In the 19th century, the U.S. was faced with a spate of immigrants (Ehrenreich, 2014). In fact, immigration patterns in the early 19th century included high levels of immigration from across the world, while legislation by the late 19th century limited immigration from many parts of world and encouraged immigration from Europe. Meanwhile, land was abundant in the early 19th century, leading to relatively high wages and a labor shortage. Yet, by the turn of the 20th century, industrialization had decreased the need for labor in agricultural sectors, while unions began to become popular, indicating a trend away from labor shortage and towards poor working conditions and poverty for many workers. The formation of unions, of course, was a response to these conditions.
With poverty increasing by the end of the 19th century, there was a recognized need for poverty alleviation or at least for providing for the impoverished who often lacked sufficient food and shelter (Ehrenreich, 2014). In the late 19th century and early 20th century, labor and other social movements were beginning to gain traction. Yet, politically, many of these movements and their leaders were required to wait decades before legislative changes too place. Thus, there was a need for responses to poverty and other social ills that governments were not adequately responding to. This is where the social worker could make an impact. Social workers both helped address poverty directly by providing food and finances for impoverished families and tried to address the underlying causes of poverty by researching such causes.

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There were, therefore, two distinct roles played by social workers in the 19th and 20th centuries in helping impoverished families. The first role concerns direct help to impoverished families and was the primary role of social workers in the mid- and late-19th century. In this role, social workers targeted nearby impoverished families by providing them with food and finances. This approach can be characterized as being neighborhood-by-neighborhood and was rarely national or even regional. Social workers tended to help those people who lived close to them or whom they knew. The second role of social workers at this time was to attempt to better understand why poverty levels were as high as they were. They, thus, approached poverty from almost a sociological standpoint, attempting to trace the origins of poverty in their social structures, rather than attempting to understand why particular people were impoverished as psychologists and other would later do. The role of the social worker as researcher was much more prevalent in the 20th century than in the 19th century, especially before other disciplines arose in the mid- and late-20th century.

Leaders and Organizations
The U.S. Settlement House Movement was an important movement with many prominent members, including many social workers in the late 19th century who helped impoverished individuals new to areas (Ehrenreich, 2014). Keep in mind, much of the land in the U.S. was unsettled in the early 19th century. Consequently, by the late 19th century, much of the land in the U.S. was only recently settled, meaning that there were high labor demands for short periods of time. Yet when these labor demands were met, laborers had little power and the competition shifted from businesses competing for laborers to laborers competing for the few remaining open jobs. This drove the price of wages down by the 19th century, while settlers were still coming to the newly settled lands. There was a strong need for settlement houses in which social workers could assist the impoverished. Settlement houses had sprung up in Europe in the late 19th century and settlement houses in the U.S. soon followed.

Among the most prominent social workers in the U.S. Settlement House Movement was Jane Addams who focused heavily on the alleviation of poverty through short-term solutions such as providing impoverished families with finances and long-term solutions such as helping to educate impoverished families and connect them with health services (Ehrenreich, 2014). Jane Addams personifies the first role discussed in the previous section of social workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The second role may, then, be personified by Dr. Flexner who led a movement towards the solidification of social work as a discipline with its own goals, approaches, and theories. Organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers and the American Association of Hospital Social Workers were established in the mid-20th century and helped establish social work as a discipline. Such organizations, as well as others, also helped bridge the gap that was forming between social work as a theoretical discipline and the social worker, as an application of such a discipline.

Historical Period Comparison
Social work in the 19th century was extremely localized (Ehrenreich, 2014). Only by the very end of the 19th century did regional and national social work movements gain traction. Otherwise, social work were instances in which typically middle-class individuals volunteered to improve the lives of those in their areas. To help alleviate poverty, social workers typically provided for those within in a close distance to them or whom they knew. Compared to today, social work was highly fragmented in the 19th century. By the 20th century as social work organizations were being established, social work become much more organized, though not nearly to the degree that it is today.

A strong motivation for social workers to seek to alleviate or even eliminate poverty came from then humanist notion of universal human rights. Humanism has a long history and has remained largely relevant throughout history since the Renaissance (Donnelly, 2013). Under humanism, the unique qualities of humans are stressed, which can help individuals recognize when other humans are suffering and can encourage social workers to help them, including through the alleviation of poverty. In the middle of the 20th century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established by the U.N. (Ife, 2012). This declaration explicates economic and social rights, though is not specific about all of them. In addition, the declaration explicates rights to well-being, such as adequate food, water, and shelter. Poverty makes it much more difficult for individuals to provide food, water, and shelter for themselves. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encourages organized attempts to alleviate poverty (Donnelly 2013).

Critical Reflection
Poverty is a social ill that increases crime and leads to people being unable to take care of themselves. This research project has brought to light just how disorganized social work as in the mid-19th century. Yet, such disorganization does not mean that social workers were unsuccessful in their efforts to combat poverty and other social ills. Specifically, social workers at the local level appeared to have made a significant impact on the lives of many impoverished families, especially in light of the low demand for labor by the late-19th century and the large number of immigrants and domestic settlers entering new lands. The organization of social work led to more regional and national programs and movements to alleviate poverty, which of course could make greater impacts for more people than localized and individual efforts. It is much easier to appreciate the tremendous gains that social work as a discipline has had in the past century. What started from individuals recognizing a human rights issue, poverty, to social work organizations and educational programs, the field has grown tremendously in the past century.

  • Donnelly, J. (2013). Universal human rights in theory and practice. Cornell University Press.
  • Ehrenreich, J. H. (2014). The altruistic imagination: A history of social work and social policy in the United States. Cornell University Press.
  • Ife, J. (2012). Human rights and social work: Towards rights-based practice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Mullaly, B., & Mullaly, R. P. (2010). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege: A critical social work approach. Oxford University Press, USA.