Social workers are a pivotal part of American society. From big cities to small towns, they provide a service without which many would suffer. The numbers are telling. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 700,000 licensed social workers. California has nearly 50,000, and other big cities are similar.
It is important to take some time to understand the history of social work in America, and celebrate famous social workers who made sacrifices to ensure that the neediest and most disadvantaged in society were cared for and had access to vital resources.
A quick history of social work in America
Social work in America goes back to the late 19th century when the country experienced an influx of migrants. Many arrived, with no money and no prospects, hoping to secure jobs in big cities like Chicago and New York. Before long, poverty and homelessness were rife.
Many immigrants had no permanent lodgings, and no access to basic healthcare, sanitation and food. Children were not cared for properly, and many died. They could not attend school because their families needed them to work.
At this time social work was organized by volunteers. Those who were better off in society would pool together resources and sacrifice time to help the poor.
Social work came to be recognized as a profession in the early 20th century. Rather than providing aid through volunteerism, those who wanted to help formed institutions that were headed by boards of directors. These institutions hired social workers and oversaw the work they did to help the poor.
For those wishing to follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s most famous social workers, Florida State University has created an online Master of Social Work degree program which is clinically-focused and prepares students for placements upon graduation.
Famous social workers
If you are planning to study social work you are in good company, and you have the following people to inspire you. You will be dealing with poverty, addiction, abuse and other social problems, much as they did. Their lives should inspire you to do your best for your clients every day.
Jane Addams (1860–1935)
She was a social worker, a pioneer, an activist, a philosopher, an author, an administrator and even a leader in the suffrage movement. Together with Ellen Gates Starr, another social worker, they founded Hull House in Chicago, the first settlement for immigrants in America.
Here, immigrants learned skills like music, art and childcare that they could use to earn a living. They were provided with public baths and a kitchen where they cooked meals and fed their families.
Jane was one of nine children in her family, and she showed an inclination toward social work from a young age. She loved to help the less fortunate, and by the time she graduated from university, she made it her mission. She campaigned for the rights of immigrants, particularly mothers and children.
Jane Addams authored a paper titled ‘Utilization of Women in City Government’, in which she emphasized the connection between some government services like sanitation and schooling, to traditional roles that were undertaken by women in the home.
She was of the firm belief that to keep families safe, communities had to be uplifted. Hull house became a model for delivering social services, not just in America but across the world.
For her efforts, Jane Addams received a Nobel Prize in 1931.
Mary Ellen Richmond (1861–1928)
Mary Ellen Richmond is one of America’s most famous social workers because she advocated for better organization in social work. She was of the view that if it was professional and standardized, social workers and voluntary organizations could reach more people who needed help.
During the 1897 National Conference of Charities and Correction, she gave a speech asking that schools train more social workers.
Mary Ellen also wrote a book, Social Diagnosis, that incorporated principles from medicine, law and psychology into social work.
Mary Ellen was influenced by her grandmother, who was an active suffragette as well as a spiritualist and radical. Learning from her, she understood the problems that the poor faced and what society needed to do to ensure that they were cared for.
She was one of the pioneers of research in social work, and she wrote instructions on interview methods and how to gather information. She also wrote a guide on how to make contacts and conduct conversations.
Although she worked directly with families and charitable organizations, she was an active participant in national issues. She was especially keen on problems that affected women and children.
One of her biggest contributions was to get legislation passed for deserted wives.
Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
Ida Wells is credited with being one of the first African American women to campaign for social change, as well as racial and gender equality. She led anti-lynching campaigns and was the first person to document a lynching in America.
Together with other organizers, she worked to form institutions that are the roots of social work as we know it today.
Ida Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were political activists and she inherited many of her views from them. Although she attended college, she did not graduate because she disagreed with the college president.
At 16 she started teaching after her parents died. Her earnings went to support her siblings. She eventually relocated with them to Tennessee to attend university. There, she met and worked with leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass.
She started to write activism articles that were printed in black newspapers across America. Many awards have been established in her name and there is an Ida B. Wells Museum that protects and promotes her legacy.
Edith Abbott (1876–1957)
Edith Abbott was a highly educated reformer, author and social worker. She worked with other social reformers of the time to champion new ways of dealing with poverty. She was an advocate for repealing the ‘poor laws’ in England, and continually campaigned for programs to help eliminate poverty.
While Edith studied at the University College London and the London School of Economics, she lived in the East End among the poor and did social work. In doing so, she was able to write about her observations and make suggestions on how to raise people’s standard of living.
She eventually returned to the United States and moved into Hull House in Chicago with her sister, where together they continued to work on social reform based on empirical research.
Abbott eventually became an associate professor of social economy and then dean at the University of Chicago, Graduate School of Social Service Administration.
She was instrumental in organizing social work as a subject of study. She designed a social work curriculum that included social statistics and discussed the roots of social problems. She also fought hard for the recognition of social work as a profession.
Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973)
Jeanette Rankin is notable for being the first woman to hold federal office in the US. When she was 27, she moved to San Francisco for a job in social work and loved it so much that she made it her calling. Between 1908 and 1909 she enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy and later moved to Washington where she got a job as a social worker.
While she was attending the University of Washington, she became involved in the suffragette movement, lobbying and working for the New York chapter.
In 1911 she became the first woman to speak in the Montana legislature and was instrumental in organizing from the grassroots for an amendment allowing women unrestricted voting rights.
She later decided to campaign for a seat in the Montana congressional election of 1916 and did a great job of it.
She would talk to women in the streets, train stations, schoolhouses, potluck dinners, and everywhere she could find them. She beat her opponent by more than 7,000 votes, and became the first woman in Congress.
While in Washington, she worked hard for the suffragette vote and was a founding member of the Committee on Woman Suffrage. She was also active in campaigning against the war in Vietnam.
Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1921–1971)
Whitney Young’s contribution was campaigning for equality in employment. He was determined to see black workers secure the same jobs as other Americans. He became a professor of social work and eventually the dean of the university where he worked.
As chairman of the National Urban League, he worked with presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to improve civil rights in America. He was also president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), advocating for the reduction of poverty and against the war in Vietnam.
These are just a handful of famous social workers in America — there are many more. If you plan to become a social worker, they can be your inspiration. They did not have a lot of money or education, but they worked hard and were dedicated to bringing social change.