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24 Dec

The Challenges of Social Work

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The History of Grand Challenges

In 2015 the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) launched an initiative called the Grand Challenges for Social Work.1 Grand Challenges have been used for more than a century across different fields to address significant societal issues. Other Grand Challenges initiatives have included the Grand Challenges for Engineering and the Grand Challenges in Global Health.2

The Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative strives to solve 12 of society's most urgent issues by combining science with social work values, with the ultimate aim of building a more equitable and cohesive society by promoting new, transformative ways of approaching these issues.  

"The focus of [the Grand Challenges] is to generate some intellectual, fiscal, academic, and practice interest around the social problems facing our society," said James Herbert Williams, PhD, MSW, MPA, director of the School of Social Work and Arizona Centennial Professor of Social Welfare Services at Arizona State University and a member of the steering committee of the Grand Challenges Executive Committee.1

According to Williams, the progress on solving these 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work has taken the form of research, policy recommendations, advocacy, curriculum integration and much more. But he views the most important form of progress as the renewed conversation around the issues. Working on the Grand Challenges has created dialogue and discourse throughout the social work field as practitioners across the country work to solve social issues that impact who we are as individuals and as a larger society.

Selecting Grand Challenges

Initially, the AASWSW Executive Committee put out a broad call for ideas and received more than 80 distinct concepts for Grand Challenges. Committee members organized and reviewed these submissions and then sought almost two dozen academic working papers to support this broad group of ideas. The Executive Committee then extracted the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work out of this process.

To be selected, the challenges were required to meet the following criteria:

  • Each challenge had to be important and compelling enough to gain the attention of the broader public
  • Areas represented in the challenge must be able to show meaningful and measurable change within a decade
  • There needed to be scientific data that indicated that the challenge could be resolved
  • The challenges must lend themselves to producing interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Solving the challenge must require meaningful innovation

The Grand Challenges

Together, the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work define a far-reaching agenda that strives to promote improving individual and family well-being, building a stronger social fabric, and creating a just society.2 These challenges include:3

Individual and family well being:

  • Ensure healthy development for all youth: Annually, over six million young people are treated for severe mental, emotional or behavioral issues. Substantial data reveals how to prevent numerous behavioral health problems before they arise.
  • Close the health gap: Upwards of 60 million Americans have inadequate access to basic healthcare while also experiencing the impacts of prejudice, poverty and unsafe conditions that expedite higher rates of illness. Innovative and evidence-based social policies can enhance healthcare and promote extensive improvements in the health of society as a whole.
  • Stop family violence: Assault by parents, intimate partners, and adult children often end in serious injury and even death. Proven interventions can deter abuse, distinguish abuse earlier, disrupt the pattern of violence, or find safe alternatives.
  • Advance long and productive lives: Throughout an individual's life, more robust engagement in education and paid and unpaid productive projects can produce a multitude of advantages, including better health and well-being, greater economic security, and a more active society.

Stronger social fabric:

  • Eradicate social isolation: Social isolation is a silent killer. It's often overlooked but can be as hazardous to health as smoking. Our challenge is to educate the public on this health risk, promote health and human service experts to address social isolation, and support efficient ways to increase social connections and community for individuals of all ages.
  • End homelessness: In the span of one year, almost 1.5 million Americans will endure homelessness for at least one night. Our challenge is to increase proven strategies that have worked in communities across the nation, create new service innovations and technologies, and embrace policies that encourage affordable housing and essential financial security.
  • Create social responses to a changing environment: Climate change and urban development jeopardize health, weaken coping and increase existing social and environmental disparities. An evolving global ecosystem needs transformative social responses: new partnerships, extensive engagement with local populations, and innovations to enhance individual and collective assets.
  • Harness technology for social good: Innovative utilization of modern digital technology offers opportunities for social and human services to touch more people with larger impact, to more strategically target social spending, speed up the growth of effective programs, and deliver a broader array of assistance to more people and communities.

Just society:

  • Promote smart decarceration: The U.S. has the world's largest proportion of inmates. Our challenge is to create a proactive, comprehensive, evidence-based "smart decarceration" procedure that will drastically decrease the number of people who are incarcerated and allow the nation to adopt a more efficient and fair approach to public safety.
  • Build financial capability for all: Almost half of all American households are financially vulnerable, without sufficient savings to cover basic living costs for three months. We can significantly decrease the economic burden and the crippling effects of poverty by embracing social policies that support lifelong income production and safe retirement accounts; increase workforce training and re-training, and give financial literacy and access to quality affordable financial services.
  • Reduce extreme economic inequality: The top 1 percent owns nearly half of the cumulative wealth in the U.S., meanwhile, one in five children live in poverty. We can fix the broad disparity of wealth and income through a myriad of innovative means linked to wages and tax benefits connected with capital gains, retirement accounts and homeownership.
  • Achieve equal opportunity and justice: Historic and current discrimination and injustice blocks access to achievement in education and employment. Addressing racial and social injustices, breaking down stereotypes, dismantling inequality, revealing unfair practices, and affirming the super-diversity of the population will drive this challenge.

How to Participate

Significant progress has been made since the Grand Challenges of Social Work launched four years ago, but the networks still face barriers. Some are unique to the particular Grand Challenge, like the Grand Challenge to create social responses to a changing environment. Many social workers feel there are more immediate issues to contend with, even if they acknowledge the gravity of the problem at hand.1

The best way to get involved with the Grand Challenges of Social work is to join one or more Grand Challenges networks and create discussions. The main key is to engage and connect with fellow social workers to solve these challenges, and to increase cross-competency relationships to help promote the scientific approach and lead the way to a better world in social work.


Come Meet the Challenge

Are you interested in answering the call to solve the Grand Challenges of Social Work? Consider how the online Master of Social Work program at Yeshiva University can provide you with the knowledge, training and network necessary to meet the 12 challenges head on. For more information about this increasingly relevant degree, contact an Admissions Advisor.


1 Retrieved on December 12, 2019, from socialworktoday.com/archive/SO19p16.shtml
2 Retrieved on December 12, 2019, from grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/about/
3 Retrieved on December 12, 2019, from grandchallengesforsocialwork.org/#the-12-challenges