policy in the United States has been a slow and reluctant progression. The idea that individuals’ behavior and social standing is more a reflection of their character and has nothing to do with their environment is a persistent theme in getting to the current state of welfare policy (Pozzuto & Arnd-Caddigan, 2008). History has shown time and again that people favor individual growth and the right to keep whatever money they worked harder for than those who are poor. Even when he mentioned how horrible some rich people are in not helping out poor people, Theodore Roosevelt (1897) was stressing how the wealthy in society would improve the prosperity for even the poor man. He believed that while some governmental intervention was necessary, such as in the abolition of slavery, he felt that too much regulation was not good for the Union.

It was not until his own relation, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ushered in the New Deal that people realized that welfare was everyone’s responsibility (DiNitto, 2000). Still, the country wanted to limit how much welfare was distributed and continue to hold able bodied people somewhat responsible for their personal status in society. Today, we still see the poor being neglected. Even in the platforms of both major parties, helping the middle class—not the poor —is believed to be an essential piece in keeping the United States a great and powerful nation (Democratic National Committee, 2012; Republican National Committee, 2012). There is no denying, of course, that Americans grew in their understanding of social justice and our responsibility to fight for basic civil rights for groups that have been held down by society. We have come a long way and our social welfare policies reflect that change. However, is it enough? Some of the most prominent current social welfare policies will be discussed in the chapters that follow.  Social workers not only need to be aware of what programs are out there, but also understand the political context of the policy, values inherent in the system and society, the needs of client systems, and how well these programs are providing for the welfare of our nation.


Engaging in Policy Practice

            As helpers, it is important to realize that although we want to do all that we can to help as many people as we can, not all solutions can be obtained through individual services. When working at the micro level, it may even become inefficient to continually advocate for the same issue with individual clients. We need to be able to focus our attention in those needs of the client system(s) we are currently working with in order to effectively help them improve. While it is clear that engaging in policy practice gives us the opportunity to provide services on a larger scale for more people, it may not be something that social workers are always comfortable doing. As such, it is important to take the opportunities to understand where you can practice social policy advocacy, know how to work for policy reform, and continuously look for opportunities to utilize and enhance policy practice self-efficacy. Indeed, your macro social work practice skills, like those skills at any other level of practice, should be nurtured and enhanced. Hopefully, this will be the first of many opportunities you will encounter to gain knowledge and practice in social policy work as you journey toward becoming a generalist social worker.

Lack of Experience with Policy Practice

There are many articles that describe the deficiency of experiences with policy practice in social work education. Students disinterest and low self-efficacy in this area of social work, unavailability of practice sites, and lack of adequate supervision can keep schools from incorporating policy work as a significant part of the curriculum (Pritzker & Lane, 2014). In fact, only .8% of students in master’s-level social work programs as well as .8% of those in bachelor’s-level programs had field placements in social policy (CSWE, 2014). However, social work students should see social welfare policy practice as a viable activity for professional work as a social worker. Too often clinical social work may be thought of as the only true practice route for social workers, especially based on licensing requirements (Donaldson, Hill, Ferguson, Fogel, & Erickson, 2014). Even with many students eventually focusing their education on clinical work or other lower levels of social work practice, we need to make sure that we take the educational opportunities to engage in macro level, social policy, specifically social welfare policy, practice. There will be times when all social workers are called to impact policy change for the client systems with which they work.

When too many of our clients are experiencing the same barriers or dealing with same problems, policy practice allows us to help everyone, even those we do not work with directly, get their needs met (Rocha, 2007). For instance, if in our clinical work with clients who experience suicidal ideation who have been hospitalized, we realize that those who do not have adequate health-care coverage are released from hospitals earlier than those who do have adequate coverage, we may want to look into advocating for legislation that provides longer inpatient treatment for those who are planning on taking their own lives. In moments such as this, we need to be ready and capable to impact change at the community, state, or federal levels, otherwise we are missing out on an opportunity to help those we serve. Sure the thought of trying to push ideas through to legislation and make it law can seem daunting, but being able to understand how clinical work is tied to policy work can help practitioners and social work students understand the importance of building their macro skills as well as their clinical ones (Kilbane, Pryce, & Hong, 2013). It is not enough to plan for after treatment, discuss coping strategies, and help our clients build a network of support. While those are all great individual intervention strategies, that is not everything that can be done. Too often, social workers help their clients navigate the various aspects of their environment as it is when they really need to be working to help them change it as well.

Areas of Practice           

In talking about social welfare policy, it is easy to focus on those federal laws and programs created by the government in order to address issues for the whole country. Yet, social policy practice is not just about creating legislation. There are various efforts that can be made to direct, interpret, and implement that change. Cummins, Byers, and Pedrick (2011) describe four settings for social policy practice to affect change: the three branches of local, state, and federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and community advocacy. Rocha (2007) reflects these same four areas of political social work, but instead refers to the executive arena as bureaucratic practice seeing as law interpretation and implementation is not only done by the executive branch of the government but by social service agencies and community organizations as well. It is important to keep in mind that each of these settings exist at the various levels of government, local, state, and federal, and the strategies discussed in the following sections can be applied at each governmental level. However, be aware that as the level gets bigger, so does the difficulty in implementing policy reform. As a means to better understand each policy practice setting, we will follow Dennis, a social worker in a community-based agency, as he pursues change in social policy.

Among many of his duties in the agency, Dennis provides adolescent out-patient group therapy for drug offenders in his county. The majority of the youth who make up the group are mandated by court to attend this sort of counseling instead of being sent to juvenile detention. While it is rarely an easy process to get buy-in from mandated clients, Dennis has seen success in the positive impact the group has had on the youth. During a recent meeting, the topic of alcohol came up and several of the participants discussed how easy it is to obtain alcohol in the area, whether through purchasing it on their own or having someone else provide it for them. Dennis redirected the group but made it a point to remember the discussion after the group meeting was over.

Photo of a town hall meeting, with two people in the foreground discussing an issue.
Community-based policy practice involves members of the community coming together to address a concern.  "Good Morning America town hall meeting" by John Edwards 2008is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Community-Based Policy Practice

Community-based policy practice is most easily related to grassroots campaigns. Whether it is a group of citizens that come together or a practitioner from a local social service agency, community-based practice is founded in the common interest of those in the community to combat a perceived systemic gap in policy and programming. Many times these community groups can start off as task forces or coalitions, with a number of community stakeholders from different organizations, public service agencies, or even the community at large. All have a vested interest and bring a unique perspective to the table. The people involved spend time in researching the issue, planning strategies to change policy, and actually working to make the change happen.

In Dennis’s case, he did some research on teen alcohol consumption in his county and state, based on arrest and ticketing data. He also talked with law enforcement agencies, health-care providers, school administrators, and other social work professionals to get their take on the issues, all of which brought him to the conclusion that something needs to be done about the high rate of teen alcohol use. As a result, a coalition was put together consisting of himself and a couple of other social workers in the county, principals of a few of the school districts, local police officers, some parents from various school PTAs, and some local doctors. Together, this group of people can come up with ideas for programming and policy implementation or correction in each setting.

Immediately in the community, however, each of the members of the coalition can analyze how their various milieus deal with the problem and make any adjustment necessary. The group can also advocate for reform in policies of outside organizations, groups, or businesses that may be contributing to the problem. For instance, the coalition may realize that local bars and liquor stores use sports-related alcohol advertisements that catch the eye of adult customers and teenagers alike. In an effort to impact the consumption of alcohol by youth, working with alcohol vendors to use more appropriate advertising that does not cater to minors might be an effective strategy. However, this is not the only approach of the coalition and they have plans to touch base with local and state lawmakers to discuss possible legislation.

Legislative Policy Practice

The legislative branch of government is the one that creates the laws that govern our country, state, and local municipalities. It is often misunderstood as the only setting to get political social work done. Thinking about policy, we tend to focus on the laws and systems the government put into place to remedy social ills. Although this is not the only setting for social policy practice, it does get straight to the point, directing efforts to influence those who write the policies. However, it takes dedication, hard work, and patience in order to bring one’s planned change to fruition. It is a challenge, but one that all social workers should be equipped to handle, eased with the understanding of what can be done to pursue reform legislatively. Segal and Brzuzy (1998) identify three key activities—lobbying, public testimony, and voting—that are utilized by social workers in the legislative setting in order to implement or change policy. Employing these three strategies, let us see how Dennis and his coalition look to address the teen drinking issue.

Lobbying: Dennis and his constituents decided to name their coalition the Jones County Coalition Against Underage Drinking to become a more formal presence as they pursue change in the legislative setting. They are currently planning only on addressing the issue at the county level because they feel that this will give their area the quickest results. All the members of the group are open to possibly pursuing action at the state level in the future, but all their current research and work has been focused on the county and its communities. One of the first things they plan on doing is contacting some of the Jones County Board members. They utilize the connections some of the coalition members already have with the county board members to inform them of their efforts and urge them to bring the concern to the rest of the board. The hope of the coalition is that the county board will find validity in establishing directives to curb underage drinking.

Public testimony: Five coalition members, including Dennis, a parent, one of the principals, a law enforcement officer, and another social worker, attended the next county board meeting in order to speak on behalf of the coalition and the matter they wanted to bring forward. The invitation came after persuading a couple of the board members to convey the problem of teen alcohol use to the rest of the county board members, and it was decided by the coalition that only five of them should attend and speak from their area of expertise. When the representatives from the Jones County Coalition Against Underage Drinking were given the floor, they talked about the research they had done, the observable consequences in the school system, and some personal stories from families negatively affected by underage drinking. They brought facts and figures and also humanized their discourse and provided insights for possible solutions. The Jones County Board unanimously agreed with the coalition and decided something needed to be done.

Voting: In order to fight underage drinking, the board came up with several possible policy enactments, one of which was to have a referendum increasing real estate taxes voted on by the public. This tax increase would provide supplemental funding to the Safe and Drug Free Schools money which the schools already received and would allow for evidence-based alcohol and other drug prevention programming to become a part of the curriculum in the schools at both the middle-school and high-school levels. Dennis’s coalition was very excited about the opportunity but knew that they had a lot of work still to do if they were going to get the referendum passed. Members of the coalition knew how they were going to vote, but they needed to have a lot of other supporters as well. Their main concern at this point was to inform the voters about the drive force behind the referendum and the good that would result when it passed.

While we made this process seem fairly smooth and results happened quickly, it is rarely like that in the field. In reality, Dennis and his fellow coalition members would have met any number of roadblocks, even some that would cause them go back, reevaluate, and reformulate their approach. It should also be noted that the activities themselves are not necessarily a step-by-step process that needs to be followed whenever we are trying to get legislators to act. Often there is interconnectedness between the tactics, but one is not dependent on the other. For instance, there are times when groups or even single people do not necessarily connect with members of the legislature and, instead, simply attend board meetings or forums to present their case. Policy practice through voting is not done just on referendums or policy implementation but can also take the form of voting for those representatives whom we think will do the best job of providing social justice. We can write letters to our representatives to voice our opinion about an issue we have a strong stance against and may never be called to speak on the topic or even get the opportunity to vote on any policy. There is even crossover between policy practice venues, as Dennis’s coalition needed to return to the community to educate the public on the need for additional funding to combat minors’ alcohol use. The point is that policy practice has no one specific path it must take in order to be accomplished and can take many routes at the same time. In this instance, it really is the goal and not the journey.

There are a few things that can make the journey easier, however, when it comes to working in the legislative sector. When we are passionate about fighting for a cause, we get fired-up, energized, and motivated to move forward. Legislators are not necessarily looking at it from the same angle we are and can be more skeptical about the whole matter. We may have great ideas for programming that we are sure will work, but we are not always able to convince our representatives about that. It can be a lot easier to be heard and have our message accepted and adopted by legislators when we present a great idea instead of just a single program (Sherraden, Slosar, & Sherraden, 2002). Programs are concrete and less flexible than a great idea. Legislators can take ideas and put their expertise on it, developing programs or policy that will be able to fit and interact well with existing policies and programs. They can navigate the system from a political aspect.

At the same time, we still need to provide them with the information that will help them not only understand our push for change but also how to implement the change as well. While they are the experts when it comes to committee meetings and legislation creation in the political arena, we should be the experts of the concern we are bringing to them. It is up to us, as community health experts, to provide our busy representatives with accurate and critical evidence to make an informed judgment on the issue and use the data in crafting their policy (Milford, Austin, & Smith, 2007; Weiss-Gal, 2013). Legislators are not experts in all areas of public well-being, nor should they be. Just like when we are called to provide our expert opinions through testimony at committee meetings, we can express our professional judgment with hard evidence we offer legislators. When we provide the research, this saves them the work of having to do it, which they probably would not have had the time to do anyway, fostering collaboration between us and our public officials. Getting to know and build a positive working relationship with our public representatives can go a long way in helping us fill the deficiencies in social services and programming. It is key to not only understand the process but also how our representatives work in that process and what would be the best way to approach them. Linking with those who make the laws and create the programs, and developing that connection, will enable us to understand how we can serve their needs in order to meet our needs and act accordingly.

President Obama signing an executive order in the Oval Office with a number of witnesses standing behind him.
The President, as the head of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, can create executive orders to implement policies.  Congress's approval isn't required for them to be implemented.  "Signing an executive order on the Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government" by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Executive/Bureaucratic Policy Practice

When policy reform efforts are successful in moving a great idea from the drawing board to a discussion in legislative committee and to getting the bill signed into law, the final goal is not necessarily achieved. The new policy still has to be interpreted and implemented by the executive branch of government. Executive branches of governmental bodies, including the federal government of the United States, are made up of a branch head, such as the President, state governor, or city mayor, and various governmental departments or bureaucracies and agencies that may be involved in overseeing the policy in action. While the makeup of this branch varies from governing body to governing body, their functions are aligned when it comes to social policy. In executing new policy, all the members in this setting could theoretically contribute to the process, including designing how the policy will be applied, how programs will be run, and what the parameters of service are going to be. Even when policies are passed and directives given on how to employ these policies, there can still be a trickle-down effect. Vagueness in public policy allows agencies and departments a certain amount of decision-making power in how they deliver services to meet the orders of those policies (Rocha, 2007). As a result, we can impact policy in both these points of the process. This is a perfect opportunity for those who practice policy reform to step in and advocate.

The Jones County Coalition Against Underage Drinking was able to celebrate the passing of the referendum to increase monies provided to schools for addressing alcohol consumption by teens. However, they knew their work was not done. Now that the funds will be available, the county board is trying to figure out exactly how to regulate the spending of the money by the schools. Part of the concern is that their schools, in the past, spent the money on one-time programming that was not evidenced based and had little lasting effect on students. Dennis and his partners decide that they want to provide the board with various options of research-based or best practices programs that can be incorporated into the curricula of the schools in the county.

The board, however, decides that requiring all schools to utilize the same programs may not be in the best interest of the students as the population of the county is very diverse. Instead, they decide to distribute the funding to the schools but restrict it to only fund best practice types of programming. The coalition members are not in agreement with this decision but turn their efforts now to working with the schools. They will offer suggestions when it comes time but want to meet with the school boards to see if they can help the schools plan how to best use their money.

Judicial Policy Practice

The U.S. government was designed with three separate branches in order to create a systems of checks and balances that would not allow one branch to have too much power. Most of the time we think of courts as the enforcers of laws. When someone is accused of breaking a law, not following policy, or violating the rights of others, they are brought before a judge or group of judges and, possibly, a jury. If the accused is found guilty, the court hands down a sentence of its choosing, based on professional judgment and the legislation. Law enforcement is not the only function of courts, as they also consider the constitutionality of laws. Judicial bodies do not necessarily evaluate every policy that is implemented, however, with some laws getting through that neglect the rights of some citizens. Oftentimes this legislation is not assessed until a suit is brought against the state by a citizen or larger entity, such as an agency, an organization, or a coalition, as being unlawful. Of course, even with constitutional laws, suits can be filed against those people or entities that have broken the law. Where the courts deal with policy, both in enforcement and appraisal of legislature, social policy work can be done.

In addition to working with schools to provide prevention education, the Jones County Coalition Against Underage Drinking is looking into alcohol sales practices throughout the county. There is a chain of stores that has had a number of incidents of selling to minors without facing serious legal consequence. Through their research, the coalition found cases of injury and death of youth that has been tied to alcohol illegal purchased from this chain. As a result, the coalition decided it would be worth it to team up with the parents of these youth to file a class action lawsuit against the parent company of the stores to provide reparation to the families. This action, they feel, will bring light to the issue as well as send a message to other stores that these sales practices will not be tolerated. In keeping with this, Dennis and his compatriots want to make sure that those stores that do still sell to minors are properly punished. Their plan is to have someone from the coalition represent the group during proceedings for any store that is charged with selling to minors to make sure that they are not let off the hook easily and that the court does its job of properly enforcing the law, similar to what Mothers Against Drunk Drivers does with those convicted of drunk driving (Rocha, 2007). Furthermore, they have decided that monitoring legislative changes to current legal code or implementation of new policies dealing with consumption, sales, and advertising of alcohol are protecting the well-being of minors and their families.

While it may seem like most of policy reform should be done in the community and legislative settings, it is imperative to remember that there are still efforts that can be brought to the other two branches of government as well. While the activities in each arena takes on a different function, they are all addressing the same big idea with which social workers begin their policy practice. The important thing to understand is that there are various settings, with a myriad of ways, in which to approach social policy reform depending what your overall goals are. As generalist social workers, we should be familiar with this oft neglected method of change for our clients.

Addressing International Social Policy

As much of this text does, we have related the topic of the chapter, social policy practice, to the functional context of the United States. Specific political ideologies, current social policies and programs, and the organization and function of government in terms of policy creation were discussed with the idea that policy practice would be applied domestically. Yet it would be wrong to completely dismiss what political social work can do on an international level. Though it may seem like a grand undertaking, there are still a lot of things that we, as social workers in the United States, can do to work for social justice on the world stage. The caveat in international policy practice is that there is no governing body large enough to create policies that every country must follow. While there are things that can be done when some countries start imposing too much on the rights of other countries, other countries’ citizens, or even the citizens in their own country, there is no universally accepted procedure or rules of behavior that can then be enforced like they are within any one country. Although the United Nations is a unifying organization of 193 current sovereign state members, with an International Court of Justice (n.d.) that follows international law, it only has jurisdiction in disputes between states that are brought to it and in which these states submit to its jurisdiction. Sovereignties that are not part of the UN cannot necessarily be sanctioned and required to follow the ruling of the court. Still, some countries may take it upon themselves to fight perceived illegal activities in other countries through military force, like the United States did when they believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but this usually only happens when there is a much greater perceived global threat. Consequently, many of the injustices that go on globally are never be addressed properly and are just allowed to happen by governing bodies around the world.

Box 5.4 – International Advocacy Groups

Awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, Amnesty International is probably one of the most well-known human rights advocacy groups in the world, fighting on an international level. Their Web site simply describes them as, “A global movement of people fighting injustice and promoting human rights.” See the human rights issues they address that also match up with social work practice on an international level on their Web site:

            Social workers in the United States can still intervene in the situations when governments are not. The values we have and the ethical responsibilities we follow can, and should, be used to provide social justice wherever we identify the need for it, and policy practice at this level can use similar strategies to those above to address deficiencies of protection. When providing for the rights of humanity globally, however, you just have to understand the governmental system with which you are intervening. It can be a hard undertaking for one practitioner to fight global injustice, which is why much of international political social work utilizes a group approach. Rallies for the support of marginalized or mistreated peoples, international groups advocating for the release of wrongfully imprisoned individuals and domestically contacting government officials and urging them to support or discontinue support for those governments that are causing international suffering are all activities of which U.S. social workers can be a part. While it is hard to do it individually, it only takes one person to lead a group of people to provide for the needs of many.

Kamala Harris shaking hands with a supporter during her campaign, with other supporters in the background.
All politicians campaigns are founded on the issues they want to address during their time in office, even Vice President Kamala Harris's.  For social workers, holding political office can be a very effective way of practicing political social work.  "Kamala Harris with supporters" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Political Office as Social Policy Practice

Although most of the time we equate politicians with someone who has a law degree and has been involved with legal practice at some point, it might not be completely accurate. A quick look at the demographics of the 113th U.S. Congress can show that while in the Senate, the majority (57%) have at least one degree in law, a smaller percentage (38%) of Representatives have the same (Manning, 2014). This is not to say that following an educational path in legal studies is a poor choice to become a politician; rather, many different paths can lead to public service as an elected official. Getting a formal education in social work can be one of those paths. However, the fact of the matter is that political office is a career trajectory that is discussed very little, if at all, in social work education programs, despite the fact that our training is perfectly suited to serve the public (Lane, 2011). Even our professional experience supports the fact that we have a solid understanding of human behavior, the interaction between people and the systems of which they are a part, and how social policy affects them.

Currently across the United States, there are 189 local and state offices held by those who possess or are working toward their BSW or MSW degree (NASW, 2015). In addition, nine members of congress, seven representatives and two senators, also identified a past occupational field of social work (NASW, 2014). Comparatively speaking, this total of 198 people spread across local, state, and federal government is nothing in percentage of actual elected positions available. It is still important to realize politician as a legitimate way to practice social work, especially when it comes to social policy. Too often, lawmakers are creating policy and making decisions without fully understanding the impact of these programs on the citizens or the values of the profession providing them (Figueira-McDonough, 1993). However, becoming members of various governmental bodies gives the field more direct say over how to best address social welfare in our country. In the discussion on how we can best leverage our skills in political social work to impact social policy, public official offers us instrumental access to creating, implementing, and enforcing social policy at all levels of government.

Box 5.5 – Skills for Social Workers as Politicians

Because of the values and drive we have to better society for everyone, social workers have the necessary focus for effective politics. In addition to the drive, generalist social workers have plenty of skills and abilities that can help us be great tools for change. The following are just a few of the characteristics of social workers as politicians:

  • Good communicators: We can connect, motivate, inform, and persuade others in relation to our goals.
  • Person centered: The work we do is about helping others and not personal gain.
  • Ethical: We operating in a way that is consistent with our goals and values, does not ignore or abuse the rights of others, and never abuses the power of our position.
  • Socially informed: We stay abreast on the issues and struggles of the client systems we serve.
  • Experts on human behavior: We use our expertise on understanding human behavior in the social environment to inform the work that we do.

Policymaking Process

           Dennis and the Jones County coalition originally formulated as a result of a perceived need by Dennis and other stakeholders in the community, the idea that alcohol was too accessible to minors and there was a problem with underage drinking. Once the coalition was formed, they further researched the issue and formulated a plan to impact policy and affect change. When all their planned work is completed, they will eventually evaluate their efforts to see if they were effective enough in curbing underage drinking. Through this evaluation, they can then determine their next course of action. If Dennis was working with an individual client, we could see the same process played out. He would meet and engage with the client, discussing what brought the client in; assess the situation further and formulate a plan of strategies to accomplish the goals of the client; intervene by implementing the strategies that they had agreed upon; and evaluate how effective those interventions were and what else, if anything needs to be done. The four-step change process, as outlined by the CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) EPAS (Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards) and discussed in Chapter 4, easily applies to policy practice. Generalist social workers will have already gained the basic skills to affect change at any level, micro through macro, so the policy practice process should not be entirely new. Yet, trying to affect change in one person is quite different than trying to work for change in a large system with a number of different stakeholders. Through a further expansion of this model, we can get an even better understanding of how it applies to social policy work.


With individual clients, the engagement phase happens as a result of the client coming into a practitioner’s office, either voluntarily or being mandated to come. A social worker can find out why help is being sought and get a better understanding of the background of the situation. In policy practice, there is no physical client with whom to meet, one cannot sit down in an office and engage the client system in a one-on-one conversation. The practitioner needs to seek out the system in order to interact with it, once there is a recognized gap in services. This takes on the form of interacting with others in the system who might also recognize that this need or have more information pertaining to it. Discussions and research gathering gives those practicing social policy reform the opportunity to know the system better and further understand why they are looking to make change. Thus, we should be looking to answer a few essential questions when we are collecting data:

  1. What is the actual problem?
  2. Who is affected by it?
  3. How has it been/is it being addressed?
  4. Why does it need to be addressed?

