Academic journal article Social Work

Linking Clients and Policy: Social Work's Distinctive Contribution

Academic journal article Social Work

Linking Clients and Policy: Social Work's Distinctive Contribution

Article excerpt

Social work's unique and distinctive contribution to American life, often expressed as a dual focus on the person and his or her environment, resulted from a specific frame of reference that linked clients and social policy. From the earliest origins of the profession, social workers understood the relationships between individuals and primary groups and between primary groups anti forces in the larger environment. This frame of reference provided an orientation to action that placed interventions in the environment on a par with interventions with the client system (Gordon & Schutz, 1977). This dual focus, unique to social workers, was evident during the profession's formative years - the period between the 1890s and the coming of the New Deal in the 1930s - and continues to be important today. This article discusses social workers' linkage of clients - initially conceptualized as neighbors and charity cases - and social policy concerns during the profession's formative years. The article concludes with a case study of a social policy effort, the ultimately successful campaign to enact social standards for industry.

Early Social Work: Settlements and Charity Organization

Both of the institutions traditionally associated with, the origins of the social work profession - charity organization societies and settlement houses - began as efforts to organize the local community and to introduce a personal relationship among workers - settlement residents, district agents, and friendly visitors - and clients-neighbors and charity cases. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and internal migration from rural areas to cities transformed American society. Previously a nation made up of small "island communities," the United States increasingly became organized nationally (Weibe, 1967). Urbanization and industrialization characterized the emerging nation. The largest cities grew in size, and there were more of them. The proportion of urban dwellers increased from less than 20 percent in 1860 to nearly 40 percent in 1900 and more than 50 percent by 1920 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975). As industrial production replaced agriculture as the major source of national wealth, business institutions became larger and more influential. Concomitantly, the disparity between rich and poor increased, and the likelihood of a personal relationship between poor people and wealthy people lessened. Reformers created settlement houses and charity organization societies to respond to the changing American city. Both settlement residents and charity workers were quick to perceive the interrelationships between local and state movements, state and regional developments, and local and national phenomena.

These formative professional institutions, which oriented members of the "first generation" of social workers to their new profession, had in common an orientation to the community and to viewing the person as embedded in the community system. Each movement was based on English precedents - London's Toynbee Hall and other English social settlements and the English Charity Organisation Societies - but each movement developed a distinctive American pattern. Both movements owed much to the example of Thomas Chalmers, an early 19th century Scottish critic of the Poor Laws, who organized a parish-based system of charity to replace the poor law in Glasgow during the early 19th century (de Schweinitz, 1943).

Settlement Houses

Settlement houses responded to two complementary social imperatives of late 19th century America. Settlements had "objective value" because they addressed the increasing fragmentation of American life that resulted from the growing contrasts between rich and poor people, native born and immigrants, and Protestants and Catholics in late 19th century America (Addams, 1893a). In addition, the settlements responded to a "subjective necessity" that resulted from the lack of meaningful opportunities for middle-class young people, especially women (Addams, 1893b). …

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