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the large global trends and conditions:
We have entered a new era defined by unprecedented access and speed in information technology that enables millions of individuals to share information with millions of others. This signals greater interconnections among people than has ever been imagined in the past, creating fertile ground for innumerable social innovations for positive change. It is not overstating to say that we live in a time of emergence of new social worlds of social media, social networks, and other social engagements via internet technology. These greatly increase the potential impact of
many forms of education, training, and intervention. Social work’s historical effort to reach underserved populations has new tools and pathways.
Globalization Greater interaction among the world’s peoples, economies, cultures, and religions are creating a whole new set of advancements, along with new tensions and conflicts. Going forward, human conditions will be no less challenging and complex than in the industrial era, and solutions to a whole new set of globalized problems will have to be invented.
Rising inequality is a hallmark of our era. Globalization and the shift to information-based economies are causing economic and social strains around the planet. Competition in global labor markets puts downward pressure on wages, and an increasing portion of global economic returns are claimed by wealthy owners of capital. With inequality rising in most countries, there is a major question regarding how people in the bottom half of society will be able to lead stable lives. This is a humanitarian question, and also goes to the heart of opportunity and participation.
Social work may be redefined and re-dedicated to meet these challenges.
Increased Interactions Across Nations, Races or Ethnicities, Religions, and Cultures As indicated above, increasing interconnections continue to generate greater contacts and mixing of peoples who are different from one another. Unfortunately, the historical record in human interactions is often troubled. Humans evolved in small bands and we have a deeply rooted ingroup vs. out-group nature (Efferson et al., 2008; Fu et al., 2012). We are not “wired” for full appreciation of many different kinds of people, and this significant limitation underlies conflicts, oppressions, destructions, and deaths. Fortunately, the basic in-group vs. out-group nature of humans is highly malleable. Humans can and do generate multiple and flexible in-groups that add positive value. These flexible groups include clubs of all kinds, professional associations, sports teams, political parties, and topical interest groups. The potential for increased tolerance, cooperation, and celebration of differences appears to be almost unlimited. How can we accentuate this positive value? Social innovations in diversity will be fundamental to problem solving and productive integration.
The scientific community is in strong agreement that global warming is real, caused primarily by humans, and greatly threatens environmental stability (Cook et al. 2013). The century ahead will be critical regarding how much warming can be avoided, and how humans and other species are able to adapt to climate change. Focusing on the social issues, the dismal historical record is that the most disadvantage people pay the highest price for climate change in terms of lost Working Paper
SOCIAL IS FUNDAMENTAL: INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT FOR GRAND CHALLENGES IN SOCIAL WORKlivelihoods, lost homes, and damaged health (Park & Miller, 2006). Social work has key roles to play in advocating for reductions in global warming, promoting “environmental justice,” and creating positive adaptations to inevitable changes in climate (Kemp, 2011).
We turn next to specific challenges within the U.S. context, though many of these are also global
Aging Populations One key theme is that humans will live longer and have healthier life spans, resulting in a “next age,” often several decades in length, after childhood and adulthood (Kinsella & He, 2008). This next lifespan age—sometimes called a “third age”—is yet to be fully defined. It will present unusual challenges for families and communities in the design of living arrangements, economic support, health care, transportation, and social services. At the same time, older adulthood will become a period of more active engagement in the society and economy, more than simply withdrawal into “retirement,” which was the creation of the industrial era. To an extent unimaginable today, a large proportion of older adults will remain engaged, active, and productive (Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, & Sherraden, 2001).
Well-Being of Children
The United States is underinvested in the development of children (Heckman & Masterov, 2007). American children have poverty rates among the highest in the western world and, relatedly, low literacy skills (Merry, 2013). Since 2007, childhood poverty has increased in 49 of 50 states (Mattingly et al., 2011). At the same time, the value of cash assistance to families has fallen in real terms. Indeed, it is now at least 20 percent below 1996 levels in 37 states (Floyd & Schott, 2013). This is not simply an issue of decency and fairness. In this most fundamental respect, the United States is not investing enough resources in childhood to ensure a successful national future (Danziger & Waldfogel, 2000). This significant challenge presents an opportunity to re-shape and dramatically energize our future by investing in the well-being of children.
Racial Separation in Residence and Schooling
Notwithstanding global trends toward racial and cultural integration, U.S. domestic conditions are marked by sharp racial/ethnic segregation in residence and schooling. Segregation of residence may be the U.S.’s most fundamental social challenge, because so many things follow from it—including educational success, employment opportunities, income, and wealth accumulation (Sharkey, 2013). People of color disproportionately live in “inner city” neighborhoods, in rural enclaves, and on tribal lands. We have an opportunity in the 21st century to do far better, and to reap the social benefits of greater integration, equality, and opportunity (Robinson, 2010).