Answering these questions can allow us to become more acquainted with the issue overall. Initially, the extent of the problem might not even be known. People may also disagree about how to exactly frame the concern, or what the real problem is. In the engagement phase, our understanding of what the problem is can shift and refine as we gather more information (Brueggemann, 1996), sometimes resulting in a whole new definition of the issue. The engagement phase should be understood as an information gathering and problem clarification stage in policy practice. In our case example, Dennis heard through his adolescent group about the ease of getting alcohol and thought it would be a good idea to pursue it further. He gathered with other practitioners, as well as other stakeholders in the community, including parents, educators, and law enforcement to figure out what to do. They researched county statistics and had discussions with other entities on perceptions and understanding, all related to underage drinking. They realized:

  1. The problem was not as simple as just underage drinking and included issues relating to easy accessibility of alcohol to minors, acceptance of drinking among minors by teens and adults in the community, and marketing techniques and campaigns that make alcohol use appealing to youth.
  2. Teens and families are most directly affected by underage drinking. Immediately, teens can deal with legal trouble from being caught drinking (or drinking and driving) and can end up in the hospital, or even die, from too much drinking. In the long term, early alcohol use more easily lead to alcoholism and longer-term health concerns. Families can take on many of these effects as well, most notably grief over the loss of a child.
  3. While there are liquor laws that focus on underage use, these laws were not strictly enforced. Furthermore, there was nothing effectively being done in the schools to teach youth about the dangers of alcohol use specifically, which can add to the attitude of acceptance prevalent among teens.
  4. Dennis and the coalition knew, and validated through broader research, that there were a number of negative effects for teens and communities, including alcoholism, increased alcohol-related injuries and deaths, and low educational attainment, if underage drinking in the county was not addressed.

Box 5.6 – Data for Understanding the Problem

In understanding the prevalence of a social issue in the community, there are a number of different data sources available to us, depending on which level of community we are targeting. The following are some examples of possible sources to help us in the information gathering process:

  • Crime rates
  • School district report cards
  • Police arrest records
  • Existing laws
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Death records
  • Community climate surveys
  • Political voting records
  • Student drug use surveys
  • State unemployment rate
  • Poverty levels
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • U.S. Census Bureau

What are other sources of useful data that already exist?


Once all the pertinent information about the problem has been gathered, it is time to figure out what should be done about it and how. Essentially, this stage of the process has two parts to it, setting goals of what should be accomplished and planning the strategies of intervention to meet those goals. Rocha (2007) distinguishes between these two parts in her policy planning process as well, outlining the need to define the overarching goal of policy intervention, including measurable objectives, and then plan intervention strategies that target the outcomes. After clearly defining the problem in the engagement phase, it makes it easier to determine not only the bigger picture goal of policy practice, in the Jones County case, it is lowering the amount of underage drinking, but also the smaller goals (or objectives), including decreased acceptance, increased law enforcement, and increased education. Once those are in place, effective strategies can be planned that will accomplish the goals. In order to do so, we need to incorporate the policy analysis that we did during engagement in order to more effectively plan policy strategies during this stage. By evaluating where other policies fall short and keeping in mind the political environment of the area in which we are targeting change, we can design policy interventions that will complement, supplement, or even replace what is currently being done and will be more readily accepted by those in power.

Dennis’s coalition realized nothing was being done about education in the school systems and aimed at increasing education about the consequences of alcohol use. They researched various methods that would be useful and learned that one-time motivational presentations, although containing a great message and entertaining, did not make a difference in youth attitude over the long run. Instead, they learned that there were evidence-based curricula that could be implemented in a classroom setting during sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well as at the high-school levels, to address alcohol and other drug use. These types of programs are not cheap, however, and the coalition would have to find additional funding. Both of these aspects drove the strategy of approaching the county board to put a referendum on the ballot. The coalition also created strategies aimed at stricter law enforcement and lowering acceptance, including working with the police and court system to target and penalize stores known for selling to minors and media campaigns in the county that inform citizens of the dangers of underage drinking.

Large group of people at a rally for policy change to stop climate change.
Coalitions can plan many different approaches to change policy.  This picture shows a number of people and groups, including coalitions, rallying for climate change policy.  "We want policy change not climate change" by Joe in DC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Once goals are set and strategies devised, it is time to move forward and implement the action plans. Dennis and the Jones County Coalition Against Underage Drinking demonstrated how this can be done with communities and the three branches of government. Keep in mind that each arena of policy practice involves a different focus and different strategies. It also requires an understanding of the legislative process and how we can affect change during each step of policy realization. As a result, the intervention phase takes a lot of time and effort, similar to when intervening with an individual client, and will get frustrating when things take too long or we are not able to impress upon others the importance of our concern. When things do not go the way they are planned, social workers will revisit the assessment stage to formulate new strategies, keeping in mind what roadblocks came up the last time. In addition to dedication and hard work, another big piece of the intervention process is building connections with those who have the power to implement, execute, and enforce policy. Knowing who they are, what their political viewpoints are, and what they have done in the past gives insight into how they function and what we need to do to be heard. Social workers can use their skills in building relationship and communication to enhance their ability to effectively practice at the macro level with policy reform.


Evaluation in policy practice is a very important part of the process because it provides an opportunity to realistically look at the effectiveness of the policy efforts. While the phase is distinct, evaluation does not just happen following the intervention phase. It should be happening at different times throughout the change process. Formal evaluation can be done when a group cannot identify intervention strategies, all efforts to change policy are exhausted, a perceived problem turns out to be the effect of a completely different problem, or even when bureaucratic agencies are not implementing the policy correctly. The social worker, task force, or agency can revisit the issue and see what was not effective, why it did not work, and what can be done differently about it. Evaluation can then direct the work back to the assessment phase to formulate a different plan of action. Informal can be something that is carried out throughout the policy planning process, as individuals use critical thinking to direct the work they are doing. As any point during the process, we should be able to take a step back and understand the logic and rationale behind what we are doing. If we are unsure or feel lost at any point, it is indeed time to sit down the revisit our goals, objectives, and strategies to see how well they are connected not only to each other but also to the initially defined problem.

The Jones County coalition Dennis headed up was forced to reevaluate their strategy to direct what alcohol and other drug education curriculum the schools used. If we recall, the county board rejected their idea that all schools in the county should use the same curriculum and the group had to change their efforts. They met and figured out what might be an effective approach to make sure the schools still meet the needs of the students when it came to drug education. Dennis and the others will also need to evaluate the outcome of the strategies and policies they were able to implement in Jones County. While results might not be immediate, the groups should, at some point in the future, gather data to see if their strategies are really making a difference. If they are not effecting change, then the coalition will have to revisit the assessment stage and create new tactics with which to address their defined problem. If they are making a difference and underage drinking is dropping, they can further decide what, if anything, they want or have to do in order to continue the trend.

Policy Analysis

As with the evaluation stage, there are various points in the policy planning process that requires practitioners to analyze policy. Whether it is evaluating policy that is already in place, formulating policy efforts that will be implemented to deal with a deficiency in the system, or appraising the effectiveness of a policy strategy we recently implemented, policy analysis is a key component to the planning process. Many policy analysis models include defining the problem and implementing policy as parts of their analysis process (Saint-Germain, 2001). These steps, however, fit more with the policy planning process described above rather than the action of just evaluating the effectiveness of a policy, which is what the focus should be. Kirst-Ashman (2009) defines policy analysis as, “a systemic evaluation of how effectively a policy address the targeted problem or issue, meets people’s needs, and achieves its goals.” (p. 226). In this articulation of the concept, there is no mention of defining the problem, as the problem should have been defined prior to the formulation of the policy, nor is there mention of implementation of the policy, as that is a separate action altogether. With policy analysis, we want to be able to take a step back and rationally evaluate the policy as it was intended, without emotion or bias. The policy analysis framework put forth by Miley et al. (1998) brings together popular components from other models, simplifies the process into three basic components—the specifications of the policy, the feasibility of the policy, and the merits of the policy—and allows policy practitioners to focus just on the evaluation of the policy.

Policy Specifications

Knowing the specifics of the policy will allow social workers to better evaluate the other two aspects of the policy. We cannot determine the practicality and the viability of a policy without understanding what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it. While it is not incumbent upon the analyst to define the target problem, it is necessary to know what the policy states it is trying to accomplish and why, specifically what values are driving it. Outlining the logistics of the policy, such as funding, implementation, target population, and requirements, is also essential to evaluation. Again this applies to policy already in place as well as any policy being planned to be implemented. Arguably, this should also be done by those implementing and executing policy as well, in order to make sure it is being done right.

Policy Feasibility

Once we understand the policy, we can look at how practical it is, in other words, how much sense it makes in a cost–benefit approach. Is it, or will it be, supported by the recipients, those in with political power, and by the general public? A policy not valued by key constituents will not be seen as important, will not be regulated or run properly, and will falter. The policy must also make use of resources responsibly, including funding and demands on the system. For example, if we want to eliminate homelessness, one logical thought would be to give everyone a house. With everyone owning a house, no one would be without a home, in the most literal sense of the phrase. However, in understanding the monetary ramifications, it is unlikely there would be enough money in the government’s budget to fund such an undertaking. Another real-world example could be the demands made on child abuse and neglect agencies. Certain states or areas may not be able to investigate all the reports of child abuse and neglect, instead focusing on the ones in which young children are being physically harmed. While the policy is ideal in protecting all children, it is unreasonable to expect an overworked, understaffed agency to be able to enforce the policy properly.

Policy Merits

Say we wanted to address the gap in educational attainment between white middle-class adolescents and poor inner-city African American youth. If one of our smaller objectives was to increase graduation rate of African American students, it could easily be accomplished by simply lowering test standards for this population of students. In terms of resources, it would not require additional funding or manpower to accomplish. Even if students, parents, and administrators felt this was an equitable approach, the policy would not be properly addressing the overall goal or the underlying barriers to educational opportunity this specific population may be facing. Sure numbers of graduates would increase, but knowledge would not, and we would be doing more harm than good. This is why evaluating the policy on the basis of its effectiveness is necessary. The policy should be able to work the same for all target systems, produce the same results, and truly address the problem it defined. One last piece mentioned by others, including Kirst-Ashman (2009), is the need to compare current or planned policy with alternatives, including policy that is already in place dealing with the same problem. This is another way to judge the merit of the policy by comparing it to the merits, feasibility, and intent of other policies. After evaluating alternative policies to see how effectively and efficiently they are handling/would handle the defined problem, we can make a more informed choice. Having alternatives will provide an array of options, instead of settling for one that may or may not get the job done well. Once we have been able to choose, through thoughtful analysis, our best option we can move forward with the policy practice process.

Photo of a box with several cups to collect change, with signs that say, "Will work for food," "Hungry Cold Homeless," and "An everyday campaign for change."
Although social work policy practice can take a lot of time and energy, it can also allow us to make a big impact on the largest number of people.  "Will Work for Food" by Technosailor is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


            It may not be the task most associated with social work, but policy practice is an important part of providing for our clients. Understanding policy, the political climate, as well as opportunities and activities for practice can help us better understand just how we can make a difference in social welfare policy. The key is understanding how social justice can be achieved by what we do when trying to influence policy makers, implementers, and enforcers. It is not a stretch for generalist social workers to utilize their skills, training, and knowledge of client systems to reform policy, despite the fact that many practitioners feel less confident in their ability to do so. Workers must continue to seek out opportunities and experience with impacting social welfare policy at all levels in order to build their self-efficacy and continue this essential macro-level work function. Social work’s history is deeply connected to social welfare policy, so it should be that we continue to work to enhance our society for everyone.

Chapter 5 References

Brueggemann, W. B. (1996). The practice of macro social work. Nelson-Hall.

Council on Social Work Education (2014). 2013 Annual statistics on social work education in the United States. Retrieved from

Cummins, L. K., Byers, K. V., & Pedrick, L. V. (2011). Defining policy practice in social work. In Policy practice for social workers: New strategies for a new era. Retrieved from

Dear, R. B. (1995). Social welfare policy. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of Social Work (19th ed. Vol. 3, pp. 2226-2237). NASW Press.  Retrieved from

Democratic National Committee (2012). Moving America forward: 2012 Democratic national platform. Retrieved from

DiNitto, D. M. (2000). Social welfare: Politics and public policy (5th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Donaldson, L. P., Hill, K., Ferguson, S., Fogel, S., & Erickson, C. (2014). Contemporary social work licensure: Implications for macro social work practice and education. Social Work, 59(1), 52-61.

DuBois, B, & Miley, K. K., (2011). Social work: An empowering profession (7th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Figueira-McDonough, J. (1993). Policy practice: The neglected side of social work intervention. Social Work, 38(2), 179-188.

Hackman, H. (2005). Five essential components for social justice education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 38, 103–109.

International Court of Justice (n.d.). How the Court Works. In The court. Retrieved from

Katz, D. H. (2000). PowerPoint presentation. Social welfare policy analysis: Module II. Retrieved from

Kilbane, T., Pryce, J., & Hong, P. P. (2013). Advocacy week: A model to prepare clinical social workers for lobby day. Journal of Social Work Education, 49(1), 173-179. doi:10.1080/10437797.2013.755420

Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2009). Introduction to social work & social welfare: Critical thinking perspectives (3rd ed.). Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

Lane, S. R. (2011). Political content in social work education as reported by elected social workers. Journal of Social Work Education, 47(1), 53-72. doi:10.5175/JSWE.2011.200900050

Malka, A., & Lelkes, Y. (2010). More than ideology: Conservative–liberal identity and receptivity to political cues. Social Justice Research, 23(2/3), 156-188. doi:10.1007/s11211-010-0114-3

Manning, J.E. (2014). Membership of the 113th Congress: A profile. Retrieved from

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality. Harper and Rowe.

Milford, J. L., Austin, J. L., & Smith, J. E. (2007). Community reinforcement and the dissemination of evidence-based practice: Implications for public policy. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation & Therapy, 3(1), 77-87.

National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of ethics. In About. Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (2014). Social workers in Congress (113th Congress ed.). Retrieved from

National Association of Social Workers (2015). Social workers in state and local office. In Advocacy. Retrieved from

Pozzuto, R., & Arnd-Caddigan, M. (2008). Social work in the US: Sociohistorical context and contemporary issues. Australian Social Work, 61(1), 57-71. doi:10.1080/03124070701818732

Pritzker, S., & Lane, S. R. (2014). Field note—integrating policy and political content in BSW and MSW field placements. Journal Of Social Work Education, 50(4), 730-739. doi:10.1080/10437797.2014.947905

Republican National Committee (2014). Family values. In Issues. Retrieved from

Rocha, C. J. (2007).  Essentials of Social Work Policy Practice. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Roosevelt, T. (1897). How not to help our poorer brothers. Review of Reviews. 15, 36. Excerpted in Lerner, K. L., & Lerner, B. W., eds., (2006). Social policy: Essential primary sources. Thomson Gale. 

Saint-Germain, M. A. (2001). Session two: Six-step policy analysis. In PPA 670 Public policy analysis. Retrieved from Policy Analysis Process

Segal, E. A., & Brzuzy, S. (1998). Social welfare policy, programs, and practice. F. E. Peacock Publishers

Sherraden, M. S., Slosar, B., & Sherraden, M. (2002). Innovation in social policy: Collaborative policy advocacy. Social Work, 47(3), 209-221.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009). Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) overview. Retrieved from

United States Constitution (1787).  Retrieved from

Weiss-Gal, I. (2013). Policy practice in practice: The inputs of social workers in legislative committees. Social Work, 58(4), 304-313.



Chapter 6: Race, Ethnicity, and Oppression

Majority culture has dictated how society lives since the beginning of the United States.  Unfortunately, our society is not as inclusive as we would like to believe and many people seen as “different” have been and continue to be oppressed because perceived – not actual – superiority has been translated into social and systematic discrimination and relegation of groups.  Social workers need to understand these groups and what they face in order to more effectively fight for social justice.  This chapter will teach you to:

  1. Understand why society has and continues to discriminate based on cultural differences;
  2. Identify the ways in which racial and ethnic discrimination continues in society today;
  3. Define key concepts in minority oppression;
  4. Describe historicity and strengths of various minority groups in the United States;
  5. Explain the struggles faced by these groups in society;
  6. Identify practice perspectives and methods for social workers in working with and addressing the needs of minority groups.
Group of kids of varying backgrounds standing in a field, looking at the camera.
"CB106492" by hepingting is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Social Work, Race, and Ethnicity

             The United States has often been called a great “Melting Pot” because of the various immigrant populations that have come to the country, bringing their cultures and traditions combining and mixing into one.  While this idea may be seen as a positive attribute of the country, a place where all the wonderful aspects of the peoples can be incorporated into one unified group of Americans, Melting Pot is actually a misnomer that can cause greater divide among the diverse residents here.  Smith (2012) discussed how despite the discourse of many scholars on the falsehood of such a term and the importance of ethnic identity for U.S. citizens, many public officials, including Presidents, have clung to the term, holding it up as a standard to strive for: the assimilation of all new immigrants to the American way of life.  Unfortunately, it is exactly that standard that has caused those holding onto their ethnic roots and ways of living to be marginalized.  When it comes down to it, the American Way can be seen as a term encompassing the beliefs and way of life of those in power, mainly White wealthy men, so even those who are born here in the United States that are deemed different because of their background, language, or socioeconomic status are outcast and discriminated against.

Our country has a long history of trying to make people fit the mold those in power think is ideal.  Thomas Jefferson himself believed the Native Americans should either assimilate or be forced to move halfway across the country (Bragaw, 2006).  As a result, racially and ethnically different groups have been oppressed for many years and, although we would like to believe our society has come a long way from the blatant racism and discrimination of slavery and Jim Crow laws, continue to face a number of social injustices still today.  “How does social work fit into all of this?” you may ask.  Well by now it should be clear that social work is dedicated to social justice and working with those groups and individuals who are experiencing hardships in their life for any reason, including those stemming from racial and ethnic discrimination.  However, social workers need to have a general understanding of how these groups and individuals may experience life in the United States, as well as how our country continues to place them on the outskirts of society.  We need to have an understanding of the different systems that may be attributing to their experience and how we can work with and for them to bring about positive change to improve our life together.


Race & Ethnicity

             If you were to ask anyone in your class what race they were (although we do not suggest you do so), they would, most likely, be able to give you an immediate response.  If you did not ask them, you might come to a conclusion on your own by looking at the individual’s skin and other physical characteristics.  Even when someone is considered multiracial, many of us believe the signs are obvious as to which categorical race that person belongs.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.) gives one definition of race as, “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.”  The problem is races do not actually exist in the biological sense society has come to believe as fact.  While there is still debate about the usefulness of creating a racial taxonomy, specifically in understanding geographic origins of people, it has become a widely belief that race is nothing more than a social construction.  The American Anthropological Association (1998) stated, “With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups.”  In fact in 1987, Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan Wilson traced all modern humans, through analysis of genetic material, to the same maternal ancestor in Africa, now commonly referred to as Mitochondrial Eve (Gitschier, 2010).  Yet, despite sharing a basic genetic makeup and historic heritage, we continue to believe in, perpetuate, and discriminate based on this biologically null conceptualization of race.

Person with their hands on their head, leaning against a wall.
We often use what we believe to be typical physical characteristics of a race of people to determine an individual's racial or ethnic background.  Looking at this picture, what would you say is this person's background?  How can you tell?  Discuss your thoughts with your classmates and see what they say.

            It is in this belief of race that race actually exists and does so with negative consequences to those who are considered racially different.  Without a biological foundation for it, race is still a very real experience for many people in the United States (Coleman, 2011) and it is important for social workers to not only acknowledge the existence of race, even if only as a means of discrimination, but also understand how it impacts the clients with whom we work.  For the purpose of this text, we will define race as a socially-constructed and perceived biological differentiation of individuals based on observable and/or socially acknowledged unobservable characteristics, and as a concept used by groups with higher social status to oppress and relegate certain groups to lower social status.  Breaking this definition down, we understand that race is not a real biological differentiation and can be based on differences in not only physical characteristics, such as skin color, eye shape, nose shape, height, and hair texture, but also often erroneously held beliefs about innate characteristics, such as athletic ability, intelligence, and personality.  For instance, people have believed that all Black people have wide noses and are more athletic than other races, Asian people have slanted eyes and are good at math, Native Americans have big teeth and are prone to aggression, and that White people are pale-skinned and ignorant.  While not one of these things can be contributed to the entire group or can even be linked to only that group, these characteristics are believed to be connected to these groups as genetic indicators of race.  This definition of race also acknowledges the use of differentiating between people as a mechanism of discrimination by those with the power against those without power.  In the case of the United States, those with the power tend to be White Christian heterosexual males, mostly of European descent.

            It is important to point out the difference between our concept of race and that of ethnicity, if not only to understand how these two terms are used in greater society.  While race is attached to physical characteristics, ethnicity aligns with cultural characteristics.  Ethnicity can be conceptualized as one’s heritage and socio-cultural connection to an original population of people from a certain geographical location.  When constructed this way, ethnicity can be used to describe a direct connection to a group of people originally from a certain location, even if you were not born in that area.  This is the case for many people in the United States who are proud of their ethnic identities but were born and raised here.  Others cannot deny someone of a claim to genealogical heritage just because they were not born in a specific location.  Waters (1990) even argued that those who have a multiethnic background have a great deal of choice over which ethnicity or ethnicities become a part of their identity and to what extent, although much more so for White people than for non-Whites; a choice that can vary with situation or time.  Unfortunately, ethnicity, like race, is also used as a socially conceived means to marginalize people.  Recent history can demonstrate how ethnicity has been used by the “in” group to deny the “out”-group resources, citizenship, basic needs, and even life (Coleman, 2011).  This can be seen today, played out in how our society treats certain ethnic groups, such as Arabs and those from Latin America, as second-class citizens who are encroaching on invading our country and of whom we need to be watchful, even though that may be considered "White."


Box 6.1 – Ethnic Identity

Both of your authors both attended the same graduate school program in pursuit of their Master of Social Work degrees, only a year apart. One of the courses required them each to write a paper about their ethnic identity, describing who they were and how their cultural identity presented itself in their lives. Both of your authors knew their European heritage because their parents had told them about it since they were old enough to understand. Their dad’s family was 100% Polish while their mom had a German father and an Irish mother. (And their grandfather on their father’s side would tell them there was a tiny bit of Cherokee blood running through their veins.) But one of them felt that his heritage did not show up all that much in his everyday life, other than in the insensitive jokes that he would hear about Polish people being stupid. As a result, he decided to talk about how he was a typical American. He ate typical American food like pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly. He celebrated American holidays like Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day. He loved being competitive and listening to rock ‘n’ roll. He was American. After he handed his paper in, he talked to his brother about the assignment and his brother could not disagree with his approach more. The brother wrote about the pride he had in his heritage and knew exactly how it was shown in his life. They found it odd how two people from the same parents and living in the same house could have such different perspectives about their ethnic heritage. But that’s how self-identification works when it comes to ethnicity. Your culture can be what you identify it as.

There is a lot of crossover between the two concepts of race and ethnicity, with groups of people from what is considered the same race, sharing ethnic identity.  However, these two ways of categorizing individuals are not mutually inclusive.  Individuals who are Japanese and individuals who are Indian are both considered Asian populations, but there can be considerable difference between them culturally.  The U.S. Census Bureau (2013a) recognizes Hispanic as an ethnic group that can include people of Black, White, or Native American races.  Even among the early nineteenth century European White settlers, all from the same supposed race, there was a clear division between the various ethnic groups that immigrated to the U.S (Smith, 2012).  These constructs do a poor job of outlining all aspects of the groups that have been identified.  Schwarzbaum and Thomas (2008) discuss how broad ethnic categories encompass numerous subgroups that could be considered separate ethnicities.  In addition, race as a biological category has been widely rejected by academic fields everywhere.  So, what does this mean for identity?  Both race and ethnicity are ways to identify individuals and for individuals to self-identify.  Sure, race was originally used to discriminate against Africans and justify their enslavement, and ethnicity has allowed the connection of people with culture and creates ethnic boundaries in cities and states.  Yet, the perpetuation of these, at times forced, labels has shaped how we identify others and how we identify ourselves.

When working with clients, social workers need to understand how clients identify themselves and how these identities influence the client and the situation that has led them to seek or need help.  Race and ethnicity, though not concrete truths, do impact how we experience life in the United States, whether it is as a member of the majority group or a minority group.  They can dictate how others treat us, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves, even if it is not overt or a conscious decision.  It is through these experiences that can best direct how practitioners work with and for client systems in addressing needs, helping obtain resources, and combating social injustices.


Defining Minority

Minority group status should be considered in a context of power and control rather than that of population size.  It is estimated that “White not Hispanic or Latino” individuals comprised about 60% of the inhabitants of the United States in 2019, a clear majority in sheer numbers (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b).  However, minority group status is synonymous with being marginalized in a society and is not dependent on relative group size.  Thinking about the power imbalance in South Africa, for instance, Black people outnumbered White people for a clear majority of the population, yet the White people held the political and social influence in South African society before apartheid ended.  Louis Wirth gives a thorough definition of minority group as:

A group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination...Minority carries with it the exclusion from full participation in the life of a society. (as quoted in Shepard, 2010, p. 240)

Wirth’s explanation of minority can demonstrate how, when race and ethnicity are used to discriminate, people can be assigned minority status, proscribed from having any power or influence in society, and are often neglected in terms of resources and social amenities.  Currently, federal data collected on race and ethnicity is regulated by 1997 standards from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget that outline five racial and two ethnic groups in the U.S.: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and non-Hispanic/Latino, respectively (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020).  However, even the U.S. Census Bureau itself is aware of how limiting and prescriptive these categories, sharing that, when given the opportunity to self-identify, many Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern and North African individuals often select “Some other race” as opposed to “White” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).  As we will see later on in the chapter, there are more than five racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States social workers need to be knowledgeable about.

