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What Social Workers Should Know About Children Living in Poverty

Bachelor of Social Work programs prepare working professionals for the war on poverty.

The numbers can seem overwhelming. One in six American children experiences hunger.1 One in five grows up in poverty.2 Millions of the most vulnerable members of our society face circumstances that may adversely affect their futures.

But where some see despair, others see hope and heed the call to service. These are social workers. “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty,” reads the preamble to the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics.3

What Social Workers Should Know About Children Living in Poverty

Through their roles in schools, social service agencies, healthcare environments, and other settings, social workers provide children and families with services designed to build brighter futures. If you have a social work career or are interested in working toward your Bachelor of Social Work degree, here are some critical facts about children and poverty that every social worker should know.

Determining Poverty Benchmarks

There are two sets of federally established income standards:

  • Federal Poverty Guidelines: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services establishes these guidelines each year based on household size. For 2019, the poverty guideline for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia is $25,750; in Hawaii, $29,620; and in Alaska, $32,190.4 The federal government uses these numbers—and multiples of them—to determine eligibility for programs such as Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and free and reduced-price school meal programs.5
  • Poverty Thresholds: The U.S. Census Bureau releases these figures annually primarily for statistical uses, like calculating how many Americans are living at the poverty level.4 In 2018, the most current number available on the Census Bureau website, the poverty threshold for a family of four (with two children under 18) was $25,465.6

Scope of Child Poverty

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) reports approximately 15 million U.S. children—representing 21% of all the children in the country—are living below the federal poverty threshold. The NCCP asserts that the number is actually much higher. “Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 43% of children live in low-income families.”2

Learning Impacts

According to research from the NCCP, “Before entering kindergarten, the average cognitive scores of preschool-age children in the highest socio-economic group are 60% above the average scores of children in the lowest socio-economic group. At age 4 years, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months below what is normal for their age group; by age 10, that gap is still present. For children living in the poorest families, the gap is even larger.”7

But the NCCP report says that’s not the end of the story. “These data frame the challenge, but the situation is not irreversible. There is already a large literature demonstrating that with comprehensive, ongoing early interventions, it is possible to change the educational odds for low-income children. Now, there is emerging evidence that closing the achievement gap depends greatly on using an intentional curriculum and providing teachers with the kinds of professional development and supports that can help them more effectively promote early literacy and math skills in the context of nurturing and emotionally supportive classrooms.”7

Physical and Mental Health

Financial insecurity touches every aspect of children’s lives, posing risks to their physical and mental well-being. “Poverty has a profound effect on specific circumstances, such as birth weight, infant mortality, language development, chronic illness, environmental exposure, nutrition, and injury,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Child poverty also influences genomic function and brain development by exposure to toxic stress. … The AAP considers child poverty in the United States unacceptable and detrimental to the health and well-being of children and is committed to its elimination.”8

Join the War on Poverty

If a social work career is your calling, look for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation develops standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensures that social work programs meet these standards.

As a working professional, you may find that Walden University’s online Bachelor of Social Work degree program is the right fit. This online BSW degree program can prepare you for a social work career while you continue to fulfill work and family commitments.

Walden designs its coursework to help you become a generalist scholar-practitioner, with skills in compassionate mentoring, supervision, advocacy, and collaboration. BSW degree students may choose from five optional focus areas: Addiction, Forensics and the Criminal Justice System, Crisis and Trauma, Courts and the Legal System, and Healthcare Settings.

With a BSW degree, you may expect to meet an expanding job market, one the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates will grow 16% through 2026. The BLS projects particularly strong demand for healthcare social workers, with 20% job growth; mental health and substance abuse social workers, 19%; and child, family, and school social workers, 14%.9

Here are some of the roles you might choose after graduating from your BSW degree program:

  • Family services worker
  • Child life specialist
  • Hospital social worker
  • Mental health case manager 
  • Residential counselor
  • School social worker
  • Program coordinator
  • Substance abuse counselor 

If you have a passion for social change and the desire to help others, a Bachelor of Social Work can be a straight line to your career goals. Let your life and work lift up and inspire others.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.

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Walden University's Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is responsible for developing standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.

Note on Licensure

Walden University’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program meets the academic requirements to obtain the required credential to practice as a bachelors-level social worker in many states.

State licensing boards are responsible for regulating the practice of social work, and each state has its own academic, licensure, and certification requirements for practice as a social worker at the bachelor’s degree level. Walden recommends that students consult the appropriate social work licensing board in the state in which they plan to practice to determine the specific academic requirements for licensure or other credentials. Walden Enrollment Specialists can provide information relating to the state-by-state requirements for licensure. However, it remains the individual’s responsibility to understand, evaluate, and comply with all licensing requirements for the state in which he or she intends to practice. Walden makes no representations or guarantee that completion of its coursework or programs will permit an individual to achieve state licensure, authorization, endorsement, or other state credential as a social worker.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,