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Six Ways in Which Social Workers Have Changed Our World

All types of social workers have been making the world better for over 100 years.

In 1898, Columbia University offered the first class in social work.* Since then, social workers have become a vital part of society, helping people overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges. If you’re thinking about starting a job as a social worker, you’ll be joining a storied profession that has changed our world in many positive ways.

What Do Social Workers Do?

All types of social workers focus on helping individuals overcome difficult situations in their lives. The vast majority of those in social work practice work with individuals or small, family groups, helping people learn how to move past problems, both by strengthening themselves and by taking advantage of social services provided through government entities and nonprofits. In many ways, social workers are part counselor and part aid facilitator. Many social workers are also advocates, pushing governments to change harmful laws, supporting government assistance programs, and starting new nonprofits and/or nonprofit initiatives aimed at helping people through difficult times.

Six Ways in Which Social Workers Have Changed Our World

Common social work careers include medical social worker, clinical social worker, school social worker, family social worker, military social worker, and government services social worker. However, those broad categories of social work encompass a wide variety of practice areas. Social work practice can focus on:

  • Mental Health Therapy
  • Military Social Work
  • Rural Social Work
  • Adoption and Foster Care\
  • Child Welfare Services
  • Family Preservation Services
  • Homeless Family Assistance
  • Eating Disorders
  • Addiction Prevention/Treatment
  • Hospital Social Work
  • Crisis Intervention
  • School Violence
  • Hospice and Palliative Care
  • Depression
  • Institutional Care
  • Chronic Pain
  • Outpatient Treatment
  • Development Disabilities
  • International Social Work
  • Community Mental Health 
  • Employee Assistance
  • Private Practice
  • Veterans Services
  • Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Domestic Violence
  • Political Development
  • Parent Education
  • Family Planning
  • School Alternative Programs
  • Difficulties in School
  • Gerontology Services
  • Community-Based Services
  • In-Home Services
  • Criminal Justice
    Senile Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Public Welfare
  • Employment Services
  • Advocacy, Consulting, and Planning
  • Housing Assistance  

How Have Social Workers Changed the World?

Over the last 100+ years, social workers have been involved in some of the most important social advances in the U.S. and throughout the world. Social workers have helped address and improve issues surrounding:

  • Civil Rights: Social workers were on the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement and have played active roles in securing rights for all people, regardless of race, gender, faith, or sexual orientation. Social workers understand that discrimination can dramatically impact a person or a family’s ability to thrive and that ending discrimination is an important step in ensuring all people have access to needed services and opportunities.
  • Workers’ Rights: Social workers see firsthand the way employment—or the lack thereof—can create debilitating stress and other problems in people’s lives. To help mitigate the worst of these problems, social workers have been key players in reforming labor laws and implementing programs designed to help people overcome losing a job. Some of the programs social workers have helped establish include unemployment insurance, disability pay, worker’s compensation, and Social Security.
  • Mental Illness: Suffering from a mental illness used to land many people in asylums, where they rarely received humane treatment. Social workers have worked to change not only how we treat the mentally ill but how we perceive mental illness, fighting for the reform of our mental healthcare system and fighting for a larger destigmatization of mental illness. The efforts of social workers have made mental health services far more humane and have ensured those services are focused on helping the mentally ill live productive lives.
  • Poverty: While the world may never fully end poverty, social workers have been a driving force behind the development of programs designed to limit poverty’s most destructive effects. Social workers were instrumental in the development and implementation of programs in the New Deal and Great Society, including the introduction of Medicaid and Medicare, which expand access to healthcare and help ensure the costs of health treatments don’t derail a person’s ability to thrive.
  • Child Abuse and Neglect: In the U.S., social workers play a vital role in every state’s child protective services system. Because of this, they are on the forefront of addressing issues of child abuse and neglect and have played an important role in the development and implementation of laws and procedures designed to protect children.
  • Substance Abuse: Before social workers can help people overcome issues such as family conflict, crime, and educational failure, they often have to help people overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol. As such, social workers have been and continue to be strong advocates for treatment programs and public health initiatives aimed at helping people overcome addiction.

How to Become a Social Worker

One of the best ways to become the type of social worker who can help change the world is to earn a degree in social work such as a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW). Through a BSW or MSW program, you can gain the skills and knowledge you need to help improve the quality of life for individuals, families, and groups in underserved or at-risk populations.

Thanks to online education, attending a School of Social Work is now more convenient than ever before. Online BSW and MSW programs don’t require you to live near a campus or even attend classes at specific times of day. Instead, when you earn a bachelor's or master’s in social work online, you can complete your studies right from home and attend class at whatever time of day works best for your schedule. This level of flexibility and convenience makes an online social work degree program an excellent choice for working adults.

Social workers help enact important social change, every day. If you want to be a part of that change, earning an MSW online can be a great first step.

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

*National Association of Social Workers, Social Work Fact Sheet, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,