Museum exhibit of a bathroom sign from a courthouse in the south that says, "For colored."
Racism in the past was much more overt, socially acceptable, and legalized, such as having to use the bathroom labeled "for colored," as demonstrated by this Collin County Courthouse sign from before 1964.  Today's racial discrimination, while not legalized can be both overt and covert, even unconscious. "'For Colored' bathroom sign, old Collin County Courthouse" byTrevor.Huxham is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Prejudice and Discrimination

In the introduction to the book Race and Ethnicity, Thernstrom and Thernstrom (2002) discuss how much the United States has changed since the Civil Rights Movement, with the weak prevalence of White racism that continues to shrink.  However, that is not to deny the fact that groups of people are still treated poorly and unjustly based on nothing more than a fictional preconceived notion related to who they are and how they are because of their skin color or ethnic background.  Still many people believe that society will always, at some level, use race and ethnicity to oppress and marginalize groups in some way shape or form.  While racism may not have been a cause of slavery as much as it was a product (Collins, 2001), it has helped perpetuate colonial ideas of White superiority versus racial and ethnic inferiority and has helped create other forms of persecution.  Social workers have the training, the values, and the responsibility to continue to work to end prejudice and discrimination in all forms, including that based on race and ethnicity.

Although closely related, prejudice and discrimination are distinct concepts of interaction between minority groups and dominant groups in a society and differ in how they come to be and how they manifest.  Prejudice is best thought of as the cognitive dimension of the group relationship while discrimination is the behavioral dimension, both of which can be applied to individuals or to groups, communities, and society (Healey, 2001).  Healey found that these dimensions are not necessarily dependent of each other – societal perspective could include beliefs that unemployment rates of African Americans are lower because they have a poor work ethic while still creating policies designed to stop discriminatory hiring practices, or an individual can make fun of an Asian person’s eyes just to fit in, despite having positive feelings about Asian people.  Furthermore, being a part of a biased society does not guarantee an individual will be biased, just as prejudiced beliefs and discriminatory behavior can be established independently of societal influence.  No matter what though, biased thoughts and feelings as well as unfair behavior only work to create a greater divide between groups and can continue to subjugate those with little or no power.  Following this thread, prejudiced ideology and discriminatory behavior need to be addressed at all social work practice levels in order to combat the imbalanced power structure between the dominant group and minority groups.

Discrimination in the U.S. Today

Looking back at Jim Crow laws, it was easy to identify the racist beliefs and behaviors underpinning the White majority’s interaction with the Black minority.  Signs directing you to which water fountain to use, where to sit in a restaurant, or what club you could go to made it clear if you were or were not accepted.  Overt racism and overt racists were not only tolerated, but accepted, with White individuals often being allowed to break the law if their actions were a result of an interaction with a Black individual.  Civil rights laws and greater diversity in the population, including a higher intermarriage rate between different racial and ethnic groups (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2002), brought a shift in attitudes in the United States (Forrest-Bank & Jenson, 2015).  Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, on the other hand, saw an increase in discriminatory governmental policies and actions.  In their article on the role of social workers in helping individuals and communities targeted by hate crimes, Kaplan and Inguanzo (2020) explore the ways in which Trump’s “rhetoric of hate propaganda” has led to a significant increase violence and terrorism against marginalized populations.

Unfortunately, racist ideology and behavior still exist, even aside from that explicitly exhibited by White supremacy and nationalist individuals and groups.  Through depictions, or lack thereof, of minority groups in the media and educational texts, as well as what we learn from friends and family, we build this unconscious schema of prejudice that misinforms our feelings and, at times, directs our behavior.  Even if we don’t align ourselves with discriminatory ideology, we may have beliefs about people of minority groups not because we directly attribute it to their race, but because our maturation process has reinforced these unconscious beliefs.  The same thing can be said about our country.  Despite Donald Trump’s presidency, there are those that argue the government provides for fair treatment and equal opportunities for everyone, essentially closing the door on the racial and ethnic divide in the U.S.  This is simply not true.  Social workers cannot be blind to the prejudice and discrimination others refuse to acknowledge.

Box 6.2 – What Does Society Teach Us?

Photo of a Speedy Gonzalez Toy.
"Speedy Gonzalez" by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

We learn a lot about people from different cultures without being aware of it, based on what we see in our everyday lives. The media often represents minorities in stereotypical ways and it starts from when we are young. Speedy Gonzales is an older cartoon character, but one that was on often in the 1980s. Most kids who watched Speedy Gonzales cartoons thought that they were just being entertained but didn’t realize that they were being imprinted with stereotypes about Mexicans. And it wasn’t just based on Speedy himself, all the supporting characters exemplified stereotypical characteristics of Mexicans, like they all wear big sombreros, don’t wear shoes, and have thick accents. What else do Speedy Gonzales cartoons (or shows or movies you might have seen when you were younger) teach you about minorities?

Think about the following aspects:

  • Work ethic
  • Language and speech
  • Clothing style
  • Importance of family
  • Religious beliefs
  • Behavior
  • Education
  • Economic status



Back in the 1970s, Chester Pierce first used “racial microaggression” when discussing the small acts of discrimination that racial and ethnic minorities experience on a daily basis (Forrest-Bank & Jenson, 2015).  Sue et al. (2007) expanded on this by defining racial microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (p. 273).  Although this definition is specific toward those acts that focus on race, it can still be applied to microaggressions that deal with race or ethnicity.  It should be pointed out that Sue’s definition specifically mentions environmental factors as well, not just interpersonal interactions.  In order to better explain microaggressions, we can utilize the three forms outlined by Sue et al. (2007): microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.



These are overt, purposeful discriminatory verbal or nonverbal actions meant to negatively impact or convey prejudice toward the target person or group.  These actions are done in private or public when the person doing them feels safe or comfortable enough.  This can include things like pulling the corners of one’s eyes to appear “Asian”, telling an African American person they look like a monkey, or sharing racist jokes.  This type of microaggression is basically an attack targeting race and ethnicity.



This form of microaggression is subtler in nature and the person performing microinsults often does not realize what they are saying or doing.  The actions, whether verbal or behavioral, are insensitive and demeaning to a person or group, indicating minority groups are not as intelligent, capable, deserving, or important as the majority.  These can include things like telling an individual with a graduate degree, who is Latina, that she is a credit to her people, correcting the pronunciation of an Asian woman with an accent, or using caricatured logos or derogatory names of Native Americans to represent sports teams.  Microinsults are not necessarily meant to be hurtful, which is why they often go unrecognized as such by the perpetrator, but are real representations of unconscious prejudice.

Desktop background of the Cleveland Indians' "Chief Wahoo" logo.
The Cleveland Indians' logo of the big-toothed caricature head of a Native American is a racist and demeaning depiction of American's Indigenous Peoples.  It is a microinsult because it makes fun of Native Americans, though it was originally supposed to honor a former Cleveland player.  Cleveland announced in December 2020 that they would change their name after the 2021 season. "Cleveland Indians Desktop Wallpaper" by Hawk Eyes is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.



Microinvalidations are those things said and done that indicate a person of minority’s experience as a minority is not legitimate or that they are not recognized as an American citizen.  This can include asking a Latino colleague where he was born, telling an Arab American friend you have known since childhood that you do not believe her when she says she has never heard what you believe is a typical American phrase, or even telling a couple of African American friends that what they experienced as a microaggression was nothing really and harmless.  This form of microaggressions seems to come more from a place of ignorance of what persons of minority go through and believing that all people in American society experience life the same way.

The three types of microaggressions should not necessarily be thought of as rigid categories of behaviors or communications, as some microaggressions can invalidate as well as be insulting to the experience of those of a particular race or ethnicity, some are an overt demonstration of prejudice even though it was not meant to be hurtful.  It is less important to be able to categorize microaggressions than it is to acknowledge that they are a real occurrence, the different messages these actions send to those belonging to a minority group as well as those who are a part of the majority, and how these microaggression affect those they are directed toward.  Sue and colleagues (2007) further created a taxonomy of various microaggressions and the messages they convey, which can be found in Box 6.3.

Box 6.3 – Microaggressions

Sue’s list Taxonomy of Microaggressions can be found here. Go to Table 1 in the article and read through the list.  Think about the times you might have witnessed these things or something similar being said. You might have even said or thought them yourself. It is important that we recognize microaggressions exist and work to combat them.


Institutional Oppression

This does not mean, however, that racism and ethnic discrimination is no longer present in American society.  Even without a strong presence of people who admit to having negative feelings, attitudes or behaviors towards others based on race and ethnicity, racism still has a firm presence in structure and culture of our society; something Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2014) termed “racism without racists”.  The idea is that, due to the historical oppression of minority groups, majority groups’ interests are attended to while further relegating the needs and interests of minority groups (Harris & Lieberman, 2015).  So while the country no longer condones racism, our society is continuing to oppress those who have generally had less power as a people through the policies and laws we implement, the issues we focus on (or ignore), and the way in which we view each other.  Herein lies the defining characteristic of institutional oppression, that many institutions, structures, and schemas impacting our daily lives are, even if inadvertently, creating a disparaging gap between the resources and opportunities available to the majority and those in the minority.

Institutional oppression is not always apparent, and many still believe that any inequities between the White majority and racial and ethnic minority groups in terms of employment, educational attainment, financial resources, housing, and safety is best explained by a personal fault, like the fact that a greater number of Black people are unemployed because they have a poor work ethic.  However, this is grossly misrepresenting both cultures of minority groups and the role American institutions play in the scenario.  What is forgotten or left out of the reasoning is that schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer resources available to the students, including money for instructional materials and qualified teachers.  Whether students work hard or do not try at all, their educational quality is going to be far below that of students from middle-class White neighborhoods.  Educational opportunities beyond high school are going to be much more limited for students who are academically unprepared to continue on to college and many of these Black students are pushed even further behind their White counterparts.  When it comes time to enter the workforce, the job possibilities are going to be higher quality and quantity for those who are from that middle class area.  Yet, there is a pervasive belief in society that everyone has the same opportunity and all it takes is hard work to move oneself into the next highest socioeconomic status, not acknowledging how many more barriers minorities have to deal with than the majority group.

All this is not to say that the country, both people and government, want things to continue this way, that we want to keep minorities in a place of lesser value.  In fact, when issues of racial or ethnic inequality do appear, both minority and majority group members are standing together against the injustices they identify, more so today than they did during the civil rights movement.  Therefore, it is hard to imagine that policies, structures, and institutions would function in such a way as to disadvantage certain groups of people more so than others.  However, a belief that treating everyone equally is the same as treating everyone fairly denies the historical marginalization of minority groups that has created a situation in which the majority has access to more resources, and thus an unfair advantage.  This continues the dysfunctional practices and beliefs of equality, further oppressing minority groups (Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006).



America as a melting pot is, at its core, a fantastical notion that all immigrant groups should shed their ethnic and racial identities in order to become real Americans (Smith, 2012).  Basically, you can come to the United States and start over, forgetting all you were to take on this new, better identity and fit in with the majority.  However, this is truer for European, White immigrants than it is for other groups that may be considered White, such as Arabs and Latinx individuals, or other races.  This lets minority groups know that the White majority can accept them, to a certain extent and by ignoring their heritage and background, as one of the majority.  The desire of the majority group to get everyone else to be more like them stems from the idea that their group is superior to all other groups and that their values are the correct values, ones all groups should espouse (Johnson, 2013).  This is ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s group is better and more important than any other group.  A reconceptualized definition of ethnocentrism as, “a strong sense of ethnic group self-centeredness,” (Bizumic & Duckitt, 2012, p. 888) demonstrates how this concept is expressed in six different facets by groups:

  1. Preference – Liking your group and its members more than other groups based on the fact that they are from your group.
  2. Superiority – Believing your own group is better, or superior, than all other groups in certain dimensions, specifically the ones important to your group.
  3. Purity – Maintaining the purity of your group by not mixing with members of other groups both socially and physically.
  4. Exploitiveness – Using other groups in any way, under the guise of doing what is best for your group, to promote and maintain the ideals that are important to you.
  5. Group Cohesion – Valuing the needs of the group over your own needs, and working and connecting with other group members to make sure these needs are met.
  6. Devotion – Being loyal to the group and its interests no matter what because the group is of central importance to its members.

When a group is ethnocentric, these six aspects of ethnocentrism can be expressed in various levels depending on where in the power structure a group is.  Ethnocentrism as a concept is not only applicable to groups in power and can be present by those groups who are minorities in their societies.  Highly ethnocentric minority groups may not be able to exploit other groups nearly as much, but they can still leverage purity to maintain a close intergroup connection while keeping outgroup members at a distance.  Of course, any group can vary on their level of ethnocentrism, being able to value other groups and seek connection with those ethnically and culturally different from them.

However, a strong sense of ethnocentrism can cause problems in a society, creating more divide between groups and oppression of minority groups; and since the majority group has the power, it makes it much easier for them to integrate their values and way of life into the formal and informal structures of society.  One aspect of ethnocentrism that may be forgotten about, aside from the positive thoughts from the ingroup and its superiority, is that there is a sense of outgroup inferiority (Raden, 2003).  This is something that has historically been a part of U.S. history, used to justify taking land from the Native Americans and to enslave peoples brought from Africa.  Although it is not usually consciously accepted or recognized as such, ethnocentrism and its ingroup superiority versus outgroup inferiority is still engrained in how we interact with and create policies that deal with immigrant groups and native minorities.  When we talk about the “American Way,” it is truly a reflection of majority group values interwoven into official and unofficial thinking and doing.

Busy New York street with three women with hijabs walking up the sidewalk.
People who are not Muslim might think that wearing the hijab is a ridiculous practice and not a woman's choice.  It's a very ethnocentric view when we do not see the value in a woman's religious right to choose to wear the hijab. ​​​​​"Three Hijabs - D7K_1636_ep_gs" by Eric.Parker is licensed underCC BY-NC 2.0.


White Privilege

In an episode of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, host John Stewart was talking to his guest Bill O’Reilly about the idea of White privilege (check out this video on YouTube).  John was trying to get Bill to admit that Bill himself benefitted from White privilege, despite working hard to get to where he was.  For the majority of the discussion, as humorously tilted as it was, the serious struggle the two TV personalities were having was more to do with how they each defined the phrase than it did with whether or not the White majority actually benefitted from it.  The phrase itself is often misunderstood with people thinking that just because someone is White, they will receive more noticeable or tangible benefits, such as Bill O’Reilly was arguing.  It is sometimes understood as blatant bias based on skin color or ethnicity.  With a popular belief in the United States that blatant discrimination based on race and ethnicity is wrong, this misunderstood explanation of White privilege is often rejected.  Antiracist essayist, educator, and author Tim Wise (2014) defines White privilege as:

White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed White will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material (such as greater opportunity in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which Whites had the ability to accumulate wealth to a greater extent than persons of color), social (such as presumptions of competence, creditworthiness, law-abidingness, intelligence, etc.) or psychological (such as not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.). (question 5).

While Wise states that this advantage is enjoyed by White people, it may be easier to understand as a benefit since many White people will not even be aware that they are receiving the advantage.  This is closely related to the process behind institutional oppression and ethnocentrism that the White majority in the United States is often oblivious to and how societal structures discriminate or marginalize minority groups.  Although we have touched upon the social and material benefits the White majority has been given, one aspect of the definition Wise offers up that needs to be pointed out is the psychological benefits White privilege provides.  Minority group members have to, on a daily basis, deal with many psychological barriers, due to their racial or ethnic background, which remind them of their minority group status.  It is a part of their identity they cannot ignore, even if they wanted to.  White people, on the other hand, rarely come across moments in which they are reminded of being White; and those that they do come across are more likely to reinforce their positive attributes or even dominance.

             White privilege can be considered a side effect of both ethnocentrism and institutional oppression, as these concepts often reward those who look and act the right way.  Although this should not be taken to mean that all White people are going to be economically advantaged and have no worries, and this is another reason White privilege is not accepted by people.  One argument might be that if there was such a thing as White privilege, why are there poor White people?  Why do so many White people struggle in life as well?  In fact, less than 10% (8.3%) of “White alone, not Hispanic" people in the United States were living below the poverty level in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b).  If there were White privilege shouldn’t this number be much smaller, even nonexistent?  Yet White privilege is not about providing every White person the exact same opportunities and benefits.  To truly understand White privilege, one must understand that even the poorest White person will have an advantage over minority people in a similar or even better economic position.  While there may not be unanimity across the whole White majority in terms of socioeconomic standing, educational attainment, or access to resources, White privilege will still allow those disadvantaged Whites to be more advantaged than minorities.


Box 6.4 – Identity Privilege

White Privilege is just one form of Identity Privilege that individuals benefit from.  Other parts of one’s identity that can afford privilege include, but are not limited to, gender and gender identity, sexuality, religion, economic status, and ability.  While this chapter focuses on race and ethnicity, which can afford the greatest privilege for the majority group, it is still important for social work students to recognize their identity privilege and how it manifests in their lives.  In doing so, we can also begin to understand the experience of our clients that don’t have that privilege.  Need help in understanding identity privilege?  Use the questions in this Privilege Walk activity from Eastern Illinois University to help give you better understand how you might have privilege.


Minority Groups

When fighting for social justice, it is important for social workers not only to be aware of how groups are oppressed in our society, but also for them to understand some general characteristics each group possesses and the common barriers they face as a minority group in the United States.  In an effort to address minority groups that have been historically, continue to be, or have been more recently marginalized in America, we will look at groups based on the categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau to classify people by race and ethnicity: African American/Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latinx, and Native American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013a).  One additional category that needs to be included in the discussion is that of Arab Americans as they have a distinct culture and have increasingly become targets of ethnic and religious discrimination since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The following descriptions of these minority groups are designed to provide a background and a foundational knowledge of various minority groups as a precursor to understanding how social workers can serve minority client systems.  Of course, like anything else, not all of these aspects or issues will affect every individual from a certain group and we need to keep this in mind to prevent us from stereotyping or prescribing strategies for our clients without a thorough understanding of their personal experience or concerns as an individual.

Large African American or Black family posing outside of a restaurant.
Not all Black people consider themselves American or African American.  It is important to get to know your client and understand how they identify. "friends and family" by LesterSpence is licensed under CC BY 2.0


African Americans and Black People

In a discussion about racism, African American and Black people are arguably the most recognized racial minority in the United States.  They represent roughly 13 percent of the entire population in 2019, making them the second largest racial group in the U.S, behind Whites (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b).  The most obvious trait that places people into this category is the dark skin tone, although any American who has ancestry from indigenous people of Africa can belong to this group, no matter how dark or light their skin tone is.  It is important to note, however, that not all Black people in the United States identify as African American and lay claim to other heritages, such as Latin American, before recognizing their African ancestry.  Since the U.S. Census counts Black/African American as a race and Hispanic as an ethnicity, the two are not separated in terms of national statistics.  However, due to their skin color, many of the issues African Americans deal with in today’s society are also of concern for Black Latin Americans.

Racist oppression Black people have suffered throughout the history of the United States started with slavery.  As slaves, Black people were bought, sold, and treated like animals, having to work in the fields without pay.  Oftentimes they were separated from their families and lost connection with some of the cultural traditions and customs of their homeland (Zastrow, 2008), though many of the African values have persisted and are seen in the lives of African American and Black families today (DuBois & Miley, 2011).  After the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freedom for Black people looked much better on paper than it was in real life.  Jim Crow laws allowed the government, businesses, and individuals to legally discriminate against and oppress African Americans, keeping life segregated, especially in terms of housing, education, and employment.  If they did not act properly, Black people could suffer severe physical punishment, even death, by White law enforcement and regular citizens.  World War II and the Civil Rights Movement helped move society away from this societal “slavery” toward more positive gains for African Americans and improved relations with Whites.  Segregation was outlawed and many different people and groups have continuously and earnestly worked for social justice for African Americans and Black people, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Urban League to name a very few.  We are much closer now than ever before to having equality between the two largest races in the U.S., though there is still a lot of work to be done.

Today many of the struggles of Black people have to deal with can be understood through the lens of anti-Black racism.  A term attributed to Dr. Akua Benjamin, a social work professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, anti-Black racism describes policies, practices, beliefs, and attitudes of both societal institutions and individual members that reinforce negative stereotypes, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination, and perpetuate the marginalization and dehumanization of people of African descent (Amherst College, n.d.; Black Health Alliance, n.d.).  A historic example of this can be seen in housing discrimination Black people have had to face.  [You can watch this satirical clip of John Oliver discussing this idea more in-depth.]  After slavery ended and Jim Crow began, the neighborhoods Black people were allowed to live in were burdened with unemployment and underemployment, higher levels of poverty, and unequal educational opportunities.  Despite the growing Black middle class and greater attainment of high school education among African Americans, this trend persists still today and has negative social and psychological effects on Black individuals (Danzer, 2012; Palmer & Little 1993).  This is one example of the historically traumatic interaction between White-dominated society and institutions and Black people that has produced fear, anger, rejection, and self-prejudice in Black people.  Mays (1986) discussed how the psychological effects of this relationship are important contributors to identity formation in African Americans during the different stages of African American history.

Identity development among African Americans and Black people, as well as other minority groups, deals with the idea of dualism where individuals are essentially part of two very distinct cultural spheres of influence: that of the greater society – in this case America where the cultural norms are focused on the White majority – and that of their family and community – one that encapsulates the cultural norms of their race or ethnicity.  When there is an incongruence between these two systems, the conflicting struggle within an individual can cause much psychological distress.  The greater society is pressuring BIPOC folks to fit in and become acculturated to the majority way of life, essentially rejecting their heritage and possibly being ostracized by their community.  The family and community influence works to instill its cultural viewpoint in the individual, telling the individual to reject those of the racist and discriminatory nature of the majority, thus risking further prejudice treatment by those in power.  This battle just adds to the barriers already faced with trying to figure out one’s place in society as well as trying to establish a positive self-identity.

In dealing with this dualism, as well as other oppressive obstacles faced on a daily basis, there are important strengths and values of Black communities that should be noted.  Because family is such an important part of the African American culture, we will look at what aspects of African American families stand out as a way of supporting the growth and success of the community in meeting the needs of its members.  It is important to note that Black families in the United States may be described as, “networks of households related by blood, marriage, or function that provides basic instrumental and expressive functions of the family to the members of those networks.” (Hill, 1999, p. 40).  In opposition to the nuclear family unit that dominates White America, this sense of family demonstrates the importance of community in helping meet the needs of family members.  Schaefer (2012) summarized Hill’s five strengths of African American families in helping support members and their growth as:

  1. Strong kinship bonds – Black people are more likely than Whites to care for children and the elderly in an extended family network.
  2. A strong work orientation – poor Black people are more likely to be working, and poor Black families often include more than one wage earner.
  3. Adaptability of family roles – in two-parent families, the egalitarian pattern of decision making is the most common.  The self-reliance of Black women who are the primary wage earners best illustrates this adaptability
  4. Strong achievement orientation - working-class Black people indicate a greater desire for their children to attend college than do working-class Whites.  Even a majority of low-income African Americans want to attend college.
  5. A strong religious orientation – since the time of slavery, Black churches have been impetus behind many significant grassroots organizations. (p. 207).

These factors help African American communities protect their members and provide much needed support in dealing with the discrimination they face on a daily basis from outside, majority-driven systems.  Too often society focuses on troubling issues that a smaller portion of Black people face and fails to recognize all the positive characteristics of these communities.  So, while there are number of oppressive factors negatively impacting the lives of African Americans, social workers need to remember the strengths of this group in meeting the needs of their members in order to work with and for them effectively.


Asian Americans

Having Asian Americans, Hawaiian, and Other Pacific Islanders as a singular category on the U.S. Census is misleading, appearing to combine two related groups to give a more accurate count of this population in the United States.  However, in breaking down the makeup of this governmental category, it can compare to Arab Americans in terms of the number of differing cultural groups making up this category.  Typically, when we think of Asian peoples, we are drawn to economic powers, such as China or Japan, or countries that have been identified in the media as military concerns, such as North Korea; all three groups of which are distinct.  We less often bring to mind the Vietnamese, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian, and Indian immigrants from Asia– to name just a few – when we consider Asian Americans in the United States.  Adding Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders and the fact that countries like China and the Philippines themselves have various ethnic groups (Schaefer, 2012) creates a whole gamut of diverse eastern world experiences being brought to America.

