Historical development of social work in UK and USA

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Helping fellow human beings is one of the values which is prevalent in every society and culture. Every society develops their own mechanisms for helping those who are in need and are very much influenced by their socio-political scenario. Social work profession originated in one of these endeavours to serve the have-nots. The historical development of social work can be traced back to almsgiving in European society. 

Developments in UK

Soon after the industrial revolution a new class of poors emerged. They were helped by charity which was mostly undertaken by the church. 

In 1601, the government in the UK decided to take up this responsibility and make laws for identifying and providing relief to the poor. These laws were popularly called the ‘Elizabethan Poor Laws’. One of the prominent features of these laws was that it aimed to identify and categorise poors and provide relief accordingly. Under this law the poors were divided under 3 categories: 

  1. Able bodied poor : These were the people who were rendered poor because of loss of livelihood. They had no means of income and lived in poor living conditions. They were identified and provided means of livelihood by the government representatives and agencies.
  2. Disabled and destitute: These were old, disabled and destitutes who could not work and earn a livelihood. These were identified and their condition was assessed and services were provided accordingly. Some work as per their capacities were given to those who were in a situation to work.
  3. Orphans and abandoned children: Children below the age of 9 years who were involved in hazardous working conditions  were identified and removed from there and women who could not work and had no support were identified. Children were provided with foster care and women were given work as per their capacities. 

The poor laws were amended in the year 1834 which allowed communities to come together to assist the poor. Hence from now the responsibility of the poor was not solely on the local administration but it became a shared affair. This also gave rise to local small charities which provided aid to the poor. Workhouses were established to provide shelter to the poor with minimal resources and harsh living conditions. The idea of establishing workhouses was to discourage people to depend on charity and take initiative for improving their lives.  

In the year 1869 Charity Organisation Society was formed in the UK to regulate  charity and almsgiving and give it an organised structure. Octavia Hill and Samuel Barnett were instrumental in forming COS in the UK and streamlined the functioning of it. One unique feature introduced by the pioneers of COS was that the volunteers visited the poor  population and assessed their needs. They were trained to take up individual cases and treat them as unique cases and analyse their overall situation which would then determine the type of relief to be provided. They were called  ‘friendly visitors’ and were trained to treat the needy with respect and dignity while collecting information. The functioning and the administration of COS was similar to the modern age casework in which the individual cases are assessed and the needful resources are provided. 

Later on these friendly visitors started being provided with structured training programs on how to conduct the field visits. They would be supervised by senior members  during the visits to the home of the needy poors. Consequently this paved the way for a formal 6 months long apprentice program. This marked the transformation of unorganised charity to an organised and professional relief work by COS. Later on formal education in social work practice started being imparted in educational institutions. 

Whereas the system of functioning of COS was similar to modern age casework method; the enactment of the Poor Laws and its amendment in 1834 depicted the political will and responsibility for welfare of the poor. The modern age social welfare administration method of social work can be traced back to these initiatives by the government.

The industrial revolution in England on one hand brought prosperity to one section of the society but on the other hand  had rendered a new class of poors who had migrated to the cities in search of work in factories. Since they could not afford decent housing, new slum dwellings emerged with poor housing and sanitation facilities. A new type of socio economic environment emerged which also gave rise to law and order issues along with unemployment and poverty. 

There was another section of the population which became prosperous due to industrialization. Some of these elite classes started taking interest in the welfare of the poor and took actions to address their needs. This led to the development of the establishment of the settlement houses. Toynbee Hall was the first settlement house to be established in London with the efforts of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in 1884. The settlement houses were small dwellings in which elite class, especially university students, would come and settle in the neighborhood of slum areas and observe and understand the plight and situation of the poor and design relief measures. 

Several settlement houses were established and this came to be known as the settlement house movement.

These efforts were similar to the modern age social action method of social work.

Developments in the US

The development of the welfare approach started in the US with its independence during the late 18th century. Several laws were enacted to protect and safeguard the rights of the needy population which defined clear political will towards social welfare. 

The first Charity Organisation Society in the US was established in 1879 to regulate private charity.

 In 1886, the first settlement house was established in the US by Stanton Coit which came to be known as Neighbourhood Guild

In 1889, Hull House was established by Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago to reduce the gap between different socioeconomic classes. This marked the beginning of the settlement house movement in the US. 

In 1895, the Chicago University started to impart training to people working for the poor. 

In 1900 Simon Patten coined the term ‘social workers’ for friendly visitors. 

In 1915 Abraham Flexner declared in a report that social work is not a profession since it lacks a knowledge base and techniques . 

In 1917, Mary Richmond published her book ‘Social Diagnosis’ which was influenced by the diagnostic school of thought.

In 1955 NASW (National Association of Social Work) was formed to promote the professional development and maintain standards of the profession.

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