Unemployment and Disconnection Related to rising inequality are massive changes in demand for labor in advanced economies.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the employment to population ratio in the United States has fallen from 64.6% to 58.6%, and appears resistant to meaningful improvement (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2013). Long-term unemployment exceeding one year now describes 27% of the U.S. unemployed. Many adults who would like to be working cannot find employment, and U.S. policy has insufficiently focused on creating jobs. This stands in stark contrast to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when government engaged in active labor market policy, to create millions of jobs and civil service positions in the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and other programs. As Harry Hopkins, the great social worker and aide to President Roosevelt, realized at the time, jobs are not only about having income, but also about having purpose and meaning. Jobs nurture confidence and self-worth, and they build stronger communities (Hopkins, 2009). Today, large portions of the U.S. population—especially among people of color and the young—are unemployed and increasingly disconnected from expectations, living patterns, and rewards of mainstream society. These circumstances have very high economic and social costs. New strategies for employment and engagement in society will be essential.
The United States has become an incarceration society. Over a 30 year period, the U.S. prison population increased 500%. We have locked up more people per capita than any other economically advanced nation (Drucker, 2013). Moreover, the people in U.S. jails and prisons are disproportionately people of color. The American way of mass incarceration is more destructive than many human diseases, because concentrating people who are experiencing adversities into mass settings is exactly what social work and public health have shown to be the least effective way to control the transmission of problems. Moreover, with severe strains in federal, state, and local budgets following the Great Recession, it is clear that mass incarceration is not only ineffective, but also unaffordable. America is beginning to de-incarcerate its prison population (Goode, 2013), though how rapidly and significantly this will occur is yet to be determined. This impending change will create huge challenges, as well as opportunities to build a better society and to expand strategies of reintegrating former prisoners back into families, education and job training, and stable and productive lives.
Access and Effectiveness in Health Care
Heath care policy and services are in transformation. Arguably, no other area of social or economic policy so greatly challenges the nation. The rapid growth in health expenditures—now approaching 18% of GDP in the United States, is not delivering good value, and is very likely not sustainable. In a recent comparative survey among 20 economically advanced countries, the Commonwealth Fund (2013) reports that 37% of American adults went without recommended care, compared to 4% in Britain, and 6% in Sweden. Americans waited longer for care and filled Working Paper
SOCIAL IS FUNDAMENTAL: INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT FOR GRAND CHALLENGES IN SOCIAL WORKout more health-related paperwork. And nearly a quarter of Americans had health bills that were difficult to pay, a much higher proportion than in any other country in the study. Moreover, comparing social vs. health expenditures, the ratio averages 2.0:1 among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, but is only 0.8:1 in the United States. In the OECD, more social spending is also associated with better health outcomes. In the United States, “health spending is crowding out social and educational spending” (Kaplan, 2013). In this regard, social work can play a major role. Social conditions and health, behavioral health, primary care, community-based care, and aging in place will be wide open for innovation.
Anticipated shortages of personnel in behavioral healthcare will create much greater demand for social services and opportunities for change.
Modern economies have become highly financialized. Ordinary people, and even the poorest people, cannot live efficiently in the absence of sound financial services. But financial services are not always available or affordable, and the poor can be victims. Relatively new conditions between governmental regulators and financial institutions have contributed to financial instability and greater inequality for millions of Americans. In particular, there is a growing gap in access to credit and the ability to accumulate wealth, which are necessary for individuals to invest in education, homes, enterprise, and otherwise achieve a foothold in the competitive economy. Social workers historically have played a role in financial affairs of households, and this professional capacity is re-emerging with new initiatives in asset building and financial capability (Birkenmaier, Sherraden, & Curley, 2013).
The trends described above have increased social and economic pressures on vulnerable populations, including the physically disabled or mentally ill; those who are targets of discrimination by race/ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation; immigrants; and the urban and rural poor. These groups are more at risk in a context of income and wealth disparities and financialization. They are still more vulnerable when excluded from advances in information technology, encounter costly health care, and face barriers to educational opportunity. The social work profession—and all of society—faces the challenge and opportunity to re-build social commitment to vulnerable groups, create valued roles for all members of society, and in doing so, promote human growth and development and enrich the social fabric that distinguishes us as humans.
This is a sobering list of the conditions that form the context for the Grand Challenges initiative.
We do not mean to overlook or understate. We could have been more complete in identifying opportunities for change in the social context (this comes later in the “grand challenges”).
Perhaps the above dozen or so conditions lay out the key features on the social landscape, and can serve as context and, indeed, a rationale for the specification “grand challenges” going forward.
The Grand Challenges initiative in Social Work aims for changes that meaningful and for which measurable progress can occur within a decade, and much greater progress across several decades. Each challenge must generate interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaborations if it is to lead to sustainable social innovation. Solutions to challenges will require creative and bold innovations that build on evidence and past success. Although these are daunting expectations, social work has a proud history of successfully responding to major challenges.
American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. (2013). Grand Accomplishments in Social Work. (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative, Working Paper No. 2) Baltimore, MD: Author.
Barth, R.P. (2013). Announcement on Invited Article: Grand Challenges for Social Work.
Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research. Retrieved from www.jsswr.org/announcement/view/273.
Birkenmaier, J., Sherraden, M.S., & Curley, J. (Eds.) (2013). Financial capability and asset building: Research, education, policy, and practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brekke, J.S. (2012). Shaping a science of social work. Research on Social Work Practice, 22, 455-464.