The start of the oppressive history of Asian Americans is not unlike the other groups already discussed, as well as those we will discuss after this.  Immigration efforts by Asians were met with resistance, their presence in society was unwanted, and they were targeted for poor treatment socially and legally.  A term first used around the turn of the century to describe the sentiments of the majority society towards Asians was “Yellow Peril”, which saw this group, especially the Chinese, as “heathen, morally inferior, drug addicted, savage or lustful.” (Schaefer, 2012, p. 283).  This prejudiced view held by Americans of Asian people translated into overt discrimination through legislature prohibiting further immigration, interracial/multiethnic relationships and marriages, the owning of land, and becoming a citizen (Alvarez, Juang, & Liang, 2006; Chou, 2008).  They have also historically been treated as foreigners in the U.S., even if they were native born and their family had been established in America.  The example that drives this point home more so than any other is the internment camps Japanese Americans had to endure during WWII when there was a prevalent fear that all Japanese people in the U.S. were potential spies.  This skewed characterization of Asians as being recent immigrants with limited English and not knowing much about American culture persists to this day.  Like many minority groups, Asians suffer from stereotypical representation in the media that propagates these prejudicial beliefs.

One such depiction, the “Model Minority”, is unique to Asian Americans amongst the minority groups in the United States.  At first glance, this idea may seem like a compliment, honoring Asians for what we believe are positive characteristics and behaviors.  This term is used to describe the ability of this minority group to succeed through dedication, hard work, educational attainment, and abiding by the laws.  Other minority groups are then indirectly faulted for not reaching the same level of success and assimilation as Asian Americans, denying the social circumstances of minority experiences and focusing on inferior characteristics.  The minority model is a socially constructed ideal held by the White majority as what is good and desirable.  It represents the ability of Asian Americans to assimilate to American culture, which can be the result of denying theirs.  It also does a poor job of adequately representing the marginalization of this group.  This way of describing Asians does nothing to address the poor treatment of the White majority toward this group, further demonstrating our imbalanced behavior of expecting people to accommodate us while we can treat anyone however we want.  The truth is, despite higher educational attainment for Asian Americans overall, their average income is less than those in an equal educational demographic (Chou, 2008).  In addition, this is the overall statistic, if you the group down into the many various ethnic groups, the results demonstrate how some of the ethnic groups skew the data to be more favorable (Chou, 2008; Schaefer, 2012).

Even though there are so many ethnically diverse groups in the one lump category of Asian Americans, experiences based on being categorized this way have helped create this need for ethnic subgroups to come together and share one broad identity while still acknowledging their differences.  Schaefer (2012) referred to this concept of coming together as one group as panethnicity and can help strengthen the more general minority group identity and help provide resources to address their needs.  Ho (as cited in Morales & Sheafor, 1998) outlined seven values believed to be consistent among all Asian cultures that can be a common thread for the diverse groups:

  1. Filial piety – Loyalty to family, especially familial authority figures, to the point of possibly sacrificing individual goals.
  2. Shame as a behavioral influence – The threat of shame, translating into loss of community and family support, directs how Asians act at all times.
  3. Self-control – Not letting emotions dictate how one reacts to situations.  This can be shown through patience, stoicism, humility, and tolerance depending on the situation.
  4. Middle-position – This value is related to self-perception in that one should not feel superior to or inferior to their peers, nurturing togetherness and equality.
  5. Awareness of social milieu – Similar to the idea of filial piety, Asian individuals are influenced by social norms, focused on group welfare, and work for social solidarity in thoughts and behavior, avoiding individualism.
  6. Fatalism – Acceptance of life events pragmatically and without philosophical discourse as a means to continue moving forward, especially in situations out of their control.
  7. Inconspicuousness – Early Asian immigrants did not want to attract attention for fear of backlash and racism.

The problem with these seven values is twofold.  First, with such a diverse group, we do not want to assume all Asians we come in contact with hold these values as important.  Second, it is easy for us to understand these values through American eyes, meaning we view these attributes based on how important or useful they are in our society.  Even in how they were described, it looked at the possible negative impact these sorts of values can have on an individual.  Working with clients, we cannot ascribe value to cultural norms or beliefs.  We need to follow the clients’ lead in how they perceive these influences in their lives.  Where we might see them as detrimental, they might see them as dedication to family and community, respect and equality, and strength in times of hardship.

American Indian dancing in traditional dress at a modern day Pow Wow in front of guests.
Native Americans are a people that generally take a lot of pride in their heritage and are still connected cultural roots and traditions. "Native American Pow-Wow" by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Native Americans

Life of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was forever changed when Christopher Columbus came to the West Indies.  The coming of the Europeans brought both physical and psychological pain and suffering to the many groups of Native Americans already present on the continents.  Like Asian American and Latinx, Native American is a general designation for numerous groups that can be cultural distinct, and can be further broken down into American Indians and Alaska Natives (although this section of the chapter will focus primarily on the experiences of American Indians).  The Europeans, however, had little regard for differences between tribes and focused more on the differences the natives had with the Europeans.  Many U.S. policies dealing with the American Indians, such as the Reorganization Act, aimed at assimilation or relocation of tribal groups to lands that were foreign to their way of life.  The White majority has believed that they had a right to the land because the “savage” natives did not work the land agriculturally, subsisting by taking from the land only what was provided naturally (Bragaw, 2006).  Not uncommon from the rest of the world in the treatment of native peoples when usurping their lands, the European way of life brought to American was deemed sophisticated and superior to that of the native tribes (Schaefer, 2012).  The belief of Manifest Destiny was the justification for the poor treatment natives suffered and wars against them.  Europeans were not only more deserving than the American Indians, it was their destiny to dominate the natives.  These same views are not generally held by the public or the U.S. government today.  Since the 1960s and 1970s, the White majority has become more aware of the tragic policies and events American Indians have had to endure.  Public acknowledgement of the wrongdoings by the U.S. such as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which follows the path American Indians traveled from the Eastern United States to Oklahoma as a result of the U.S. Relocation Act, is much more supported than previously.  Even the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was initially created to execute the treaties the Federal government forced upon the native tribes to spur assimilation of people and land (Palmer & Rundstrom, 2013), has since acknowledged the misguided nature of their early involvement with tribal peoples (Schaefer, 2012).

Much of what the BIA did early on was misguided to say the least.  At times they believed they were being helpful, such as providing land for relocated tribes, trying to establish a three-branch system of reservation government, and remove government involvement with tribes to allow for more sovereignty.  Really these acts were more designed to benefit the U.S. then they were to truly help the American Indians.  Reservations have high poverty rates, low employment rates, under-enrollment in schools at all levels, and fewer resources than White communities (Schaefer, 2012).  Aside from institutional oppression, natives still have to deal with stereotyped and prejudiced beliefs from society.  Unfortunately, many non-native Americans are not educated enough when it comes to Native Americans, and microaggressions involving native stereotypes are rampant in American culture.  A great illustration of this is the use of Native American mascots.  While thought by the majority to be an honor, these mascots are often derogatory depictions of natives, either by team name or mascot personification, which is not always recognized by the public, especially fans of these teams.  Many White people do not realize that seeing Indigenous Peoples as nothing more than fierce warriors is to belittle what is means to be an American Indian.

Despite this and their dreadful history of oppression, Native Americans, still find much pride in their identity as a native, specifically in their tribe, and their traditions and values live on today (, 2015).  While there are many different strengths tribal cultures have in terms of supporting members of the community through their lives, Goodluck (2002) identified three domains of well-being factors that allow Native American youth to find strength in their heritage:

  1. Helping each other – Establishing social connection by participating in many traditional events and activities, as well as sharing in responsibility of caring for others.
  2. Group belonging – Connecting to the extended family of the group by identifying with and claiming membership in the group and being active in group clubs and organizations.
  3. Spiritual belief – Focused on ritual and ceremonial participation, through knowledge of and belief in tribal or group religion and its traditions.

These domains identify the values and traditions that allow Native Americans to establish a strong self-identity and connection with their heritage, which can counteract the current situation into which they have been forced.  For American Indians, as with all native people, it is important to be respectful and honor their beliefs, traditions, and practices, especially given the centuries of disrespect they have received from non-native Americans.


Hispanic and Latino

Mexican Americans represent the largest group of Hispanic or Latino people in the United States, at about 62% of the total population (U.S. Census, 2019a).  The other 38% of Latin Americans come from a variety of various countries in Central and South America.  The terms Hispanic or Latino have been used as umbrella terms to identify all people of Spanish or Latin origin living in the United States, though not without debate about what is more appropriate and respectful.  An article titled “Hispanic of Latino: Which is Correct?” in Profiles in Diversity Journal (Austin & Johnson, n.d.) described the arguments for both terms, but concludes with an idea that most people labeled as Hispanic or Latino prefer to be recognized by their nationality first and foremost.  Even with the more recent introduction of Latinx as a gender-neutral term inclusive of all gender-identities, it is important to understand what individuals’ personal preference is in terms of being identified.  For this section, we will use the term Latinx (pronounced lah-TEEN-eks as opposed to Latin-X).  It is currently used by academics and diversity, equity, and inclusion experts as a way to discuss this very diverse population, with the understanding that this panethnic grouping gives only a vague general understanding of cultural experiences.


Box 6.2 – Hispanic & Latino as identifiers

With any terms we use, understanding a word’s origin or actual definition can help us decide if it is appropriate and/or respectful for us to use.  For instance, it can be helpful to know the term Hispanic in essence refers to someone who comes from a Spanish-speaking background.  This can be a problem if we are working with someone who is Brazilian.  While Brazil is a South American country, Portuguese is the official language.  So those with ties to the largest country in South America are then excluded if we use this term.  Along the same lines, it would include anyone with heritage from Spain, a European country with a White majority.  As practice, what can you find out about Latino vs. Latinx?  What about the term Latine?  Try to research first, but click here to see a comic by Terry Blas that covers the topic.

Latinx is considered an ethnic group in the United States.  It is by far the largest minority in the United States, with 60,095,000 people of various races claiming a Hispanic or Latino background in the 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019a).  Projected population growth for this group by the year 2060 is double the size it is today (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014), partially because of the large, steady immigration population from Latin American countries such as Mexico and Cuba.  Despite this influx of new immigrants, Hispanic peoples have been a part of American history since it was first “discovered” by Europeans.  While the English were busy settling the eastern part of what is now the United States, the Spanish were doing the same thing in Central and South America, as well as parts of North America and the Caribbean islands.  Many of the indigenous people in these areas had fates similar to the American Indians met by the English, which included illness, war, and eventual conquer.  As a result, those we recognize as Latinx today largely have ancestral backgrounds from this Spanish invasion of the native peoples and settlement of their land.  As the English were founding the United States and moving eastward, taking land from the American Indians, the Spanish peoples were spreading across what is now Mexico and into areas of the Southwest.  Much like the American Indians, these early Mexicans were also taken over by the non-native American push to conquer the continent.

Part of the reason for the poor treatment of those of Spanish or Spanish and native origin by non-native Americans relates back to conflicts in Europe between Spain and other European countries.  Propaganda used by the English, French, and Germans branded the Spanish as “cruel, bigoted, tyrannical, lazy, violent, treacherous, and depraved,” attacking the moral character of this nationality and creating La Leyenda Negra – the Black Legend (Sánchez, 2013).  Sánchez stated that it was the revitalization of this Black Legend by the Americans in their quest to control North America that justified their subjugation of Mexicans and eventually laid the foundation for prejudiced stereotypes of today’s Latinx population.  As more Latinx immigrants enter the United States, with and without documents, these prejudiced beliefs are still very much alive in American society.  Aside from these beliefs, many Latinx immigrants, as well as those who are native-born, have to confront a number of institutional issues, such as barriers to education, unemployment and underemployment, and poverty.  Two issues that have a profound effect on people who are Latinx, as well as how society views them, are language and immigrant documentation.

There is a strong belief that people living in the U.S. need to be able to speak English.  Learning a language other than what you speak natively is not easy, and it takes time and practice to become fluent in.  This can result in children not performing well in schools and adults having a hard time finding employment, among other concerns.  Although efforts have been made to be more accommodating – such as bilingual education for native Spanish speakers and many organizations providing materials and services in Spanish – they, as well as Spanish speakers, are too often met with prejudice.  Even those who are fluent in English but have a noticeable accent are treated as if they cannot be understood, are uneducated, or do not belong in the U.S.

It is not uncommon for those with accents to be assumed to be “illegal” immigrants.  Though this is an extreme and unfounded generalization, there are a number of undocumented (the proper and ethnically sensitive word) Latinx individuals living in the United States.  Too often it is assumed these immigrants are crossing the border to take advantage of all the benefits the U.S. has to offer – employment, healthcare, and education – without having to pay taxes.  The reality is that for many of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. it was a matter of survival.  The family that was living in extreme poverty and risked the lives of its members to find a way to subsist as well as the individual whose only option was to either escape to the U.S. or face death in their country are invisible to most of American society.  Even if they were children when their family made the choice to come to the States, they still face fear as well as the attitude from others that they do not belong here and are not worthy of being called Americans.

In order to deal with all this, Latinx individuals have a number of general cultural strengths.  Other than a (mostly) common language and similar cultural heritages, Delgado and Burton (1998) identified three value themes in local Latinx art relevant to our discussion:

  1. Ethnic and racial pride – connecting with their noble origins and their nationality is an important part of being proud of who they are.  Ethnic pride is also a way to stay connected to their country of origin.  Even if it did not provide the best living circumstances, it will always be home.
  2. Religion – Latinx individuals have a strong connection to their faith that plays out in their lives on a daily basis through the use of religious symbols and prayer.  Spirituality gives them strength and hope for the future, and provides a guideline for living a positive life.
  3. Social justice – This directly relates to the unjust oppressive experiences Hispanics have had.  By remembering past trials and tribulations, they want to work to address the causes of these issues to better the future for the community.  They remember heroes and honor their culture.

In addition, one more value should be addressed:

  1. Family Value – Unlike the majority focus on individuality in the U.S., Latinx culture is one of collectivism, placing a lot of importance on the family system, including what Americans consider extended family.  Responsibility to family members and attending to family needs is more important than individual wants, and has all members contributing to family care.

These strengths can be seen across Latinx cultures, in some form or another, and provide a framework for them to be able to function in the United States while staying true to their heritage.  As a result, they have been able to make advances in getting their needs met and addressing the rampant discrimination this group faces, though there is still work to be done.

A close-up picture of an older Arab man's face.
Too many people assume that all Arabs are Muslim, when in fact they are a really diverse group.  In the United States, most Arab Americans identify as Christian. "Elderly Arab Man, black and white" by Liam Kearney is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Arab Americans

This group has too often been left out or inadequately covered in discussions of minority groups, including in social work education.  In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau racially classifies Arab Americans as White people, similar to non-Black Latinx individuals.  However, unlike the Hispanic White category that Latinx individuals can choose, there is no Arab ethnicity category.  As such, Arab Americans as a minority group can be viewed as the invisible minority.  Though they are discriminated against and marginalized like other minorities, they are less often identified as a group needing social justice and not officially recognized as a minority by the U.S. government.  Arab Americans are defined as those native-born Americans and immigrants with familial ties to any of the 22 countries that are a member of the Arab League, or group of Arab countries that share cultural aspects, including the Arabic language.  They are, in alphabetical order: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  Despite erroneously being equated with Muslims and Islam, there is no set Arab religion or spirituality, though Islam has significant influence on the Arab world (Sabbah, Dinsmore, & Hof, 2009).  In fact, the majority of Arab Americans are Christians and the majority of Muslims in the United States are African American (Naser, personal communication, March 21, 2015).

Unfortunately, many other misconceptions of Arabs have permeated American society and given rise to prejudiced thought and discriminatory action.  Although today many people in the U.S. connect this oppression to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Arab people have been discriminated against for much longer than that.  Prejudiced thoughts about Arabs as religious fanatics, morally evil, a physical/military threat to Europe and Christianity, and oppressors of women were well established, passed on by European influence, prior to that fateful Tuesday in September (Suleiman, 1999).  The first big wave of Arab immigration was in the late 19th century and brought with it racial discrimination, including being considered “colored,” facing issues with voting rights, and being targeted by the KKK (Saloom, 2005).  Arabs have also been negatively portrayed in popular American media, often as hateful radical terrorists, further perpetuating prejudice against this group (Saloom, 2005; Suleiman, 1999).  Still, with the incidents of 9/11, discriminatory behavior against Arab Americans has increased, including being disproportionately selected for “random” searches at airport security checks.  However, Arab Americans are still classified as belonging to the majority White population, despite the great disconnect between this group and the European American Whites.  When it comes to the census, Arabs have been historically unable to adequately self-identify with the varying categories the U.S. government has used to label Arab Americans, and many have taken up the practice of selecting “Other” and writing in their identifier (Kayyali, 2013).

Even though American society might identify this group as Arab Americans, they should still be considered a diverse population in their own right.  Arabs in the U.S. can vary in many ways, including religion and spirituality, country of origin, acculturation, and language.  Yet, there are some general values and norms that can be considered strengths in regard to Arab people, as outlined by Sabbah et al.(2009):

  1. Arabic language – The most popular language used by Arabs, Arabic is the fourth most often spoken language in the world and helps create the Arab consciousness, helping provide a link to their heritage and culture.
  2. Religion – Religion, whether Islam, Christianity, or Druze, is an important dimension of personal identity and has a strong influence on their world.
  3. Family structure – The family in Arabic culture values nuclear and extended family members, and is the central force in providing a foundation of growth for all members.
  4. Time orientation – Having a more relaxed concept of time than Western cultures, while being present in the moment. (p. 33-34).

In addition, two other strengths of Arabic culture can be added to this list:

  1. Sense of community – In the United States, Arab communities are a strong influence and support network, connecting individuals with others they can relate to.
  2. Strive for achievement – Many Arab Americans value professional and financial success, and see it as a means to honor and provide for one’s family.

Although Arab Americans have historically, with an increase more recently after 9/11, dealt with discrimination and prejudice, these aspects of their culture can help them deal with the outer societal subjugation and should be seen as protective factors.  While too often this group is neglected or forgotten, even in discussions of oppressed groups, their experiences as a minority group should not be discounted, nor should their resilience and fortitude in meeting the needs of their members.

Box 6.3 – Current Issues with Marginalized Populations

It is no coincidence that a number of social crises occurred during Donald Trump’s time in office.  These crises have been very polarizing politically and socially, with Trump ignoring, denying, or deflecting away from the real issues.  Social workers need to familiarize themselves with the following topics and what their role is in serving those affected by these concerns:

  • Black Lives Matter
  • The immigrant ban
  • Keystone Pipeline controversy
  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • The border wall
  • Anti-Asian violence


Social Work Practice with Diverse Populations

There is no doubt that minority populations have had to deal with too many injustices, both historic and current, during their history in the United States.  Many of the discriminating acts they have had to face in the past as a people are very much still a part of their minority identity, and the racism and ethnic discrimination they face today continues to be a remind of their place in our society.  Despite being socially conceived ways of categorizing and, essentially, dominating people, race and ethnicity are still very real aspects of identity that carry with them hardships, anguish, and trauma.  As a helping profession, it is social work’s duty to help our individual clients address these injustices in their own lives and combat the oppressive characteristics of society for our client groups.  In building our generalist skills as practitioners, working with diverse clients requires us to become culturally competent.  The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (2008) specifically recognizes the need for cultural competence and the understanding of culture’s meaning in society and for an individual.  We need to understand the realities of minority experiences in American society, giving validation and significance to daily struggles.  Social workers must also be aware of the historical treatment of, current issues specific to, and positive characteristics of different minority groups.  Even though all groups that have ever been considered minorities faced similar problems stemming from marginalization by the majority group, they have incurred those problems, and challenged them, in ways that catered to their unique values and strengths.  Awareness of distinctive cultural traits allows us to have a more empathic view of their life experiences, better equipping us to build the helping relationship and work with them to address needs.  In addition to knowledge about diverse populations, there are theories and approaches to social work that can help further structure our efforts with diverse clients in an effective manner.


Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) acknowledges the role race – and we can assume ethnicity as well – plays in the segregation of groups of people in the U.S.  CRT functions on three main principles in order to identify society’s oppressive nature and work to correct it: 1) race is not biological but a social creation, 2) race saturates all aspects of individual and group life in the United States, including personal identity, and 3) race-based ideology has been integrated into formal and informal institutional structures in our society (Ortiz & Jani, 2010).  Thus CRT helps provide a functional framework for understanding these covert and unintentional forces and can be leveraged in the efforts social workers provide at all levels.  Individually and with groups, we can use CRT to appreciate our clients’ cultural perspectives and how it might have impacted their personal views of themselves.  At the community level we can use this to direct our efforts in confronting institutional oppression through social policy work that, even if indirectly, unjustly targets minority groups and places them at a disadvantage.  We can also work to properly educate communities, supporting community agencies and advocacy groups as they bring awareness to ongoing injustices endured by individuals of racial and ethnic minority groups.  Although race may be downplayed or ignored in these instances, social work can help bring light to the unconscious or invisible discriminatory aspects of American society.


Dual Perspective

Dual perspective proposes that minorities are living in two very distinct cultural spheres, that of the greater American society, which is primarily White influenced and values focused, and that of their ethnic or cultural group, which can vary greatly in values.  As a result of dealing with these two conflicting worlds, the psychological effects can be overwhelming.  If an individual is thought to identify too much with the majority, this person may be seen as a traitor to their race or ethnicity by their community.  If they are seen as becoming too entrenched in their own culture, they may be seen as troublemakers and discriminated against even more. Understanding this idea is a key component to systems theory which recognizes that people are a part of different systems and that these systems can greatly influence cognitions and behaviors.  When working with clients who are minorities, we need to be aware that there are two – or possibly more if an individual is multiracial/multicultural – cultural spheres of influence for clients that often conflict and, as a result, can create personal turmoil.


Color Blind vs. Cultural Awareness

Social workers absolutely must see color and difference.  There is a perception that one needs to be color-blind so that a person is not judged by skin color and everyone is treated equally.  Yet, when we fail to recognize the impact of race and ethnicity, especially the historical subjugation based on cultural factors, we are essentially saying race and ethnicity are not important.  Chao (2013) pointed out that a strong color-blind mind-set has been correlated with ignoring institutional oppressive factors for problems affecting cultural minorities.  Essentially, this approach can be equated to attributing problems to cultural values or within control of individuals or groups instead of a result of external influence.  Even though race has no biological foundation, it very much has a social foundation and significantly contributes to how people are treated socially and institutionally.  All social workers, even those who identify as a minority, need to understand how race and ethnicity can play a role in current marginalization of cultural groups and how this interacts with the development of a personal identity.  Color-blind is really just another term for being culturally unaware.  Social workers need to be aware of how race and ethnicity are still very much a part of our society and imbalance of social power and access to resources in order to better fight racism at a systemic level and provide our individual clients with the most effective services (Abrams & Moio, 2009).



One of the critical aspects of working with diverse client systems is having a thorough understanding of who you are.  It does not come just from knowing your background, where you come from, and the history of your people.  It comes from awareness of the role your own racial and ethnic identity have played in your life, both socially and psychologically.  This includes acknowledging the cultural stereotypes, both conscious and unconscious, that we have learned growing up in American society, even if we are not part of the majority.  Too often we believe we are not racist and respond from a defensive front if and when someone suggests we are.  However, social workers need to be more introspective than that.  We need to recognize when our prejudice appears, where it came from, and why it is there, and connect if we actually believe it.  If some microaggressions we commit are more likely born out of subliminal acculturation, our minds may be making judgments with which we do not necessarily agree.  Our brain may identify a thought or social attitude, but that does not mean we have to make it our own.  It is our responsibility to fight those of our thoughts that can further marginalize people based on race and ethnicity.

Social workers must do this in our personal and professional lives.  “Counselors can strive to be culturally competent by recognizing how their own beliefs and biases may seep into the counseling context.” (Kohatsu, Victoria, Lau, Flores, & Salazar, 2011).  As mentioned earlier in discussion about Asian American values, it is paramount that we do not allow our ethnocentric views of values direct our interpretation of the unfair pressure cultural beliefs put on the client.  We must meet the client where they are in regard to their personal values and cultural identity, without judgment about what is right or wrong.  We are looking at what is right or wrong based on our standards and not theirs.  If their values conflict with their culture’s values, then we can help them process through that and address that in the proper manner.  However, social workers work from a strengths-based perspective and are charged with helping clients address the self-identified concerns in their own lives.  Allowing our own worldview to dictate how we work with clients can adversely affect the work done with the client, such as misdirecting therapeutic interventions, conflict within other cultural systems of which the client is a part, or even disrupt and breakdown the therapeutic relationship.  Our thoughts on what is best for the client, without taking their input into consideration, will do more harm than good.


