The objective of social work is to enhance human well-being and to maximize human potential, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). A noble goal but a difficult task. Yet every day, over half a million social workers get up and go to work believing they can make a difference in people’s lives.
Social workers are passionate about helping those in their communities. Their presence in the health care industry, education, social services, and private corporations serves those who need it most.
Social Work - Striving for Social Justice
The profession of social work is founded on a number of core values, the most important of which are:
- Dignity and worth of the person
- Social justice
Dignity and worth of the person underscores the importance of individuals' rights to live free of suffering and struggle. In its efforts to meet the basic needs of all people, the social work profession reaches out to those who are vulnerable, oppressed, or living in poverty.
The symptoms of poverty and the problems that grow from it – domestic violence, crime, addictions, oppression, mental illness, and hopelessness are issues social workers encounter every day. Helping clients find a new sense of well-being and security is a constant challenge for social workers.
Service is the prime directive for social workers. They spend their days working with clients, interviewing, counseling, and helping them find solutions to their problems. Linking clients with resources that help them solve their own problems enables clients to improve their lives and those of their families, and to gain greater self-sufficiency.
Advocacy means speaking for the disempowered. Advocacy is at the core of social work. It is “the exclusive and mutual representation of a client or a cause in a forum, attempting to systematically influence decision making in an unjust or unresponsive system,” according to Robert L. Schneider. & Lori Lester, in their book “Social Work Advocacy: A New Framework for Action”.
Social workers involve themselves in advocacy all the time. As they help their clients find services, they often encounter obstacles. An example is the case of a senior citizen whose home is outside the delivery boundaries of the home-delivery meal program.
The elderly man's social worker notices on a home visit that he's looking thin and on examination of his cupboards, finds there is little food in the house. Because he lives outside the boundaries, the social worker must appeal to the meal-delivery service to include him in its route – something they would rather not do because of distance and cost. In this case, the social worker represents the client in an effort to influence the decision of the meal-delivery service.
This small example illustrates the fundamental level at which individual interests and rights need to be upheld. Advocacy for individuals is often a small but life-giving effort. Advocacy for communities often brings about social change, reducing social barriers, and insuring equality and social justice.
Social justice strives to create equal access to social, economic, and political resources for all people. In the interest of gaining that access, social workers strive to raise awareness of inequitable situations, and pursue policies and practices that will open doors for those who are neglected, disadvantaged, or disabled.
Many doors are closed to those who are powerless. Typically, it takes advocates who voice the concerns of a community to initiate change. A good example is the Atlantis Community in Denver, Colorado, a group of disabled activists who brought the plight of the disabled to American discourse in the mid-seventies. This resulted in the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1979 that protects disabled people from discrimination in many aspects of life.
These values serve to focus the way social workers view the work they do in their communities. For social workers, social justice isn't just a lofty commitment but an integral part of the daily work they do for their clients.
What do Social Workers Do?
Social workers are found in many different businesses, schools, government agencies, and community organizations. Typically, social workers take courses and do their supervised fieldwork in areas in which they have a special interest, such as school social work, addiction and rehabilitation, or helping the homeless.
Much of a social worker's day is spent completing paperwork, keeping case files up-to-date, and connecting clients to the resources they need. Often they conduct home visits to check on clients' well-being, or visit living facilities. And frequently, they counsel individuals or conduct group therapy sessions.
Social workers specialize in a number of different areas, including the following most common fields:
Working with disadvantaged individuals and families typically falls under the heading of social services. These social workers often work in government agencies, helping clients with living assistance, such as food stamps, low-cost housing, financial assistance, health care, specialized assistance for disabilities, and counseling.
Family and Child Social Work
Social workers tend to specialize in one of these topics; however their positions often involve both families and children. Family social workers are primarily concerned with helping families overcome adversity and create stable lives. They focus on the interpersonal family interactions in order to assess families' strengths and weaknesses, and counsel individual family members to resolve family issues. For more information see Family Social Worker.
Child social work is more directly focused on the health and well-being of children. Child abuse and neglect are the top priorities of child social workers, but they are also concerned with children who have disabilities, as well as those who have serious health concerns. These workers often work in school environments. For more information see Child Social Worker.
School Social Work
School social workers have special training that enables them to work with primary, junior-high, and secondary-school populations. They are particularly attuned to issues of child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, bullying and school violence, gender issues, counseling kids, and helping parents work within the school's guidelines. They are also often involved in creating bridges between the school and parents, and they typically lead the schools' diversity programs. For more information see School Social Worker
Addiction and Substance Abuse Social Work
One of the fastest growing areas of social work is helping those who have issues with substance abuse, typically, drugs and alcohol. Again, these workers have taken special training so that they can work with these very complex problems. These workers must not only be familiar with individual and group psychology, they must also be aware of the medical issues inherent in drug and alcohol usage. For more information see Substance Abuse Social Worker and Addiction Social Worker.
Substance abuse and addiction social workers are typically found in rehabilitation facilities, state or federal social service agencies, private and community clinics, and hospitals.
Geriatric Social Work.
Although the well-being of a community's senior population is often in the care of several different kinds of social workers, geriatric social workers are specially trained to understand their problems. They often work in geriatric clinics, hospitals, senior centers, and retirement centers, connecting clients to important resources, and counseling both clients and their families. For more information see Geriatric Social Worker.
Some social workers focus on improving communities. Social activism is the effort to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental changes. These social workers are often involved in issues at the policy level where they try to call attention to social inequities that need to be remedied.
Although occasionally they may become involved in large civil movements, more often they work within the local governing systems to resolve community problems.
Medical Social Work
Most hospitals and community clinics have staff social workers who are the liaisons between patients, the medical teams, and outside resources. In particular, these workers help de-mystify the medical world for those who are already stressed with medical concerns. They are instrumental in making arrangements for transitional treatments in physical rehabilitation centers, setting up referrals with specialists or nursing homes, as well as arranging for home medical support, such as oxygen delivery and visits by home nurses. For more information see Medical Social Worker.
These workers often function as part of a medical team and must have a good grasp of medical terminology as well as an understanding of diagnostic treatments.
Social work is a diverse field that has opportunities for many different kinds of interests. It is for those who really want to make a difference in people's lives, and although it can be emotionally taxing, it has a high rate of job satisfaction. As social workers sit at their desks and work with their clients, they are cognizant of their dual responsibility; first, to their individual clients, and secondly, to the broader society that they strive to serve.
Educational Requirements for Social Workers
While a bachelor's in social work (BSW) is an effective degree for gaining an entry-level position, most health care facilities, clinics, and schools require a master's degree in social work (MSW). Ongoing coursework and supervised fieldwork enable students to focus on an area of specialization and research. To get started on acquiring the required educational qualifications browse schools offering degree programs in social work.
All states have their own licensing regulations. Most require applicants to complete at least two years or approximately 3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork in order to be licensed. Some states might also require applicants to complete an exam. Learn more state specific licensing requirements here.
Salaries for Social Workers
Because health care is the largest and fastest growing sector of the economy, the prospect of finding work in the field of social work is better than most industries. The bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median incomes for many social worker specialties to fall in the $38,000 range with medical facilities paying in mid $40,000 range.