Box 6.7 – Who Are You?

Earlier I related a story about my understanding of who I am. What do you define your identity? Think about who you are based on the following topics:

  1. Race or ethnicity
  2. Gender
  3. Religion/spirituality
  4. Favorite food
  5. Favorite type of music
  6. Family relationships
  7. How you celebrate your heritage
  8. Your personality
  9. Leisure time activities and hobbies.


Social Justice

While it is necessary to be aware of some of the things that impact how we work with clients, it is also important to understand what to target when it comes to the work we provide to our client systems.  Work with individual clients can direct what we do in that helping relationship.  However, when it comes to larger systems such as communities and society, while part of the identification of issues is by hearing it from the clients, another piece is the evaluation of policies and statistics indicating a discrepancy between populations.  For instance, an article by Voborníková (2014) discusses the racial discrimination in the private housing market and role the Federal Housing Administration is playing to continue such segregation.  No Child Left Behind was created to address the achievement gap between White students and their minority counterparts, but with little effective change in many schools across the country (Lagana-Riordan & Aguilar, 2009).  Housing, education, health care, employment and income, and crime, just to name a few, are all areas that have been shown to have discriminatory practices toward minorities or barriers preventing equality with the White majority (Chou, 2013; Palmer & Little, 1993; Schaefer, 2012; Zastrow, 2008).  Social work efforts need to identify the areas that need improvement and address these social injustices through policy practice, community campaigns, activism, and social marketing.



Being culturally competent does not mean knowing everything there is to know about working with every diverse population in the U.S.  In fact, it is highly unlikely that we will ever become or feel completely culturally competent as social workers.  Saunders, Haskins, and Vasquez (2015) described cultural competence as a continuous effort individual social workers, as well as social work as a profession, must take to build their skills in working with diverse groups.  We must continually seek to improve our efforts in effectively working with racial and ethnic minority students.  When it comes to racial and ethnic minorities, we need to recognize and celebrate the differences we have as one people in the United States.  No longer should we strive to be a “melting pot” where diversity is devalued, belittled, feared, or used to hold people down.  Instead, the United States should strive to be a “salad bowl” in which all the all races and ethnicities can live together yet retain their vibrant cultural identity.  Majority oppression clearly hurts minority populations, but by instilling values and beliefs, especially subliminally, that are prejudiced in nature, we create a society where all groups encounter negativity, hatred, and fear.  The field of social work leads the change in creating a better, more nurturing environment for all.  As practitioners we need to create an understanding in ourselves about the world in which we live and how others experience that world in unique ways.  We also need to be introspective by recognizing, confronting, and changing those prejudiced thoughts and beliefs – both conscious and unconscious – we have within ourselves about those who are different from us.  In doing these things, we can better work for positive change in society for all ethnicities and races.



Abrams, L. S., & Moio, J. A. (2009). Critical race theory and the cultural competence dilemma in social work education. Journal of social work education, 45(2), 245-261.

Alvarez, A. N., Juang, L., & Liang, C. H. (2006). Asian Americans and racism: When bad things happen to "model minorities". Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, 12(3), 477-492. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.123.477

Amherst College (n.d.). Race and ethnicity terms and definitions. In Multicultural Resource Center.

American Anthropological Association (1998). “American Anthropological Association’s statement on race”. In About the Project

Austin, G., & Johnson, D. (n.d.). Hispanic or Latino: Which is correct? Profiles in Diversity Journal, online.

Bizumic, B., & Duckitt, J. (2012). What is and is not ethnocentrism? A conceptual analysis and political implications. Political Psychology, 33(6), 887-909. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00907.x

Black Health Alliance (n.d.). Anti-black racism. In Our Impact.

Boundless. (2014). Boundless Sociology.

Bragaw, S. G. (2006). Thomas Jefferson and the American Indian nations: Native American sovereignty and the Marshall Court. Journal of Supreme Court History31(2), 155-180. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5818.2006.00133.x.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). “Racial & ethnic minority populations”. In Minority Health

Chao, R. C. (2013). Race/ethnicity and multicultural Competence among school counselors: Multicultural training, racial/ethnic identity, and color-blind racial attitudes. Journal of counseling & development91(2), 140-151. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2013.00082.x

Chou, C. (2008). Critique on the notion of model minority: an alternative racism to Asian American? Asian ethnicity, 9(3), 219-229. doi:10.1080/14631360802349239

Coleman, S. (2011). Addressing the puzzle of race. Journal of Social Work Education47(1), 91-108. doi:10.5175/JSWE.2011.200900086

Collins, R. (2001). Ethnic chance in macro-historical perspective. In E. Anderson & D. S. Massey (Eds.), Problem of the century (pp. 13-46). Russell Sage Foundation.

Danzer, G. (2012). African-Americans' historical trauma: Manifestations in and outside of therapy. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing16(1), 16-21.

Delgado, M., & Barton, K. (1998). Murals in Latino communities: social indicators of community strengths. Social Work43(4), 346-356. doi:10.1093/sw/43.4.346

DuBois, B, & Miley, K. K., (2011). Social work: An empowering profession (7th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Forrest-Bank, S., & Jenson, J. M. (2015). Differences in experiences of racial and ethnic microaggression among Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Black, and White young adults. Journal of sociology & social welfare, 42(1), 141-161.

Gitschier, J. (2010). All About Mitochondrial Eve: An Interview with Rebecca Cann. Plos genetics, 6(5), 1-4. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000959

Goodluck, C. (2002).  Native American children and youth well-being indicators: A strengths perspective.  In Resources.

Harris, F. C., & Lieberman, R. C. (2015). Racial inequality after racism. Foreign Affairs, 94(2), 9-20.

Henkel, K. E., Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2006). Institutional discrimination, individual racism, and hurricane Katrina. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 6(1), 99-124.

Hill, R. B. (1999). The strengths of African American families: Twenty-five years later. University Press of America, Inc. (2015). Native American life. In Articles.

Johnson, L. A. (2013). Social stratification. Biblical Theology Bulletin, 43(3), 155-168. doi:10.1177/0146107913493565

Kaplan, M.A. and Inguanzo, M.M., (2020). The Historical Facts about Hate Crime in America The Social Worker’s Role in Victim Recovery and Community Restoration. Journal of Hate Studies, 16(1), pp.55–68. doi:

Kayyali, R. (2013). US Census classifications and Arab Americans: Contestations and definitions of identity markers. Journal of ethnic & migration studies, 39(8), 1299-1318. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2013.778150

Kohatsu, E. L., Victoria, R., Lau, A., Flores, M., & Salazar, A. (2011). Analyzing anti-Asian prejudice from a racial identity and color-blind perspective. Journal of counseling & development, 89(1), 63-72.

Lagana-Riordan, C., & Aguilar, J. P. (2009). What's missing from No Child Left Behind? A policy analysis from a social work perspective. Children & Schools, 31(3), 135-144.

Mays, V. M. (1986). Identity development of Black Americans: The role of history and the importance of ethnicity. American Journal of Psychotherapy40(4), 582-593.

Morales, A. T., & Sheafor, B. W. (1998). Social work: A profession of many faces (8th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Naser, S. (2015). Personal interview.

National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of Ethics.  In About

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46(2), 175-193.

Palmer, E. L., & Little III, G. L. (1993). The plight of Blacks in America today. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal21(4), 313-325.

Palmer, M., & Rundstrom, R. (2013). GIS, internal colonialism, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(5), 1142-1159. doi:10.1080/00045608.2012.720233.

Race. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online

Raden, D. (2003). Ingroup bias, classic ethnocentrism, and non-ethnocentrism among American Whites. Political Psychology, 24(4), 803. doi:10.1046/j.1467-9221.2003.00355.x

Sabbah, M. F., Dinsmore, J. A., & Hof, D. D. (2009). A comparative study of the competence of counselors in the United States in counseling Arab Americans and other racial/ethnic groups. International journal of psychology: A biopsychosocial approach / Tarptautinis psichologijos zurnalas: Biopsichosocialinis poziuris, 3(2), 29-45.

Schaefer, R. T. (2012). Racial and ethnic groups (13th ed.). Pearson.

Schwarzbaum, S. E., & Thomas, A. J., (2008). Dimensions of multicultural counseling. Sage Publications, Inc.

Saloom, R. (2005). I know you are, but what am I?  Arab-American experiences through the Critical Race Theory lens. Hamline journal of public law & policy, 27(1), 55-76.

Sánchez, J. P. (2013). Comparative colonialism, the Spanish Black Legend, and Spain’s legacy in the United States: Perspectives on American Latino heritage and our national story. Spanish Colonial Research Center: National Park Service.

Saunders, J. A., Haskins, M., & Vasquez, M. (2015). Cultural competence: A journey to an elusive goal. Journal of social work education, 51(1), 19-34. doi:10.1080/10437797.2015.977124

Shepard, J. M. (2010). Sociology (10th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Smith, D. M. (2012). The American melting pot: A national myth in public and popular discourse. National Identities14(4), 387-402. doi:10.1080/14608944.2012.732054

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., and Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist 62(4), 271-286. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271

Suleiman, M. W. (1999). Islam, Muslims and Arabs in America: The Other of the Other of the Other. Journal of Muslim minority affairs, 19(1), 33.

Thernstrom, A., & Thernstrom, S. (Eds.). (2002). Beyond the color line: New perspectives on race and ethnicity in America. Hoover Institution Press

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010a). Race and Hispanic or Latino origin: 2010. In Community Facts

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010b). Hispanic or Latino by type: 2010. In Community Facts.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2013a). About.  In Race

U.S. Census Bureau. (2013b). People in poverty by selected characteristics: 2012 and 2013. In Poverty.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). Projections for the size and composition of the U.S. population: 2014-2060 (P25-1143). Washington, DC: Colby, S. L. & Ortman, J. M.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). State and county QuickFacts [Data set].

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019a). The Hispanic population in the United States: 2019. [Data table].,

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019b). Population estimates, July 1, 2019. In Quick Facts.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2020a, October 16). About race

U.S. Census Bureau. (2020b). Table B-6 Poverty Status of People by Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2019 [Data table]. In Income and poverty in the United States: 2019.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2021). Research to improve data on race and ethnicity. In About the bureau.

Voborníková, P. (2014). Divided we live: racial and ethnic segregation in housing in the U.S. Scientific Journal Of Humanistic Studies, 6(10), 43-51.

Waters, M. C. (2001). Personal Identity and Ethnicity. In A. M. Garcia & R. A. Garcia (Eds.), Race and Ethnicity (pp. 69-71).

Wise, T. (2014). F.A.Q.s. In Extras

Zastrow, C. (2008). Introduction to social work and social welfare (10th ed.). Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Chapter 7: Sexism, Inequality, and Women's Issues

This chapter was finished at a time when our Vice President is a woman, when there is a legitimate chance to have a female candidate for President on a major-party ticket again in the near future, and when the majority of college students are women. It can be easy to believe that we are living in a post-sexist era in America. However, that’s far from the truth. Women and men both suffer from considerable obstacles put in their path due to gender role socialization and expectations; both may also see some benefits, though men’s benefits tend to be more impactful and permanent than women’s. Social work is well aware of the unique challenges that our sexist societal norms and rules cause for everyone, especially for women, and the profession strives to equalize access to resources, rights, and privileges received in society that are based upon gender. This is one element of social work’s commitment to social justice. Though many improvements have certainly been made, women still find themselves disadvantaged in the world of politics, economic power, family life, religion, and the working world. When you’ve finished reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Articulate the difference between gender and sex;

2. Name several elements of traditional gender-role expectations;

3. Explain some of the agents of gender role socialization;

4. Identify the major tenets and victories of the feminist movement;

5. Define sexual assault harassment and list factors that are involved in its ongoing occurrence;

6. Compare gender-role norms of the past with today’s expectations;

7. Advocate for greater equality between the sexes and identify strategies to help achieve it;

8. Analyze the role of social work in both perpetuating and fighting sexism.


            From the days of Jane Addams and Mary Richmond to the present, social work is a profession that has been led by women. As you learned in Chapter 2, the early days of social work saw many innovative women take the reins to guide the development of the fledgling field. Although more men populate the profession than were seen in the early days, over 80% of the nation’s social workers are women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012; Salsberg, Quigley, Mehfoud, Acquaviva, Wyche, & Sliwa, 2017) and it appears that the number of men entering the field may be dwindling. One survey in the early 2010s indicated that fewer than 10% of social workers under age 34 were men (Carey, 2011), and four years later, another study found that just one out of every seven new social work graduates was a man (Salsberg, Quigley, Mehfoud, Acquaviva, Wyche, & Sliwa, 2017), indicating that the profession may become even more gender-disproportionate in the coming years. Add to this the fact that a majority of social work clients are women, and one can conclude that even if sexism were not a concern today, it would only make sense that social workers were particularly attuned to the needs of women.

However, social workers and other professionals with knowledge of the impact of sex roles and sexism know that they can be harmful to men as well. This recognition of the deleterious effects of sexism on everyone is important, for though women are often painfully aware of the problematic impact of this sort of discrimination, men may not feel as motivated to do anything to combat the problem if they do not realize it also has a negative impact on their own health and wellness. Efforts toward true equality of the sexes are obviously most likely to be successful if supported by men and women alike.

Gender Versus Sex

If you’re sitting there saying, “Wait—I thought gender and sex were the same thing,” you’re not alone. Although this will be explored in much greater depth in Chapter 8, we need to draw the distinction here so it’s clear.

            Sex is a biological term that refers to one having the chromosomes (and typically the genitalia) associated with being male or female. As some of you may remember from biology class, a sex chromosome combination of XX typically results in the birth of a girl and XY means a boy. When forms ask you to indicate what your sex is, they are speaking of your biological condition of being (in most cases) male or female.

However, certain conditions can cause one’s sex to contradict one’s physical presentation; for example, someone with de la Chapelle syndrome has XX chromosomes but may appear to have genitalia that are more male than female; in fact, some may have a typical male body appearance and may be unaware of their chromosome arrangement (Abusheikha, Lass, & Brinsden, 2001). In cases where there are ambiguous genitalia, ambiguous (or non-XX/non-XY) chromosomes, a physical presentation that is not typically found with a given chromosomal arrangement, or some combination of these factors, the individual is typically referred to as intersex. (Intersex people will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8.)

File:Third International Intersex Forum.jpg
Activists and intersex people at the Third International Intersex Forum
"File:Third International Intersex Forum.jpg" by Organisation Intersex International Australia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Gender, on the other hand, refers to one’s personal identity as man (or boy), woman (or girl), or a nonbinary category (see Chapter 8 for more details on this).  It is an emotional, social, and psychological characteristic, though some research is now also exploring whether it has a biological basis too. As sociologist Michael Kimmel (2013) puts it in his book The Gendered Society:

Sex refers to the biological apparatus, the male and the female—our chromosomal, chemical, anatomical organization. “Gender” refers to the meanings that are attached to those differences within a culture. “Sex” is male and female; “gender” is masculinity and femininity—what it means to be a man or a woman. (p. 3)

            When this text discusses the expected traits and behaviors of men and women in our society, we will use the term gender role rather than sex role. These behaviors and characteristics are not inherently, biologically connected to men or women; they are reflections of society’s expectations and definitions of masculinity and femininity.

            However, there are some notable differences between males and females that are biological in nature. For instance, most females (at least from the onset of puberty until menopause) menstruate and can become pregnant. Men typically have more facial hair. These are sex traits rather than being connected to one’s gender. A trait is not determined or defined by society, while a role is. Of course, it turns out that there is actually quite a bit of variation even in these traits. You may have noticed the use of the words “most” and “typically” earlier in this paragraph—that’s because we recognize that not all women menstruate, there are men with less facial hair than some women, and in some cases, people legally recognized as men have given birth, as in the famous case of Oregon’s Thomas Beatie (Colburn, 2008), who birthed three children while legally married to a woman in a state that did not recognize same-gender marriages until 2014 (Brence, 2015).

            From a social work perspective, it may be best simply to realize there are no absolutes, and the world is much more complex than many people realize. Even supposedly established facts get challenged regularly, and social work embraces that ever-growing diversity of humanity.

Box 7.1: Gender Roles


Traditional Gender Role Expectations

            Even though there has been some movement away from the tendency to see men and women as naturally and intrinsically bound to behave in certain ways, there remains a prevailing sentiment among most Americans that men and women are noticeably and predictably different. Most of us expect certain behaviors out of men and women, boys and girls, and react with at least mild surprise when people do not match up with those expectations. This reflects just how ingrained our ideas of gender roles are. In truth, gender roles are based on stereotypes about men and women. Stereotypes represent fixed ideas about a certain group of people, often based on broad generalizations. Stereotypes sometimes have a grain of truth to them but get blown out of proportion, and they can be quite unfavorable to the groups they purport to describe.

            Though gender roles are more rigid in some parts of the country, or with some segments of the population, there are elements of the roles that seem to exist in many places and with most people. What we will go on to describe are the traditional ideas of gender roles, some of which are more prominent and emphasized than others. In no way does social work consider these traits to be inborn or assumed for any men or women. However, we recognize that these gender roles can have a considerable impact on people’s lives.

            Masculinity is the term used to describe those traits and behaviors generally associated with what society considers to be appropriate for a male. Men are often expected to be:

more individualistic, more aggressive, more independent, more in need of social stature, more [leader-like], more rational and yet paradoxically more controlled by a forceful sex drive, less interested in their physical appearance, less naturally paternal, less emotional, less socially adept, and in general, people whose self-esteem [is] based on their social success and being…the spiritual, social, and economic leaders within the governing structure of both church and family. (Hopkins, 1998, p. 34)

You may think of other items to add to the above list, like more athletic, handier around the house, stronger (both emotionally and physically), prouder, more confident, and so on. In fact, if each reader of this text were to come up with his or her own list of what it has traditionally meant to be masculine, it’s likely we’d have as many different lists as people. However, there would undoubtedly be many commonalities on the lists as well. Many of these traits listed for masculinity are perceived positively by most men; who wouldn’t like to be seen as more independent, effective leaders? However, the stereotypes of masculinity also carry with them some unflattering negatives, and even some contradictions (which should make it clear just how foolish it is to stereotype people in the first place).

            Femininity is the term used to describe what society considers to be appropriate for a female. Women are often assumed to be:

more emotional, more verbal, more in need of security, love, and attention, more interested in their physical appearance, more interested in family than individual success, naturally maternal, less logical, less sexual, less aggressive, less [leader-like], and in general, people whose self-esteem [is] (properly) wrapped up in relationships and doing for others. (Hopkins, 1998, p. 34)

punk rocker
This punk rock fan has some stereotypically 'feminine' accessories, clothes and style choices; others are much less associated with femininity. Does any of it tell us what this person's gender identity is? Can our perceptions be incorrect? Is the title of the photo even sure to be correct?
"punk girl" by ♪♫PSICO--MOD♪♫ is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Naturally, you may also believe there is more to add to this list as well. Women are often pressured or simply expected to be domestic, thin, nurturing, passive, kind, soft-spoken, and more. Again, there are some traits here that would elicit pride (greater selflessness, kindness) and some that might make women bristle (less leader-like, less logical). Even as we write this, however, we have to be cognizant of the fact that the traits we see as positive and negative are likely influenced by our own upbringing in a family, community, and society that has been (both subtly and explicitly) pushing gender role expectations on me from birth, if not before. Perhaps you see some of these traits quite differently than we do when it comes to their respective values!


            Androgyny is a term that is often misunderstood—it’s taken to mean that someone is not clearly male or female in appearance.  However, the actual definition of the word is a bit more complex than that. The word itself is a combination of the Greek-derived prefixes associated with male (andr-) and female (gyne- or gyneco-).  Androgyny is a state of having many supposedly masculine and many supposedly feminine traits—and although this is sometimes directed toward appearance, the term can refer to a person having many of the behaviors, tendencies, and characteristics commonly associated with being male or female. Many people find when they really look at their own characteristics that they have some traits that would be considered more stereotypically female and some that are more stereotypically male; that is a more common situation than someone fitting firmly and wholly into a traditional gender role. The traditional roles are so monolithic that, in truth, they do not apply to many people. However, the word “androgynous” has taken on somewhat of a negative connotation, so people may be reluctant to use the term in reference to themselves.

Janelle Monae
People who are more androgynous in appearance may confuse people or make them feel uncomfortable. Many people do not know how to react when someone isn’t clearly male or female, even though it should not make a huge difference for one’s basic interactions. Janelle Monáe has often sported an androgynous look in live concert appearances.
"Janelle Monae" by thomyboecker is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


            Despite this negativity about androgyny, there is research evidence that androgynous individuals have better communication skills (Hirokawa, Yagi, & Miyata, 2004), higher self-esteem (Pauletti, Menon, Cooper, Aults, & Perry, 2017), and are more open-minded (Garcia, 1982), more adaptable and flexible in their behaviors (Shimonaka, Nakazato, Kawaai, & Sato, 1997), and more independent (Bem, 1975). So, although people may not desire the “androgynous” label,

androgyny has often been held up as a model of well-being. The assumption is that an androgynous person is not compelled to “prove” her femininity or his masculinity. Rather, such a person has successfully integrated both masculine and feminine traits…and ultimately benefits psychologically from this integration. (McAnulty &  Burnette, 2004, p. 152)

It seems possible we might all be a bit happier if we weren’t so restricted by gender roles! Yet we continue to have a tendency as a whole to punish children for stepping outside of the expectations we have of them. This is particularly true for boys, who get judged more negatively when they step outside those role-based behaviors to engage in activities like playing with dolls, or if they prefer quiet make-believe play to contact sports and rough-and-tumble activities (Sandnabba & Ahlberg, 1999; Carroll, 2013). What’s more, when boys and men do not adhere to prescribed gender roles, their sexual orientation is often called into question; that is, a boy who “acts like a girl” may prompt concerns from parents and others that he may be gay. (This also indicates a sense, fear, or belief that homosexuality is shameful in comparison to heterosexuality, but that will be addressed in your next chapter.) Of course, when we conflate sexual orientation with gender role, we’re making a big (but common) mistake. People who do not “fit” with their gender roles come in all sexual orientations, and people of various sexual orientations have varying roles of gender-role conformity. These are very different concepts, and the tendency to make them into parallel or even identical categories is misguided.

Box 7.2: Gender Roles Across Cultures

Gender roles

Gender Role Socialization

            We start to notice differences in the behaviors of males and females pretty early in our lives—children often begin imitating their same-sex parent by the age of two (Carroll, 2010). Before we even get to the point where girls aim to imitate their mothers and boys their fathers, our families and the rest of society have been, in a way, coaching us into our expected gender roles. The process by which we learn society’s expectations of males and females is known as gender role socialization.  Some of this is quite deliberate and intentional, while other aspects of socialization are more indirect. It is often intended to be helpful or beneficial, though in reality strict adherence to expected gender roles can be detrimental to both men and women.


            When does gender role socialization begin? It is easy to say it happens at birth, but one could take the stance that it actually starts while the child is still in the womb. Before a baby arrives, parents often discuss names; decorate the nursery; have a baby shower where they receive clothes, books, and toys meant for the baby; and even start talking to the baby in the womb. Additionally, parents’ dreams and plans for the baby come into clearer focus. Thus, the way the baby is going to be treated starts to be determined, and that treatment will naturally have an impact on the way the child behaves (Carroll, 2010).

            After the infant arrives, they may be wrapped in a blue or pink blanket to identify their sex, and parents often talk to the baby differently depending on whether they are a boy or girl. Boys are more apt to hear phrases like, “Who’s a tough guy?” while girls may hear, “Who’s mommy’s/daddy’s sweet little girl?” A landmark study by Rubin, Provenzano, and Luria (1974) showed that parents begin to perceive their children differently within 24 hours of birth based on whether they are sons or daughters; this was especially true for fathers. Parents are more likely to describe their young sons as “strong, firm, [and] alert” and daughters as “delicate, soft, and awkward” (Reynolds & Herman-Kinney, 2003, p. 772).

The toys and books bought for very young children are often different too—girls are more likely to be given toys that are domestic (tea sets, kitchen tools) or beauty-related (mirrors, makeup kits, costume jewelry), while boys are more likely to be given toys that encourage active, physical play like tool sets and sports equipment. Parents tend to place greater restrictions on the movement and play of female babies while allowing male babies to be more independent and self-directed (Skolnick, 1992). While none of these adult behaviors may be inherently problematic, they do set a very clearly decorated pink or blue stage early in childhood, establishing norms that are socially driven and maintained throughout our lives in various ways.

Boy With Doll, Luang Prabang Laos
While parents often say they would treat a young son and young daughter the same, in practice, this rarely happens. Parents often react negatively to children who exhibit cross-gender play, like boys playing with dolls (other than “action figures”).
"Disabled Boy With Doll, Luang Prabang Laos" by AdamCohn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


            The socialization process doesn’t slow down in childhood; if anything, it just finds new fertile ground to sow. The toy and playtime differences that were first socialized in infancy continue into the early school years. “Children who play with toys thought appropriate only for the other sex are often rebuked by their parents. Because children are sensitive to these expressions of displeasure,” they often modify their play and end up finding themselves preferring toys and play styles that match their parents’ expectations of them (Crooks & Baur, 2014, p. 137).

            Feminist author Gail Dines (2010) recalls taking her nieces and nephews to Toys ‘R’ Us:

While there was some gender division among the toys in the 1990s, today the store has an almost tangible barrier down the middle. One half was full of toy guns, knives, swords, wrestling figures, and violent computer games, and the other half magically turned pink with princess dresses, dolls, makeup, and hairdryers. My two nephews walked out with the latest wrestling figures, and my two nieces each had a pink Barbie hairdryer and a pink makeup bag, all bought by their loving feminist aunt. I did try to steer them to the few gender-neutral items, such as jigsaws and board games, but was stopped short by the look of disgust across all four faces (p. 61).

            As we become old enough to have more responsibilities around the house, taking on chores and other duties to assist the family, we see a division of male/female labor in many families. Not only do male children do less housework on average than female children (10 hours versus three), the types of chores being done are quite different (Kimmel, 2013). Boys are far more likely to do yard work and to take out the trash, but these are virtually the only areas in which there are consistent and significant differences. Girls are more likely than their brothers to do laundry, wash dishes, shop for groceries, care for siblings, and take on general household cleaning tasks (Kimmel, 2013). Is this because children continue to copy the behavior of their same-sex parent, or is it because these are the tasks their parents assign to them, perhaps unwittingly, due to their gender-role expectations? In all likelihood, both factors play a part.

Mumbai: Washing Dishes on the Street
 We often learn what the expected household duties for our gender are by watching and imitating our parents. Girls are far more likely than boys to do laundry while growing up.
"Mumbai: Washing Dishes on the Street" by babasteve is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


            Our activities also differ as we age and that differentiation may grow over time. One example is in the realm of athletic competition. Women have enjoyed greater access to sports over recent years than at any previous time in our history, but even in the sporting world, there can be divisions. Can you think of some sports that would be considered more masculine or more feminine in nature? Despite the fact that all sports involve a degree of skill, training, practice, strategy, and execution, we still see sports separated into male and female realms. What’s more, if a girl decides to play a “male” sport, she may be praised for her determination and for trying to “play at the boys’ level,” while a boy who chooses to play a “female” sport (like softball) may be ridiculed for “lowering” himself to the level of the girls.

Some sports now seem to transcend gendered divisions (like soccer, basketball, or track), but it wasn’t long ago that women didn’t have equal opportunities to participate in those sports either. For instance, the NCAA has contested a men’s national basketball championship since 1939; the women’s version has only been around since 1982 (NCAA, n.d.). The Tokyo Olympics in 2021 featured 16 men's soccer teams and only 12 women's squads; the 2023 Women's World Cup will include 32 teams while the men's tournament in 2026 will feature 48. You may be aware that the U.S. women's soccer team has sued for equal pay with the men's team, as they have continued to be paid less despite having far greater competitive success and bringing in greater revenue (Hess, 2019). Unbelievably, it wasn’t until 2014—90 years after their male counterparts— that women were allowed to enter the Olympic ski jumping competition for the first time, as male officials kept claiming into the 21st century that it was too dangerous because the sport could render women infertile and unable to perform household duties (Gibson, 2014).

            Beyond sports, we see gendered participation in a number of other activities. Boys are more likely to be encouraged to pursue carpentry, mechanical work, and other manual labor hobbies and tasks. Girls are still more encouraged to read, write, draw, join a drama group, and engage in other artistic expressions.


It is also interesting to note that the ways in which boys and girls are treated, while different from each other in virtually every culture, are hardly universal. It is true that cross-cultural studies have shown a common tendency of parents to “pay more attention to boys than girls, to interact more sociably with girls, and to emphasize more achievement and autonomy with boys” (Lips, 1993, p. 271). However, some of the differences that exist come down to the relative value of boys and girls in a given culture. In some cultures where male children are particularly highly prized, girls are fed less, neglected, and even literally left out in the cold without adequate protection more often (Ryle, 2012). Imagine how it would feel to be raised as a girl in such a culture, even if those terrible things were not happening to you! It would be difficult, if not impossible, to feel like the equal of a boy.

Here in the United States, the situation may not be as extreme, but so much of what we see around us does still communicate that men are more highly valued than women in many ways. The differences also seem to vary in scope depending on race and class; for instance, African-American girls are more likely to be prepared by their parents for greater independence than Caucasian girls are, perhaps owing to more egalitarian parenting roles and greater prevalence of women as breadwinners in African-American families (Smith, 1982; Kimmel, 2013). When we are raised in such a gender-unequal environment, it’s predictable that we’d see very different results and life circumstances for men and women as adults.

While we’ve focused mostly on family, it’s also important to note that peer groups and the larger society have a major influence in this as well. Even if a child has parents who are very egalitarian in their own expression of gender roles and encourage their children to engage in activities and behaviors that they most enjoy without regard to these norms, the children are still living in a world that is very gendered, and the freedom of expression and behavior they experience at home may not be shared by those in the outside world. By the time we start attending school, we are in an atmosphere where children who participate in play activities not associated with their gender role are likely to be rejected by their peers, sometimes forcefully so. Some research has found children perceive gender-role violations to be as significant as violations of moral standards (Blakemore, 2003). Therefore, a boy who wears lipstick might be seen as equivalently immoral to a boy who steals from a friend. Again, with social sanctions like these in place, it is little surprise that most of us end up conforming to gender-role expectations in many ways.


            As you all probably remember, adolescence is a time when we are working to assert our existence as independent people, separate from our parents, and establish a reputation of some sort within our peer group. In fact, our peer group is perhaps at its pinnacle of influence during these years. Therefore, their behavior during this time in our lives does considerable work to continue the process of gender role socialization, even though gender roles have been pretty firmly established by the time we reach teenage status.

            Popularity and peer approval help to keep us entrenched in these stereotypical roles, as popular kids are more likely to have a greater number of friends and be desirable dates. Boys come to recognize that their social status is dependent in part upon their athletic ability, their sexual exploits and interests, their ability to be stoic in the face of challenges, and a lack of interest in “girly” activities (Carroll, 2013). Girls learn that they should be less interested in sex (or at least more resistant to having it), but should still be interested in boys. They tend to have overall greater latitude than boys in other areas of behavior—for instance, a girl can be popular as a star athlete, as a singer in the choir, as president of student council. Just as in younger years, the consequences for boys deviating from their gender stereotypes are more significant than they are for women (Carroll, 2013).

            There has been some movement on this front; girls are more likely to initiate dating relationships or sexual behavior than they were in the 1970s, and some studies indicate that 10th-grade girls’ rates of sexual intercourse exceed those of boys; despite the social expectation that they should be more chaste, girls at this age also experience greater pressure to have sex, a confusing double bind (Nahom et al., 2001). Teen girls have been taught to assert their independence more now than in years past, but they still have to deal with the social judgment that comes toward a girl who proudly expresses her sexuality (Carroll, 2013). This same social stigma about sexual activity does not apply to boys, who are praised by peers and sometimes even by adults for their sexual behavior. This is what has often been called the double standard of sexual behavior.

            Many adults look back on their teenage years with discomfort and a sense of relief that they do not have to relive those trying times. Adolescence can be especially challenging for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. As noted, during this time we base a lot of our evaluation of ourselves and our peers on popularity, which is in part measured by whom we date. Heterosexual teens can openly discuss their crushes and what happened on their dates over the weekend, and often do, to the delight of their friends. Teens who are dating someone of the same gender, or who are interested in doing so, often cannot talk about it as openly. They may still share their desires with close friends or siblings, if they are accepting of the individual’s sexual orientation, but many do not feel comfortable being more outward and open about their identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or pansexual person (Carroll, 2013). More about the process of navigating life as an LGBTQ+ person will be covered in your next chapter.


            In adulthood, all of the gender role socialization we have endured up to that point continues to play itself out. For example, by the time we finish high school, we’ve seen a lot of representations of traditional gender roles in the media and in families around us—mothers taking care of children, fathers going to work, sons playing sports and doing yardwork, girls helping with dinner and shopping. This is despite the fact that (as noted in more depth in Chapter 11) the so-called “traditional” nuclear family of a working father and stay-at-home mom with children is only the reality in a minority of American households, and an ever-shrinking minority at that (Kimmel, 2013).

            The differences in household duties that we saw in childhood are echoed in adulthood, with the additional potential time burden of child care. If one asks a typical heterosexual couple to write down their duties around the house, the lists may be relatively similar in length, but that’s deceptive. Men have (on average) as many tasks that are “theirs” around the house, but they’re done much less frequently on average than the women’s tasks. (Two examples would be mowing the lawn versus cooking, or doing home repair versus doing laundry.) This results in women averaging about 31 hours per week of housework compared to men’s 14 hours (Belkin, 2008). Only about one in five couples have a truly equal amount of time spent on household chores—and guess what? Those are the couples with the highest levels of marital happiness (Belkin, 2008).

            Child care still falls disproportionately on women. While into the 1800s it was common in American families for men to spend the majority of time with their sons and women with their daughters, the rapid growth of industrialization took more men out of their family homes more often, leaving the care of the kids to the mother (Kimmel, 2013). Twenty-five percent of kids now live in single-parent homes, and the large majority of those single parents are mothers. (Sixty-two percent of kids live with both biological parents, while the remaining 13% live with other relatives, in adoptive homes, or in the foster care system; Kimmel, 2013).

Black Families Matter
 In 25% of black families with two heterosexual parents, fathers do at least 40% of the housework; only 16% of white fathers can say the same (Kimmel, 2013). Regardless of race, in most cases, women do more than their fair share of child care.

              Women are working outside the home more now than in previous generations, and they also consistently report higher levels of stress than men do in industrialized nations. This is likely partially explained by the fact that women have to come home and work what has been called the second shift, moving from being employee to housewife/mother as they come home. Do men perform child care as well? Certainly, and it seems they do it more than they did in previous generations. However, women still are more likely to have a disproportionate share of these duties, and men are more likely to perceive that it is simply their wives’ role to fulfill (Kimmel, 2013). Notably, there are racial differences to this pattern as well. In two-parent African-American homes, child care and domestic work tend to be split much more evenly than in Caucasian homes, for example, and differences also exist along divisions of class—blue-collar families have more egalitarian roles in child-rearing and household chores (Kimmel, 2013).

            When it comes to career choices, we can see that many fields are strongly gendered. While some fields show very good balance (for instance, about 53% of U.S. pharmacists are women), others are greatly skewed in a way that neatly falls in line with traditional gender-role expectations: over 80% of librarians, social workers, elementary and middle schoolteachers, and hairdressers are women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Many of the gendered divisions also fall in line with the subordinate/superior nature of the workforce (see box 7.2). That further illustrates why children don’t need to be actively taught men and women are different; they see them fulfilling different roles throughout their lives and take lessons away from that. Sometimes, as illustrated in the box, the message is “Men are in charge, and women work under them.” That probably isn’t something we want to perpetuate, for either our daughters or our sons.

Box 7.3: Gendered Professions

Gender imbalance at work       

Female automotive technician engineer
While men and women can really do any job, there remains among many a belief that certain jobs—automotive mechanic, for example—“should” be done by a specific gender.
"Female automotive technician engineer" by This is Engineering image library is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


            Gender role socialization and the prominent evidence that shows men and women have major differences in status and a perceived difference in ability often leads to sexism: the act of being prejudiced or discriminating against women. While people can certainly hold prejudicial views or act in discriminatory ways toward men, most sociologists would argue that sexism specifically refers to mistreatment and prejudice focused toward women, since they have less power in society. Still, inflexible ideas about gender roles can cause negative outcomes for men and women alike. In many cases, the views people have about others due to sexism are “assumed to disqualify the person [from] certain vocations or prevent him or her from performing adequately in these jobs or some social situations” (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2014, p. 165). This might mean that women are discouraged from pursuing careers in the hard sciences, while men are looked at suspiciously if they want to be day-care workers.

Causes of sexism and inequality

            The big question is: do the differences between men and women lead to inequality, or vice versa? Why do men dominate nearly every society in history? Is it due to natural differences or the way we’re socialized? Some combination of the two?

            There are certainly some biological differences based on sex, but are they enough to lead to inevitable gender difference in power, employability, earning potential, or political prowess? Some pundits would have you believe so. People like John Gray (1992), author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, have promoted the idea that men and women are inherently different and only by recognizing those unchangeable differences will they ever be able to truly understand each other.

However, what exactly those differences are is a matter of some debate, even among people who hold this view. During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Republican candidate Rick Santorum said that it was a bad idea to have women serving alongside men in the military because the men would naturally want to protect the women, and that could compromise the mission at hand; on the other hand, journalist Liz Trotta said that the uptick in sexual assault of women in the military in the 21st century was a predictable result of putting military men and women in close contact and suggested the money spent to combat the problem of military rape could be better spent elsewhere (O’Neil, 2012). Which is it? Are men naturally inclined to be protective of women or to sexually assault them? Surely it cannot be both. At the very least, contradictions like this should make us skeptical of any claim that male/female differences are simply biological.

            Many social influences have a major impact. In nearly every religion, for example, lower status is ascribed to women, even though women in America (and worldwide) are more apt to practice religion faithfully or consider themselves devout (Zastrow, 2010; Kimmel, 2013).  In Judaism, a strict separation of men’s and women’s spheres has been advocated through some scriptural interpretation, though women’s roles are expanding today and all but Orthodox Judaism allow women to serve as rabbis. The Bible has been used by Christians as well to justify placing women in subordinate positions (e.g., in Catholicism, nuns can serve the people but women may not be ordained as priests, and men are seen as the spiritual leaders of their households). However, that should not be taken to mean that most practicing Christians favor the same views; even most Catholics, members of one of the more traditional Christian faiths, favor ordination of women, use of birth control, and acceptance of divorced believers, despite official Vatican doctrine (Lindsey, 2011). Muslims also differ in their adherence to conservative traditional views, which favor woman’s subservience and devotion to her husband and children, and her charge to give her husband male heirs. The Hindu tradition of sati (a widow throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to end her life as well) has been outlawed in India, but still occurs occasionally; the Hindu faith shares with other belief systems a conflicted view about the role of women, from the traditionally submissive to being an important and equal counterpoint to masculinity (Lindsey, 2011).

            Women are presented in hypersexualized ways in the media, and we’re not just talking about pornography, but advertising, movies, television, print media, and more. Women’s body exposure in print media is about four times more common than men’s (Plous & Neptune, 1997). Automobile shows regularly make use of attractive young women, often dressed in tight and/or skimpy outfits, to draw attention to their displays (Greenberg, Bruess, & Conklin, 2011). Men’s portrayals in the media, conversely, tend to place them in more active, assertive, and dominant roles and positions. Men are more apt to be shown solving problems; in athletic or work situations; using alcohol or driving cars; and in scenarios that show them in power (McAnulty & Burnette, 2004). Women’s magazines also feature over ten times as many advertisements for weight-loss products as men’s magazines (Guillen & Barr, 1994).

The growing presence of pornography is an additional concern, as its easy access on the internet has made more readily consumed by a larger number of people. The increasing amount of relatively extreme pornography has caused an escalation in porn consumption, particularly among men, that has caused some to struggle to relate or feel sexually aroused by female partners in their lives (Dines, 2010; Schneider, 2000). One study found that 36% of Internet users access pornography online at least monthly, with the average user conducting a visit every 3-4 days for an average of 12 minutes (Edelman, 2009).

            The way we are treated in the educational system is also different. From elementary education through the college years, female students get less active instruction. Teachers often perceive boys and girls as “naturally” different. They are more apt to call on male students, spend more time talking with them, and encourage them more. Boys are more likely to be asked higher-order thinking questions, and their rule-breaking behavior in the classroom is less likely to be redirected or corrected when it occurs (though they are more likely to be suspended than girls). Additionally, female characters in classroom stories and books are often vastly stereotyped and are underrepresented (Kimmel, 2013).

            There is evidence that girls are pushed to value their appearance as they approach adolescence while boys are more steadily and consistently evaluated on the basis of their talents (Sadker & Sadker, 1995). Girls, whose self-esteem has been higher than boys’ on average heading into adolescence, become less confident in themselves in the junior high years as puberty takes hold and their sexualization increases. Alarmingly, girls’ IQs drop by an average of 13 points during the middle school years, while boys’ scores drop by 3 points (Kimmel, 2013), though this may also be due to the gender bias of standardized tests (and IQ tests are hardly the gold standard of intelligence measures). However, there is hope for women in the educational system. Despite these early challenges, most college students today are women, a disparity that is even greater among racial minorities; women also earn more than half of all master’s degrees. Unfortunately, that greater educational achievement hasn’t translated into income equality. 

Box 7.4: Male Privilege

Additional results of sexism and gender roles

            We’ve already discussed some of the impacts of these differing gender-role expectations. Child care and domestic duties are more often left to women; women and men enter certain careers in vastly different proportions; boys and girls in school are treated differently by teachers. This only scratches the surface of the impact of gender roles.

Economic impact

            Women, perhaps they are perceived as less driven for success, or perhaps because there are fewer opportunities afforded them to advance through the ranks of most companies, have very little of the economic power in this country. As noted earlier, only about one in four CEOs in American companies is a woman. Women get passed over for promotions due to perceptions that they could miss work due to their family commitments (or getting pregnant). Men are rarely asked in interviews how they will balance work and family, as it’s presumed there will be a woman to take on that burden. There is also a perception that men need the promotions more because women’s jobs are more likely to be seen as a “second income” than a breadwinning one. The flip side of this is that a lot of men feel immense pressure to provide. Despite this, many men (up to three-quarters) in recent studies report they would rather spend more time with their families and slow down their careers; 35% say they’d quit their jobs or cut their hours if their wives made more money (Tyre & McGinn, 2003). On another note, while many countries have mandated that paid parental leave must be made available to both mothers and fathers upon a birth or adoption, the United States offers no paid parental leave. Working women are expected to take time off when they have a new baby; men are often expected to take a couple of days off for the birth and then be right back at work. Men who request extended time off for family duties may be viewed with confusion by coworkers and supervisors.

            Though we have discussed plenty of work-related topics, we haven’t yet touched upon one of the most commonly discussed gender inequalities: the gender wage gap. America’s gap is larger than that of any other advanced nation (Kimmel, 2013). In the ten most common job fields for women in America, there are only two where women’s pay is over 90% of what men earn: teaching (90.0%) and nursing (90.5%). In perhaps the most prestigious of these ten most common female jobs, accounting, the gap is widest (71.3%; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). 

Box 7.5: Gender Wage Gap

           There isn’t too much debate over whether or not the gender gap exists, but the nature of its cause is certainly contested. Some say it’s because women choose lower-paying jobs; some because they take more time off due to family concerns and therefore are less likely to be promoted; others because women are poor negotiators or simply accept salaries offered to them without pushing for an improvement; and still others because women trade higher earning potential for more flexible work hours and family-friendly policies (Furchgott-Roth, 2014; Lukas, 2014; Biggs, 2014).

            Women and men, as noted earlier in this chapter, often choose different career paths, and those that women choose tend to be lower-paying. In fact, four of the most common women’s jobs (cashier, server, maid, retail sales) do not average enough earnings to lift a full-time worker above the poverty line for a family of four; the same is true for only one of the most common male-dominated professions (Hegewisch & Matite, 2014). The question is whether women are truly choosing those paths out of a desire to do that sort of work, or whether they are resorting to those sorts of jobs because they are what is available to them.

            Is it about lower aspirations, then? Do women simply not shoot for the stars as often as men do? Well, if that were true, we’d expect women’s job satisfaction in lower-prestige jobs to be higher than men’s satisfaction in those same jobs. Spoiler alert: it's not. In fact, men at all levels of work are more satisfied with their jobs than their female counterparts, except at the lowest entry-level jobs, where dissatisfaction between men and women is equal (Covert, 2014). What’s more, “Even among extraordinarily ambitious and successful workers of both genders…research found a [wage] gap…Twice as many of the most proactive men advanced to a senior executive level as similar women” (Covert, 2014, p. 33). Could it be that women weren’t playing the game correctly? It would seem not: “When women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less” (Covert, 2014, p. 34).

            So, what about the argument that men and women are offered similar starting salaries, but men are more apt to push for more money than their female counterparts? That doesn’t seem to be the cause either. Skidmore College psychologist Carinne Moss-Racusin conducted a study that had scientists evaluate (fake) resumés of students applying for a lab manager position (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, & Handelsman, 2012). The resumés were identical but for one detail: the name on top was either Jennifer or John. Over 100 professors in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields were asked to evaluate the fictitious students’ job prospects, and their responses were telling. Jennifer was perceived as more lacking in qualifications despite having the same background as John. On average, those who were willing to hire Jennifer offered her a salary $4,000 (13%) lower than John (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). Given data like that, it’s hard to discount the potential for gender bias to impact candidate evaluation and salary offers—and I’m sure the scientists involved in the study would be shocked to discover the results, as they almost certainly would claim their evaluations were based on merit alone.

            Interestingly, when we look at data regarding the wage gap internationally, we find some notable patterns as well. For example, as noted earlier in the chapter, dentistry is a male-dominated profession in the United States. In Europe, however, most dentists are female. If the only determining factor in workers’ pay was the job being done, we’d expect that female dentists in Europe were well-off; after all, dentists are among the most well-paid professionals in America. In Europe, despite many years of schooling, dentists earn salaries near the average salary for all jobs (Kimmel, 2013).

            Finally, something that may surprise you: when biological women undergo sexual reassignment surgery (SRS; also called gender confirmation surgery, previously known as a “sex change operation”) and legally become men, they report experiencing more respectful and prestigious treatment at work. Certain consistent differences are observed: “increases in workplace respect, authority,” and for some, even increases in pay (Schilt & Wiswall, 2006, p. 2). Conversely, when biological men transition and become legally recognized as women, they experience increased harassment, a loss of authority and pay, and in some cases, they are fired (Schilt & Wiswall, 2006). If this isn’t sexism at work, what is it?

            Overall, the most common figure reported is about 77-82%--that is, women working full-time make about 77-82% of what men with full-time jobs make (Kimmel, 2013). Some of the gap can be explained by the fact that women are more likely to be employed in low-earning jobs, but U.S. Census Bureau data (2010) also shows us that women are paid less than men in virtually every job category. It seems that when they initially enter the job market, men and women with the same education levels are nearly even—for instance, female lawyers with 4-10 years’ experience make about 96% of what their male counterparts make. However, for lawyers with more than 10 years’ experience, women make about 74% of what men make (Sterling & Reichman, 2004). This illustrates that even when women do get hired into high-prestige, high-paying fields, their opportunities to advance in those fields are limited, a phenomenon often referred to as the glass ceiling.

            Women are more likely to leave the workforce temporarily when they have children, and this impacts their earning potential as well, since when they come back they have not earned any tenure for the time they were gone, while men who have worked the whole time continue to see their status rise. Perhaps if we had more family-friendly policies that allowed women and men to take more time off for child care after a birth, this gap would shrink somewhat, but for it to disappear we’d also need to have a change in attitude about whose job it is to take care of the kids, and then we’d also need to see that attitude change impact actual behavior.

            The gender wage gap also plays a role in the disproportionate number of women who are poor; the feminization of poverty is a term that reflects this trend. Women are more likely to be single parents (who in many cases are not receiving any child support from children’s fathers), to be primary caregivers for older relatives, and to be victimized by violence (Kimmel, 2013). Add in the gender wage gap and you have a recipe for economic difficulty. Because of this, women are more likely to depend on government programs to cover some of their living expenses. When funding for these programs gets cut, women (and their children) suffer more than men, simply because men are less likely to be poor. (Naturally, single fathers are hurt by these cuts too, just not as much as the single moms who typically earn less.)


            Men are responsible for a majority of the violence in our culture. In fact, there is evidence to suggest young American men are the most violent people in the industrialized world, if crime statistics carry any meaning. Almost 20% of violence victims in the emergency room were hurt by a current or former spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend (Kimmel, 2013). Domestic violence (discussed further in Chapter 11) has been called both the top and the number two overall cause of injury to women in the United States, and the top cause of injury to women aged 15-44—and most of that violence is committed by men (Barrier, 1998). However, firm numbers can be hard to come by as much domestic violence goes unreported and categorization of incidents may muddy the statistical waters. 

Box 7.6: Gendered Crime

Crime and gender

            There has been a decrease in intimate partner violence over the last 20 years, but male victims have seen a more significant drop than females. Meanwhile, our rape rate in the United States is the highest in the industrialized world, 18 times as high as England’s (Kimmel, 2013). An estimated 20-25% of women experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and nearly half of women say they’ve had unwanted sex in one form or another. Further, marital rape, a crime in all 50 states, is committed against an estimated 12-25% of married women during their marriages (Kimmel, 2013). Most rapes go unreported, and that is especially true when the victim knows the assailant. When a rape occurs, the victim may experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) long after the event, and can also be revictimized in the criminal justice system if the crime is reported, since rape survivors are often blamed—subtly and directly—for their victimization.

            Is there violence against men? Yes, definitely—but women’s violence toward men tends to be defensive, while men’s violence toward women is far more often offensive; female victims also suffer injuries more often and their injuries are, on average, more severe. In same-sex relationships, violence occurs as well, and seems to be about as common as it is in heterosexual relationships (Kimmel, 2013).

Social work and sexism

            Despite the fact that over 80% of social work practitioners are women, most social work clients are women, and social work (as one might expect) as a profession is a staunch advocate for women’s rights and equality—including elimination of the gender wage gap—alas, social work doesn’t fare much better than other fields of employment when it comes to opportunities and earnings. Men make up more than their equal share of supervisory and managerial roles, and even receive 14% higher salaries (a gap of about $7,000 for comparable jobs) on average than their female coworkers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008; NASW, 2011). One would think that if any field would get this right, it would be social work; yet we are prone to the same biases and institutional sexism perpetrated by other career areas.

Sexual harassment

            Sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” as well as mistreating someone on the basis of their sex—for example, making jokes about women’s intelligence in front of female coworkers (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC], n.d., para. 1). It can be perpetrated by any gender against other people of any gender.

            Often, sexual harassment carries with it an element of unequal power—as when the perpetrator is a person in a position of relative privilege or prestige compared to the target of the harassment (e.g. boss to subordinate, teacher to student, doctor to patient). This imbalance of power can cause the individual being harassed to feel powerless to refuse the advances or to speak out about the mistreatment, because there can be significant consequences for doing so—loss of job, demotion, poor grades, etc. Therefore, even relationships that appear consensual between a boss and subordinate or a professor and student—situations in which the people involved are all adults—can be perceived as harassment since the person with less power may not truly feel free to end the relationship, and may have consented in the first place due to similar concerns.

            If someone wishes to file a charge of sexual harassment, he/she generally has 180 days from the date of the incident to do so (though state laws may go beyond that limitation) (EEOC, n.d. a). In order to prove a claim, someone must show that the harassment has “explicitly or implicitly affect[ed] an individual's employment, unreasonably interfere[d] with an individual's work performance, or create[d] an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment” (EEOC, n.d. b, para. 2). Not all harassment must be in the quid pro quo form—seeking sexual favors in exchange for some sort of positive treatment (e.g., a promotion). It can simply be the creation of a hostile environment, which is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. For example, a female law school intern at a firm may file a sexual harassment charge if the male lawyers at the firm put up a calendar featuring bikini-clad models in the break room and make comments about the bodies of the women in the calendar while in the presence of the intern.


            Social work supports the philosophy of feminism. The word clearly carries some level of stigma among today’s young people, as your authors have noticed that many of our students do not claim the label themselves even though they tend to agree with feminist ideals. Defining the term has been a trickier matter than perhaps it needs to be. Estelle B. Freedman (2002), one of the founders of Stanford University’s feminist studies program, provides the following explanation:

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies. (p. 7)

If we were to ask students how many of them believe that men and women have equal worth, we believe most would raise their hands, if not all of them. Yet asking “How many of you are feminists?” gets a decidedly weaker response. This may be due to the tendency some have to associate the word feminism with caricatured behaviors such as bra-burning, which seems to stem from a protest of the group New York Radical Women (NYRW) at the Miss America pageant in 1968—a protest at which no bras were actually burned, though rumors abounded to the contrary (Buchanan, 2011). Feminists are also sometimes stereotyped as man-haters or lesbians; while some feminists may hate men and some are certainly lesbians, these characterizations serve as attempts to reduce the movement to a group that can be easily dismissed due to its extremism.

In reality, most feminists do not hate men, and lesbians compose a small (but important) percentage of the whole; moreover, men can and do identify as feminists (your authors included)! Sometimes, people suggest that if the word is really just about equality, then a term like humanist should be used. Ms. Freedmen’s definition nicely explains the need to emphasize the focus on women; since women are the ones most likely to be disadvantaged, the bulk of the focus of the movement goes their way. However, most feminists would say that they support men who wish to be stay-at-home parents just as much as women who want to be CEOs. The whole idea of feminism involves rejecting the oppressive limitations of society’s prescribed gender roles, not allowing them to define what people are allowed to do. Feminists are bothered by the impact of gender roles on men and women alike—for instance, the fact that men are less likely than women to seek help for emotional difficulties, that men may feel pressure to work long hours in a job they do not enjoy in order to provide for a better lifestyle for their family, or that they may endure ridicule or shame when they are unable to handle an emotionally challenging situation without crying.

As a movement, feminism (or the women’s rights movement) has made some impressive strides in American history. Let’s discuss a few of them.

New Spider-Woman
 If you believe that whether you had a daughter or a son, your child should still be able to pursue the same avenues of self-fulfillment, have the same privileges and rights and access to the same resources, and should not be limited in their life (from work to family to self-expression) in any way simply due to their chromosomes, then you are probably a feminist!
"New Spider-Woman" by greyloch is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


            The first major push for women’s rights came with the quest for suffrage. The stage for a serious movement to gain voting rights was set when women became active in the abolitionist movement, calling for an end to slavery. Prominent women in the movement gained experience speaking in public and understanding the politics of organizing protest movements, giving them valuable experience toward being their own best advocates (Flexner, 1975).

Box Lunch Talk: On Account of Sex – Historical Society of Carroll County,  Maryland
Despite its eventual success, many people fought the movement to give women the right to vote right down to the end—The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage disbanded after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, though founder Josephine Dodge remained active in opposing the work of feminist groups. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

            The first visible step in the movement for suffrage occurred at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which was covered by national media and attracted the attention of many women eager for change, as well as attracting the support of Frederick Douglass, the first man to publicly defend women’s right to vote (Terborg-Penn, 1998). Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a handful of others organized the convention to pull together support for the establishment of a truly united movement toward gaining the right to vote (Severn, 1967). This is a pattern that would continue—women united for social change of some form would also use their collective power to address their own inequality.

            Susan B. Anthony joined Stanton as pioneers of the movement in 1851 and they worked together toward this common goal until Stanton’s passing in 1902 (Rossi, 1973). Though she did not survive to see the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which finally gave American women the right to vote in 1920, Stanton’s diligent work nonetheless was an undeniable part of accomplishing the monumental task. It is worth noting that the 19th Amendment had really only succeeded in giving white women the right to vote--minority women still found their path blocked by local customs, racist literacy tests, poll taxes, and sometimes even laws (like those specifically prohibiting Native American voting; PBS, 2020). After the passage of the amendment, feminism died down a bit in prominence—the major goal had been achieved. However, a second wave would be coming later, concurrent with the civil rights movement.

Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique is often lauded as a major feminist text that revitalized the movement and gave more women the impetus to question their circumstances and the roles they’d been socialized to fill. According to Friedan, there were very few happy housewives; the “mystique” she spoke of was a nebulous sense of despair and uselessness that “left women asking, ‘Is this all?’” (Friedan, 1963). As one housewife said in the book, “…I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?” (Friedan, 1963, as cited in Collins, 2009).

Reproductive rights

“No woman is completely free unless she is wholly capable of controlling her fertility and… no baby receives its full birthright unless it is born gleefully wanted by its parents.” –Alan Guttmacher, former president of Planned Parenthood (2008)

            Taken together, the issues of abortion and birth control often are collectively referred to as reproductive rights. Margaret Sanger, early birth control pioneer and founder of what became Planned Parenthood, was arrested in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in New York (Buchanan, 2011). To Sanger and other feminists, the right to control one’s own reproduction should belong to everyone. The idea was prominent at the time (and is still held by some today) that women who used birth control methods were promiscuous and immoral, but Sanger wanted to fight against that sentiment; in her mind and in the views of other feminists, dominion over one’s body was a foundational human right (Buchanan, 2011).

            The birth control pill (often just called “The Pill”) went on sale in 1960 after being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but at the time, 30 of the 50 states had legal restrictions on sale, advertisement, and promotion of anything related to birth control (Collins, 2009; Kimmel, 2013). This made it relatively difficult for poorer women who had to access medical care through public clinics, while middle- and upper-class married women had no problems quietly getting their prescriptions through family doctors. Connecticut’s Planned Parenthood League actually ran a shuttle bus for women to go across state lines to get the pill in states that didn’t restrict their access, like Rhode Island or New York. It wasn’t until 1965 that the bans on married women using birth control were struck down by the Supreme Court, and in 1972, single women were finally able to legally get birth control nationwide (Collins, 2009). Imagine if men had had to go to the same lengths to win the rights to buy and use condoms!

            Despite those decades-old, hard-won victories, women are finding today that their right to use birth control is under attack again from various corners. The Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision has upheld the rights of companies to refuse to provide employee health insurance that provides birth control coverage if the business has a serious religious and moral objection to birth control, despite the fact that insurance companies would much rather cover birth control than the far more expensive process of pregnancy and birth. Birth control pills cost between $160 and $600 per year, while the price of a vaginal birth with no complications was between $3,300 and $37,000 in one study (Palmer, 2012; Neporent, 2014)

            Abortion is another reproductive rights battle that had feminists at the forefront. Abortion had been prohibited in every state by 1965, though some exceptions existed for the survival of the mother or in the case of fetal abnormalities. Despite the fact that abortion was illegal, the procedure was still performed, sometimes in clandestine medical settings, sometimes in homes by potentially unscrupulous people looking to make money off of people’s desperation. One thing is clear—outlawing abortion did not stop abortion from happening.

            In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that women had a constitutional right to abortion within some limitations. The Court determined that the state could restrict access to abortion once a woman’s pregnancy reached the point of viability, unless the woman’s health was at risk; states were free to legislate as they wished at that point. In recent years, states have devised and passed quite a few laws that can restrict a woman’s access to abortion, and the Supreme Court is likely to hear cases in the near future that may impact abortion right in the United States. 

Box 7.7: Abortion Laws


Equal Rights Amendment

            In 1971 began an effort to pass a constitutional amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In reality, such an amendment had first been proposed in the 1920s, but it was finally passed by the House of Representatives in 1971, then passed the Senate by a resounding vote of 84 to 8. (Can you imagine such broad agreement in Congress now?) All that was left was for 38 of the 50 states to ratify the amendment, and it would become national law (Buchanan, 2011; Collins, 2009).

            The proposed amendment was simple enough, certainly much more so than a lot of laws. It stated that equality could not be denied or restricted by stated or the federal government based on someone’s sex; Congress could enforce the directive; and it would take effect two years after ratification. Perhaps this simplicity was what made it pass so easily through both houses of Congress, but the process struggled from there.

            It proved to be quite difficult to get the state approvals necessary to pass the ERA. By 1973, 24 states had approved the amendment, but a prominent woman opponent had begun to urge the country to rethink the proposed law (Buchanan, 2011; Collins, 2009). Attorney Phyllis Schlafly set about making speeches and hosting rallies to convince people that the ERA would cause untold social ills. Conservatives posited that the amendment would further weaken the institute of marriage, would prevent a woman from allowing her husband to provide for her, would require women to give up preferential treatment in custody cases, and would mandate they submit themselves to the military draft (Buchanan, 2011; Collins, 2009). Other arguments included that the amendment would pave the way for same-sex marriage and unisex bathrooms; Schlafly, who died in 2016, continued into her last decade to claim the ERA would deny Social Security benefits for housewives and widows (Eliperin, 2007).

            By the seven-year deadline, only 34 states had ratified the ERA. Though the National Organization for Women (NOW) managed to get the deadline extended another three years, no more states would join in ratification. The amendment died thanks to powerful opposition from certain groups and in part to one very outspoken professional woman who continued to assert that women would be happiest if they were mothers and housewives—though she certainly didn’t fit that mold herself (Buchanan, 2011; Collins, 2009).

Political power

            Women, despite slightly outnumbering men, have a considerably smaller portion of the political power in the United States. The first female Congressperson was Jeanette Rankin of Montana in 1917, while the first female Senator was Rebecca Latimer Felton (1922)—but she had been appointed rather than elected, and served for only one day. The first elected female Senator was Hattie Caraway in 1931. Women have increasingly entered political races since then, but only 13 races for Senate in history have pitted a female Republican versus a female Democrat, while literally thousands of races have seen two men face off for a seat.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi pays tribute to the legacy of Shirley Chisholm
Shirlye Chisholm, commemorated here on a postage stamp, was the first Black woman to serve in Congress, spending 1969-1983 in the House of Representatives. In 2021, there were 143 women (104 Democrats and 39 Republicans) in the Senate and House of Representatives, compared to 391 men.
"Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi pays tribute to the legacy of Shirley Chisholm" by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

            The Congress that took office in 2015 was the first in United States history to feature more than 100 women among its 535 members. Twenty elected Senators and 84 members of the House of Representatives were women (76 Democrats and 28 Republicans in total). Still, only six women were governors in May 2015 compared to 44 men; twenty-three states have never had a female governor. Women held 24.2% of state legislative offices; 16 of 100 largest U.S. cities’ mayors were women, as were seven members of President Obama’s Cabinet (Center for American Women and Politics, 2015).

            How many women in government is enough? I’m not sure there’s a consensus answer to that question, but I’d say it’s pretty clear that we are lagging far behind a number of countries you might not expect. The Supreme Court at the time of this book’s publication (2021) has three female Justices out of nine—Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett, and Elena Kagan. Both Kagan and Sotomayor were appointed by President Obama, while Barrett was appointed by President Trump to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They still make up just a third of the nine-person membership of the Supreme Court. The longest-serving of these three women, Ginsburg, was asked about the increased appointment of women to the country’s highest court. This was what she had to say: “People ask me sometimes…when do you think it will be enough?  When will there be enough women on the [C]ourt? And my answer is when there are nine” (PBS, 2015). 

Box 7.8: Women in Power

Women in legislatures

Which country on this list surprises you the most?

(Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019)



Abusheika, N., Lass, A., & Brinsden, P. (2011). XX males without SRY gene and with infertility. Human Reproduction, 16(4), pp. 717-718.

Barrier, P. A. (1998). Domestic violence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 73(3), pp. 271-274.

Belkin, L. (2008, June 15). When Mom and Dad share it all. New York Times Magazine.

Bem, S. (1975). Sex role adaptability: one consequence of psychological androgyny. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(4), pp. 634-643.

Biggs, A. (2014). Sex, workers: Gender discrimination does not explain the male-female pay gap. In N. Merino (Ed.), The wage gap. Greenhaven.

Blakemore, J. E. O. (2003). Children’s beliefs about violating gender norms: Boys shouldn’t look like girls, and girls shouldn’t act like boys. Sex Roles, 48(9/10), pp. 411-419.

Brence, M. (2015, May 19). Gay marriage marks 1 year in Oregon: A look back at best photos, stories. The Oregonian. Retrieved from

Buchanan, P. D. (2011). Radical feminists: A guide to an American subculture. Greenwood.

Carey, B. (2011, May 21). Need therapy? A good man is hard to find. New York Times. Retrieved from

Carroll, J. (2010). Sexuality now (4th ed.). Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Center for American Women and Politics (2015). Current numbers of women officeholders. Retrieved from

Chandler, K. (2015, March 18). Alabama abortion law lets judges appoint lawyers for fetuses. MSNBC. Retrieved from

Colburn, D. (2008, March 27). Transgender pregnancy raises a host of issues. Seattle Times. Retrieved from

Collins, G. (2009). When everything changed: The amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present. Little, Brown and Company.

Crooks, R. & Baur, K. (2014). Our sexuality (12th ed.). Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Covert, B. (2014). Institutional bias partially explains the gender wage gap. In N. Merino (Ed.), The wage gap. Greenhaven.

Dines, G. (2010). Pornland: How porn has hijacked our sexuality. Beacon.

Edelman, B. (2009). Markets: Red light states: Who buys adult online entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1), pp. 209-220.

Eilperan, J. (2007, March 28). New drive afoot to pass Equal Rights Amendment. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (n.d. a). Sexual harassment. Retrieved from        

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (n.d. b). Facts about sexual harassment.  Retrieved from

Flexner, E. (1975). Women’s involvement in the antislavery movement. In B. Stalcup (Ed.), Women’s suffrage. Greenhaven.

Freedmen, E. B. (2002). No turning back: The history of feminism and the future of women. Ballantine Books.

Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. Norton.

Furchtgott-Roth, D. (2014). The gender wage gap is a myth. In N. Merino (Ed.), The wage gap. Greenhaven.

Garcia, L. (1982). Sex-role orientation and stereotypes about male-female sexuality. Sex Roles, 8, pp. 863-876.

Gibson, O. (2014, February 10). Sochi 2014: Women ski jumpers have point to prove after 90-year wait. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Guillen, E. O., & Barr, S. I. (1994). Nutrition, dieting, and fitness messages in a magazine for adolescent women, 1970-1990. Journal of Adolescent Health, 15(6), pp. 464-472.

Guttmacher Institute (2008). Alan Guttmacher 1898-1974. Retrieved from

Guttmacher Institute (2015). State policies in brief: An overview of abortion laws. Retrieved from

Greenberg, J. S., Bruess, C. E., & Conklin, S. C. (2011). Exploring the dimensions of human sexuality (4th ed.). Jones & Bartlett.

Hegewisch, A. & Matite, M. (2014). Women’s wages are lower due to occupational segregation. In N. Merino (Ed.), The wage gap. Greenhaven.

Hess, A. J. (2019, June 19). US women's soccer games now generate more revenue than men's--but the players still earn less. CNBC. Retrieved from

Hirokawa, K., Yagi, A., & Miyata, Y. (2006). An experimental examination of the effects of sex and masculinity/femininity on psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses during communication situations. Sex Roles, 51(1/2), pp. 91-100.

Hopkins, P. (1998). How feminism made a man out of me: The proper subject of feminism and the problem of men. In T. Digby (Ed.), Men doing feminism (pp.33-56). Routledge.

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2019). Women in national parliaments. Retrieved from

Kimmel. M. (2013). The gendered society (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Prentice Hall.

Lips, H. M. (1993). Sex & gender: An introduction. Mayfield.

Lukas, C. (2014). The “equal pay day” myth. In N. Merino (Ed.), The wage gap. Greenhaven.

McAnulty, R. D. & Burnette, M. M. (2004). Exploring human sexuality: Making healthy decisions. Pearson.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(41), pp. 16474-16479.

Nahom, D., Wells, E., Gilmore, M. R., Hoppe, M., Morrison, D. M., Archibald, M., Murowchick, E., Wilsdon, A., & Graham, L. (2001). Differences by gender and sexual experience in adolescent sexual behavior: Implications for education and HIV prevention. Journal of School Health, 71(4), p.153-158.

Nation Association of Social Workers (NASW) (2011). Social work salaries by gender: Occupational profile. NASW Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice.

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) (n.d.). Men’s basketball championship history. Retrieved from

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) (n.d.). Women’s basketball championship history. Retrieved from

Neporent, L. (2014, January 16). Cost of giving birth varies 10-fold, study finds. ABC News. Retrieved from

O’Neil, C. (Director). (2012, February 14). Ricky Gervais [Television series episode]. In J. Stewart (Producer), The Daily Show. New York: Comedy Central.

Palmer, K. (2012, March 5). The real cost of birth control. US News and World Report. Retrieved from

Pauletti, R. E., Menon, M., Cooper, P. J., Aults, C. D., & Perry, D. G. (2017). Psychological androgyny and children's mental health: A new look with new measures. Sex Roles, 76, 705-718.

PBS (2015). When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court? Justice Ginsburg answers that question. Retrieved from

PBS (2020). Not all women gained the vote in 1920. Retrieved from

Plous, S. & Neptune, D. (1997). Racial and gender biases in magazines and advertising. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(4), pp. 627-644.

Rathus, S. A., Nevid, J. S., & Fichner-Rathus, L. (2014). Human sexuality in a world of diversity (9th ed.). Pearson.

Reynolds, L.T., & Hermany-Kinney, N.J. (2003). The handbook of social interactionism. AltaMira.

Rossi, A. S. (1973). The working relationship of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In B. Stalcup (Ed.), Women’s suffrage. Greenhaven.

Rubin, J., Provenzano, F., & Luria, Z. (1974). The eye of the beholder: Parents’ views on sex of newborns. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44(4), pp. 512-519.

Sadker, M. & Sadker, D. (1995). Failing at fairness: How our schools treat girls. Touchstone.

Salsberg, E., Quigley, L., Mehfoud, N., Acquaviva, K., Wyche, K., & Sliwa, S. (2017). Profile of the social work workforce. George Washington University Health Workforce Institute and School of Nursing. Retrieved from

Sandnabba, N. K. & Ahlberg, C. (1999). Parents’ attitudes and expectations about children’s cross-gender behavior. Sex Roles, 40(3/4), pp. 249-263.

Schilt, K. & Wiswall, M. (2006). Before and after: Gender transitions, human capital, and workplace experiences. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Economics, New York University, New York, NY. Retrieved at

Schneider, J. P. (2000). Effects of cybersex and addiction on the family: Results of a survey. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7(1), pp. 31-58.

Severn, B. (1967). Free but not equal: How women won the right to vote. In B. Stalcup (Ed.), Women’s suffrage. Greenhaven.

Shimonaka, Y., Nakazato, K., Kawaai, C., & Sato, S. (1997). Androgyny and successful adaptation across the life span among Japanese adults. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 158(4), pp. 389-400.

Skolnick, A. (1992). The intimate environment: Exploring marriage and the family. HarperCollins.

Smith, E. J. (1982). The black female adolescent: A review of the educational, career, and psychological literature. Journal of Social Issues, 39(3), pp. 1-15.

Sterling, J. & Reichman, N. (2004). Gender penalties revisited. Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

Terborg-Penn, R. (1998). African-American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. In B. Stalcup (Ed.), Women’s suffrage. Greenhaven.

Tyre, P. & McGinn, D. (2003, May 12). She works, he doesn’t. Newsweek, pp. 45-53.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008). Women in the labor force: A databook (report 1011). U.S. Department of Labor.

U.S. Census Bureau (2012). Employed civilians by occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: 2010. Retrieved from

Williams, J. E. & Best, D. L. (1994). Cross-cultural views of women and men. In W. J. Lonner &R. Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture. Allyn & Bacon.

Chapter 8: Sexuality and LGBTQ+ Clients

Sexuality is an important component of our identities and day-to-day lives. Social workers, in whatever way they work with people, will almost undoubtedly deal with some aspect of clients’ sexual behavior and sexuality over the course of their careers. Believe it or not, you can go all the way through some master’s degree programs in social work without taking any classes on human sexuality. This, in your authors’ minds, is a travesty; social workers must be well-versed in issues of human sexuality and comfortable discussing such topics if they are going to be working with people in a helping capacity. It’s not unusual for issues related to sexuality to come up in counseling, for example, even if the presenting problem wasn’t a sexual one. Clients who are struggling with sexual issues (e.g., sexual dysfunctions, coming out, infertility, sexual abuse) often see significant impacts on other areas of their lives, from work productivity to relationship health to academic performance. Social workers need to be knowledgeable enough to handle these issues appropriately and must be nonjudgmental about clients’ sexual orientations, behaviors, and proclivities in order to effectively work with them. When you’ve finished reading this chapter, you should be able to:

1. Identify major contributors to the field of sexology and the focus of their research;

2. Explain the shortcomings of abstinence-only sex education;

3. Understand the meanings of trans* terminology;

4. Define sexual orientation and several orientation terms;

5. Differentiate between sexual and romantic orientation;

6. Debunk several common myths about LGBTQ+ people;

7. Discuss several aspects of life experienced by LGBTQ+ people;

8. Relate what is meant by the gender binary and evaluate the idea’s legitimacy;

9. Define gender identity and explain related terminology;

10. Identify the causes and impact of homophobia and heterocentrism.


            Despite the fact that we’ve been having sex as long as we’ve existed as a human species, the formal study of sex, sexology, is a relatively young science, really only seriously pursued since the 1800s. Sexuality was often regarded with “untouchable” status due to religious influences, as it was felt that decent men certainly wouldn’t take it upon themselves to study such a subject—and that God certainly wouldn’t approve of a woman doing so!

            Still, some people took it upon themselves to move scientific inquiry into the realm of sex and sexuality, despite public sentiment and the disapproval of religious leaders. Let's take a look at five of them.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Photogravure.
"Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Photogravure." is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)

            Early sex research tended to focus upon the problems of sexual behavior, and Krafft-Ebing was perhaps the most significant example of that pattern. Probably the most influential early sex researcher, Krafft-Ebing took the stance that masturbation was the root of all sexual disorder and deviance. His most famous work, Psychopathia Sexualis, was a collection of case studies of people who exhibited behaviors like fetishism, sadism, masochism, and homosexuality. (In fact, Krafft-Ebing invented the terms sadomasochism and transvestite.) Krafft-Ebing believed these acts to be perversions rather than possibly healthy variations of sexual interest and behavior (Yarber & Sayad, 2013).

Box 8.1: An excerpt from Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis

“Case 87. Miss X., age twenty-six…Coitus with a man she disdained…Erotic dreams were always of a homosexual nature…In mutual kissing she derived the most pleasure from biting her partner…by preference in the lobe of the ear, causing pain and subsequent swelling. X. always had leaning toward male occupations, loved to be among men as one of their own. From her tenth to her fifteenth year she worked in the brewery of a relative, if possible clad in trousers and a leather apron. She was bright, intelligent and good-natured, and felt quite happy in her perverse, homosexual existence. She smoked and drank beer. Female larynx…small, badly developed breasts, large hands and feet.” (Krafft-Ebing, 1886/1965, p. 140)

Sigmund Freud
"Sigmund Freud" by wordscraft is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

            Freud conducted his work in the morally oppressive environment of the Victorian Era, and yet may be the person most responsible for bringing sexology into the spotlight and inspiring people to take up the mantle after him. Actually, that’s a bit misleading--it's a bit of a stretch to call Freud a sexologist. He mostly posited theories that were unprovable and based on his own best guesses derived from his work with many patients.

            Among Freud’s ideas were penis envy, the notion that girls resented that boys had penises while they did not (some have proposed that Freud saw the vagina simply as the lack of a penis); the Oedipus complex, when a boy (age 3-5) views his father as a rival for his mother’s affections and wants to eliminate his father so he can be with his mother sexually; and the belief that vaginal orgasms (those obtained from vaginal penetration) were more developed and advanced than clitoral orgasms (those obtained from stimulation of the clitoris). Again, Freud had no real proof of any of these “findings,” but he put them forward as truths rather than theories, and he built much of his work around them (Carroll, 2013; Yarber & Sayad, 2013; Gathorne-Hardy, 1998).

            However, Freud’s work cannot simply be dismissed. He did make some statements that were important and ahead of their time. For example, Freud believed that all people were essentially born bisexual—certainly a progressive idea—though he also believed that heterosexuality was the result of normal development. Still, he did not see homosexuality as a mental illness, but rather a sign that something in development went awry (Carroll, 2013; Herdt & Polen-Petit, 2014). 

            Freud also was perhaps the first prominent individual to say that sexuality was a central component of one’s identity. While at times he may have emphasized sexuality to the point of being myopic, he was correct that it’s an important part of our identities and self-concepts, as well as our relationships with others. That contribution alone was enough to ensure that further research would continue to be done in the area of sexology.


This image is taken from Page 244 of Havelock Ellis : a biographical and critical survey
"This image is taken from Page 244 of Havelock Ellis : a biographical and critical survey" by Medical Heritage Library, Inc. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)   

            Often considered the “father of sexology,” Havelock Ellis significantly departed from the way Krafft-Ebing and Freud thought of sexuality, and there was good reason for this. Ellis had many nocturnal emissions as a child, and the belief among physicians at the time was that people who experienced this phenomenon regularly would lose their eyesight, become mentally ill, and eventually die from the loss of sperm in this manner (Yarber & Sayad, 2013; King, 2009). Ellis was petrified but noted that none of what was predicted occurred. He became angry at having been scared for really no good reason, and devoted his life to the study of sex so fewer people would have experiences like his, where normal, harmless behavior was pathologized to the extreme.

            As a doctor, Ellis had the ability to study sexual behavior without public condemnation. He sought to debunk a lot of myths about sexuality and did so; particularly notable was his assertion that homosexuality was neither an illness nor a perversion, and that masturbation was also normal (King, 2009; Yarber & Sayad, 2013). In fact, Ellis was an early advocate of the idea that homosexuality was congenital—that is, one was born homosexual. Ellis’s acceptance of many behaviors as within the realm of sexual health was markedly different from other sexologists of his time. He helped to influence researchers that followed him to move away from a focus on stigmatizing sexual behavior toward seeking to understand it (King, 2009; Yarber & Sayad, 2013).

File:Alfred Charles Kinsey.jpg
"File:Alfred Charles Kinsey.jpg" by Proyecto Historiador 2
 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956)

            Kinsey is often considered the father of American sexology, as he was the first U.S. researcher to use modern scientific methods in the study of sexuality, ushering in the era of modern sex research. Kinsey, like Ellis, had been given incorrect information about normal sexual behavior as a minor and had been led to believe he would go blind, insane, or both. While working at Indiana University as a biology professor specializing in zoology and entomology, Kinsey had an opportunity to teach in a marriage and family course (King, 2009; Gathorne-Hardy, 1998). He soon found that, much like the medical professionals with whom he spoke in his youth, his students had some major mistaken beliefs about sexual behavior and its effects. To Kinsey’s chagrin, there was little empirical information to be found on sexual behavior (King, 2009).

            Kinsey, who spent much of his early career studying insects, used his skills of data collection to design an interview method that allowed him to take in information about thousands of respondents’ complete sexual histories—their behaviors, their fantasies, their desires, their relationships, and their attractions. He started with exclusively male subjects, with a disproportionate number of them being college-educated, middle- and upper-class white males, since that was the population to which Kinsey had the easiest access (Gathorne-Hardy, 1998). (In fact, Kinsey omitted the data concerning his African-American subjects from his first book because he felt the sample size to too small to be meaningful—and he would later be criticized for not having a racially diverse sample.) Kinsey and a small group of research associates conducted face-to-face, lengthy interviews with 5,300 men, compiling the data into his 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (often simply called The Kinsey Report; Gathorne-Hardy, 1998).

            Kinsey’s report shook up the establishment, to say the least. Though all he truly did was to report what people told him and his fellow researchers during the interview process, the public (and some people in academia) attacked Kinsey, accusing him of having an immoral agenda and hoping to undermine the fabric of American religious beliefs (Gathorne-Hardy, 1998). What had them so upset?

            Kinsey’s work brought to light to considerable discrepancies between the stated morals and values of the time and the actual behavior in which Americans were engaging. It was true that Kinsey eschewed a moral stance, but that was due to his desire as a scientist to report the findings without judgment of his participants (Gathorne-Hardy, 1998). Still, people accused him of simply manipulating his data or intentionally taking on a disproportionate number of sexually deviant subjects in order to skew his results. Kinsey continued to stand firm, and drew few conclusions other than saying that America needed to confront what was happening. People were preaching a set of values that weren’t actually being followed very much. Kinsey didn’t see the sexual behavior as a problem, but felt it was necessary to start a national conversation about the topic and stop allowing sex to be such a taboo. Kinsey followed up his initial tome with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, interviewing nearly 6,000 women with the help of his team (Gathorne-Hardy, 1998).

            What specifics did Kinsey’s initial books reveal? There was far more diversity in sexual behavior than people were openly acknowledging, for one thing. Some men masturbated and/or had sex on a daily basis, leading to frequent orgasms; others went months between climaxing. He found that a large majority of men (92%) had masturbated to orgasm, and over half of women (62%) had done the same; about half the men and one quarter of his female subjects had same-sex sexual experiences (and a majority of those experiences led to orgasm for men, slightly less than half for women); 67% of men and nearly half of women had had premarital sex; and a sizable number of married men and women had had affairs (Greenberg, Bruess, & Conklin, 2011). He also discovered that some people’s sexual orientation and attractions seemed to shift over the course of their lifetimes (including his own; Gathorne-Hardy, 1998; Greenberg, Bruess, & Conklin, 2011).

            Perhaps the best-known contribution Kinsey made to the field of sexual research was the Kinsey scale, a continuum of sexual orientation (see below). He had come to find through his interviews that people rarely fit neatly into the categories of homosexual and heterosexual. Most people, it seemed, either had experiences with both men and women, or at the very least, attraction and fantasies. Kinsey, therefore, devised a conceptual view of sexuality as more fluid, a matter of degrees rather than an either/or proposition. On his scale, 0 represented someone who was exclusively heterosexual, and 6 denoted someone who was exclusively homosexual; a 3 was assigned to someone who was equally attracted to both men and women. It became Kinsey’s assertion that many (if not most) people were, in a way, bisexual—falling between the 0 and 6 rather than on those polar opposites (Yarber & Sayad, 2013; Bronski, 2011).

Box 8.2: The Kinsey Scale

Kinsey scale
Kinsey’s continuum of sexuality, or Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale. Taking your relationships, fantasies, attractions, and sexual history into account, where would you place yourself on the scale? (Source: Kinsey Institute)

            Due to extreme public disapproval, Kinsey’s research funding was a constant struggle. He had to find new sources regularly to be sure his research could continue; it had become his life’s work. Criticized as immoral and reckless by some, Kinsey persevered where the pressure may have caused others to give up the pursuit. Thankfully, he persevered, and there remains an institute that bears his name at Indiana University today, dedicated to furthering the understanding of human sexuality (Jones, 1997).

M & J
William Masters (1915-2001) and Virginia Johnson (1925-2013)
(Source: Library of Congress)

William Masters was a gynecologist who had an interest in treating sexual functioning problems (the word dysfunction wasn’t being used in this context yet) but found, like Kinsey, that there was little empirical research on the topic he wished to know better: human sexual response. Therefore, he set about studying the topic on his own, eventually enlisting the help of Virginia Johnson, a research assistant with no college degree (who would become his research partner, his mistress, his wife, and eventually his ex-wife). If Kinsey had made waves through his process of daring to interview strangers about their sexual histories, Masters & Johnson took it a step further (Maier, 2009).

They recruited subjects to have sex in the laboratory under observation, while instruments took various sorts of measurements: strength of erection; amount of vaginal lubrication; heart rate as orgasm approached, occurred, and subsided; and much more. They were the first researchers to study what physically happened to the human body during sexual activity (both with partners and via masturbation; Maier, 2009). Like Kinsey, they were also out to disprove some long-held beliefs, and to learn new information to help those dealing with sexual issues for which there seemed to be no answer.

Masters & Johnson’s first book was Human Sexual Response in 1966, and it detailed their findings from observing nearly 700 people encounter what they came to identify as the stages of the sexual response cycle—arousal/excitement, plateau, climax, and resolution. The focus was on the physical aspects of sexual response, which led to some criticism that the emotional and psychological had been disregarded, but the book and concept were nonetheless revolutionary (Maier, 2009). Among the myths the team were able to dispel was the old Freudian assertion that vaginal orgasms were more advanced than clitoral ones; their laboratory findings showed that there were virtually no orgasms not in some way connected to clitoral stimulation, and thereby legitimized female masturbation and women who could not orgasm from vaginal penetration alone (Maier, 2009).

A second book followed, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), in which Masters & Johnson detailed their method for treating sexual dysfunctions. They worked as a therapy team together with the couple experiencing the dysfunction and did not attempt to pin the fault for the condition on one person or the other, instead seeing the relationship as the “client” in therapy (Maier, 2009). They were successful in their efforts to use talk therapy and at-home exercises alone to alleviate the conditions of these dysfunctions, curing approximately 80% of the people with whom they worked using intense two-week treatment periods (previously, treatment of some of the conditions had averaged years of therapy work). They never observed their clients actually performing sexual activity with each other when treating dysfunctions (Maier, 2009; Herdt & Polen-Petit, 2014).

            Masters & Johnson continued to work together until just after they divorced in 1992 (Maier, 2009). Among the things that pushed them apart, other than the divorce, was Masters’ confidence in his conversion therapy work, which Johnson allegedly opposed. We’ll discuss conversion therapy in more depth later in this chapter.


Sex Education

            Most Americans would agree that sex education is necessary. The average age at which Americans begin having sex is now around age 17 (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2011). If we do not educate our young people on sexuality, then we are leaving them to pick up information from the vagaries of current rumors among their peers, the media, and on the Internet. (Would you really want your own kids to learn everything they knew about sex from Twitter or fanfiction?) Of course, some would also make the case that it’s really the family’s job to teach their own children about sexuality, since sexual morals are a very personal topic and are often connected to religious beliefs. Since beliefs differ from family to family, opponents of school-based sex education might say, then it’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all program that gives people the assurance their kids are learning what they would want them to know.

            Of course, leaving it up to families may not be the answer either, since many parents have misconceptions about sexuality themselves, and some families will avoid the topic altogether, leaving children to figure things out for themselves (which can become an intergenerational pattern, and a problematic one). Therefore, if we are going to have sex education programs in school, we should probably understand what works best to accomplish the goals of such programs.

            The goals of sex education may include some or all of the following:

  • Understanding of anatomy
  • Knowledge about what sex actually is
  • The potential consequences of sexual activity (including STIs, pregnancy, and emotional consequences)
  • Contraception and safer sex
  • Consent
  • Respect for others
  • Sexual orientation

In some areas, schools practice abstinence-only sex education, which focuses on encouraging students not to have sex until marriage, or at the very least, when in a committed adult relationship that is leading to marriage. No information about contraception is taught in some programs of this sort; others may simply emphasize that contraception methods provide scant protection, if any at all. Scare tactics like focusing on STIs, pregnancy risk, and the irreversibility of losing one’s virginity may be focused upon; at times, programs like this compare kids who have sex before marriage to used tissue, candy that has been in someone’s mouth already, or other soiled items. This form of sex education is still being used in many American schools, especially schools with a student body heavier in minority students (Foulkes, 2008).

This is problematic since research generally indicates that abstinence-only sex education programs, while perhaps better than not receiving any sex education at all, lag behind the effectiveness of other programs. A majority of parents would prefer their children to receive comprehensive sex education, which takes a fuller approach to educating kids about sexuality, including some of the bullet point topics noted earlier in this section (Constantine, Jerman, & Huang, 2007; Irvine, 2002). Comprehensive sex education programs have been found to have a greater impact than abstinence-only programs in reducing teen pregnancy and STI rates, all while not increasing the chance of students having more sexual partners, more frequent intercourse, or earlier onset of sexual activity (Boonstra, 2009; Irvine, 2002; Foulkes, 2008).

Science seems to be having an impact on the politics of the issue. Although the Affordable Care Act provided millions in grants for abstinence-only programs in 2013, President Obama proposed lowering their funding as he was leaving office (Glum, 2015). Under President Trump, however, lawmakers pushed for expanded governmental support for these ineffective programs, at times rebranding them "sexual risk avoidance" education (Boyer, 2018). More comprehensive sex education programs will only help keep teen pregnancy and STI rates low and may even delay the age at which students start having intercourse.

Sex education programs have also been criticized by some for being heteronormative, as they rarely (if ever) discuss same-sex sexual behavior (or do so negatively), and proceed instead from an assumption of heterosexuality. Of course, it’s predictable that if sex ed programs are already controversial to parents, including information on same-sex sexual contact would make for some new opponents. Most states don't require sex education at all; only eleven have laws requiring affirming representation of LGBTQ+ people in sex ed, and nine actually require that the topic either be excluded or only presented in a condemning manner (Quiroz, 2021). Avoiding or degrading the topic of LGBTQ+ teens and sexual behavior could be taken by some students as an indication that the school doesn’t accept their LGBTQ+ population, making children and adolescents in that group feel ostracized.


The Gender Binary

            We made indirect reference to this idea in Chapter 7. The gender binary is the classification of people into just two genders: male and female. More broadly, it represents a belief that everyone fits into one of those two categories. However, we can clearly demonstrate that is a false conclusion.

            For one thing, even if we speak strictly in terms of sex rather than gender, we know that not everyone is male or female—some people are intersex, as discussed in the previous chapter. Intersex (also sometimes referred to as intersexed or intersexual) individuals have some element(s) of both male and female sex organs and/or ambiguous genitalia (for instance, a very small penis that seems more like a large clitoris, and undescended testicles). People often incorrectly use the term hermaphrodite to identify people who are intersex, when that term actually means people born with both ovarian and testicular tissue—a very rare condition. The term has largely been abandoned, as it is often seen as overly stigmatized as well as misapplied.

            Intersex is an example of a nonbinary identity—one which does not fit the dichotomy of male and female. Intersex people generally have one of several conditions, like Kleinfelter syndrome or Turner syndrome, that result in a body that is not fully male or female (Viloria, 2014). Social workers should strive to remain aware of the emerging preferences of this population (and any population) when it comes to the terms they use for themselves. As for how likely you are in your career to have a client with an intersex condition, it’s more likely than you might think, but hard to pin down. Estimates range from 0.05% to 1% of the population having a variation of intersex or DSD conditions (Accord Alliance, n.d.).

            Apart from people who are intersex, other groups do not feel the gender binary applies to them. Here are a few of the terms that may be used and what they mean.

Agender: Without a gender.

Bigender: Both male and female.

Genderqueer: Another term for nonbinary. A genderqueer person may feel they are both male and female simultaneously, or part male and female and part some other category, or simply another category altogether.

Genderfluid: A genderfluid person may feel more male on some days and more female on others, and a mix of the two or an absence of the two on other days. Their gender expression may fluctuate as their identity does. The term gender flexible is also used in this way.

            Additionally, there are many cultures worldwide where more than two genders are recognized (see box below). We understand this may be a lot to try to take in if you’ve always thought of gender in binary terms. However, it is a big part of the expanding diversity of the world and the clientele with whom you will work in this field—and we’ve only gotten started.

Box 8.3: Gender Spectrum in Other Cultures

Nonbinary genders

Although most Americans would state that they believe only two genders exist, this is hardly universal around the world (or even in our own country). Here are a few examples of nonbinary genders recognized around the world—some in countries many would consider far more traditional than the United States.

Hijras in Bangalore
"Hijras in Bangalore" by Oatsandsugar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hijra (pictured): Recognized legally as their own gender in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, hijra may be intersex, eunuchs, or transgender women. They are often asked to bless important events such as weddings and births, particularly in rural areas of India.

Two-spirit: A gender recognized in many Native American tribes. The two-spirit individual is considered to have both a male and female spirit dwelling within them, hence the name. In some tribes, they are deeply respected, while others do not recognize them at all. They may dress in men’s or women’s clothing and often serve important ritual roles as counselors, healers, or oral historians. In many tribes, they marry men, and those relationships are not considered homosexual.

Xanith: Considered a separate gender in Oman, xaniths are anatomically male but identify as women, and are treated as women in situations where genders are strictly segregated—for example, singing and being seated with women at weddings. They often work as servants or prostitutes. However, they retain men’s names.

Fa’afafine: A distinct gender category in Samoa, fa’afafine are anatomically male but present in stereotypically female ways. They are recognized early on by their parents as neither male nor female, and this is generally celebrated rather than a source of shame. The child is raised as fa’afafine, and may have relationships with men, women, or other fa’afafine. If they partner with a man, the relationship is not considered homosexual. Traditionally, fa’afafine are not considered trans*, but in recent years, more are electing to have sexual reassignment surgery.

Kathoey: A nonbinary gender in Thailand, where many work as performers and some as sex workers, kathoey are anatomically/genetically male but have female gender identity, names, and appearance. Some are simply effeminate gay males. They are sometimes referred to as “ladyboys,” though this term has also been seen as pejorative by some. A team of gay and kathoey volleyball players won the Thailand national men’s volleyball championship and were depicted in the documentary film Iron Ladies. While adored in some circles, kathoey are reviled in others and are a source of some degree of controversy.

(Khaleeli, 2014; Mesa-Miles, 2015; Wikan, 1991, Stryker & Whittle, 2006; Käng, 2012)

Transgender people

            Though these terms are continually evolving, it is probably most accurate to say that Transgender refers to “any and all kinds of variation from gender norms and expectations” (Stryker, 2008, p. 19). The shorthand term trans has begun to be used interchangeably with this definition of transgender. This makes it a large category with many subsets. The word is also sometimes used to refer specifically to people whose gender identity differs from their biological sex but who do not wish to have gender confirmation surgery (also called gender-affirming surgery). The opposite of transgender is cisgender

            Transgender people may live full- or part-time in accordance with their gender identity. They may feel unable to do so full-time due to societal expectations or constraints (like workplace relationships or policies), or they may simply be comfortable with differing gender expressions in different places/situations.  The term transman may be used to refer to someone who identifies as a man but was genetically assigned a female body, while transwoman may be used to refer to someone who identifies as a woman but was genetically assigned a male body, but you should generally refer to clients as their gender identity (man, woman, boy, girl) without the trans- prefix, since that is how they identify. (Remember, it’s always up to the client how they would like to be identified.)

            Transsexual people, who often prefer to use the term transgender for themselves as well, are individuals who have what has been called gender dysphoria, often described as a sense one is “trapped” in the wrong body (though some may perceive that as an insensitive characterization). The term is usually reserved for people who have had gender confirmation surgery or who wish to do so. They may undergo hormone therapy and cosmetic surgery to help them feel their body is more in line with their gender identity as well. It is much more common for someone assigned male at birth to surgically transition to female than vice versa, and the surgeries tend to be more successful in creating a body the individual finds satisfying, as it is more difficult to construct a penis than a vagina (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2014). Christine Jorgensen was the first transsexual person to come to international prominence after she underwent what was then called a “sex change” in 1952 (Stryker, 2008). It should be noted that many now consider the term transsexual to be outdated. It places the emphasis on one's physical body and may contribute to the belief some people have that they are entitled to know whether a trans person has undergone surgery. 

            Transvestic fetishists, sometimes simply called transvestites, are people (typically heterosexual men) who dress up in the clothing not typically associated with their gender for the purpose of sexual arousal and/or gratification. They generally are cisgender and do not wish to modify their bodies or “become” a different sex or gender. This is to be contrasted with Crossdressers, who wear the clothing not associated with their gender, but do not become sexually aroused by doing so. Crossdressing is an activity that may be exhibited by transgender people as part of their gender expression, or it may be done by cisgender people for various reasons. Drag queens (sometimes called female impersonators) are men who dress as women—often very convincingly—for the purpose of performance or leisure. Drag kings are women who dress as men for similar purposes.

            Transgender people may be sexually or romantically attracted to anyone. Remember, gender identity is different than sexual orientation. A trans person’s sexual orientation is not impacted by their gender identity—a person who is assigned male at birth, attracted to women, and undergoes sexual reassignment surgery will not become attracted to men by virtue of having the surgery. However, sexual orientation can vary over the course of someone’s life—which brings us to our next topic.

Box 8.4: Gender-neutral Pronouns

'They' is now officially regarded as an appropriate gender-neutral pronoun for a single individual, and you may have noticed this book uses it regularly for that purpose. Due to the increasing acceptance of the fact that the gender binary does not apply to everyone, and some people would prefer to be known by pronouns that do not indicate a masculine or feminine gender specifically, a family of gender-neutral pronouns has developed in English over the last few decades. (Some other languages have had such pronouns for centuries.) Some nonbinary individuals prefer to use pronouns like these to refer to themselves, and some people like to use these words (or they/them) in reference to anyone whose gender as not yet been revealed.

Social work supports everyone’s right to be called by any pronoun they choose. What follows is a chart of some of the most popular gender-neutral pronouns; there are many more than we have listed here.


(Source: The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog)

Sexual Orientation

            Sexual orientation is often defined in a variety of ways, and the idea of the concept has certainly shifted over time. It is generally considered to be an erotic, sexual, and often emotional attraction toward a particular gender (or genders). The outdated term sexual preference has fallen out of favor because it implies that the object(s) of one’s attractions is simply a matter of choice. However, even this is a matter of some debate, as some gay, lesbian, or bisexual people do feel they chose their orientation, even if the majority do not (and your authors would surmise most heterosexuals do not feel they could choose to be gay or lesbian). Actually, some research indicates that it is gay men who by and large see their sexual orientation as an immutable inborn characteristic, while lesbians are more apt to see their orientation as a choice (Kimmel, 2013). Regardless, the term sexual orientation is more accepted today.

            You likely are aware of the three most well-known sexual orientations, but there are more than just those three to be discussed. What follows is a listing of terms for different orientations, along with their definitions and explanations. You are likely to encounter future clients who identify wi