The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

12 Challenges in Social WorkMake the most impact in the areas of greatest need

The profession of social work aims to help people and advance the values of self-determination, diversity, human dignity, and social justice. But given today’s changing priorities and social issues, how can you focus your social work career on the areas of greatest need—with opportunity for professional growth?

In fall 2016, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare released its 12 Grand Challenges. It’s a “dynamic social agenda” for our profession’s work with individuals, families, and society. Learn how your current skills and interests fit in—and where to focus for future growth. And link through to delve deeper into a specific Academy challenge.

The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

1. Close the health gap

More than 60 million Americans are hindered by inadequate access to care and the higher illness rates that come with poverty, discrimination, and dangerous environments. To close the health gap, America needs strategists to develop new interventions, researchers to assess them, community practitioners to take these interventions into the field (and make sure they’re culturally attuned), and policy experts to advocate for structural change.

2. Ensure healthy development for all youth

Among young people, more than six million receive treatment each year for severe—and often preventable—mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. Expertise in psychopathology, psychopharmacology, child- and adolescent-centered social work, and more will be key to prevent behavioral problems before they emerge and ensure healthy development for all youth.

3. Stop family violence

Sadly, domestic violence remains a cause of injury and even death for too many Americans. Stopping family violence requires knowledge in areas such as abuse, trauma, and conflict mediation, as well as the inner dynamics and external experience of family systems.

If you seek to work with clients directly in the areas above, consider coursework in specific areas such as narrative therapy, motivational interviewing, and use of the creative arts in practice.

4. End homelessness

Nearly 1.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year. By expanding proven community programs, innovating new services and technologies, and advocating for affordable housing and basic income security, social workers can help end homelessness.

5. Eradicate social isolation

Social workers can also play an important role in eradicating social isolation, shown to be as dangerous to health as smoking. Think public education, industry outreach, and the development of new strategies for promoting social connections.

6. Advance long and productive lives

But how can social work advance long and productive lives for individuals amid greater longevity, workforce automation, and more? Here’s where policy experts and gerontology and aging specialists fit in, finding ways to improve health and well-being, connect people to purpose and financial security, and create a more vibrant society.

In all of these areas, a social worker’s understanding of human behavior and the social environment comes to the fore. Supplement this knowledge with education in how social policies are funded and how they affect the lives of people, organizations, and communities, as well as training in organization administration and supervision.

Meanwhile, climate change and urban development are transforming communities worldwide —threatening health, deepening inequities, and posing a profound risk to human well-being.

7. Create positive social responses to a changing environment

Through research, advocacy, and evidence-based practice, social workers can engage with local communities and develop strategies that create positive social responses to a changing environment.

8. Harness technology for social good

This includes harnessing technology for social good. Through the knowledge gained in practicums, research and community-based strategies, social workers can deliver valuable guidance on innovation. Picture yourself speeding up program development and impact, getting resources to more people in need, more effectively.

What’s useful for focusing your career in this direction? Skills in community- and coalition-building and knowledge of organizational change theory.

9. Promote smart decarceration

After 40 years of near-exponential growth, mass incarceration in America has become financially, socially, and politically unsustainable. You as a social worker can help promote smart decarceration by educating people on the subject, administering programs that address incarceration’s profound effects on people in poverty, racial minorities, and people with behavioral health disorders. And as a clinician-activist, you can advocate for a more effective and socially just approach to public safety.

10. Achieve equal opportunity and justice

This is just one area in which social workers can help marginalized groups achieve equal opportunity and justice. Research, advocacy, and evidence-based social work have the power to work on a broader scale as well—addressing racial and social injustices in education and employment, deconstructing stereotypes, and exposing unfair practices.

11 & 12. Reduce extreme economic inequality and build financial capability for all

Socioeconomics is a very important part of the social justice equation, especially with one in five children living in poverty and nearly half of all U.S. households considered financially insecure. Social worker professionals can help reduce extreme economic inequality and build financial capability for all, evaluating policy related to wages, tax benefits, homeownership, and education access and advocating for social policies that reduce economic hardship, encourage lifelong income generation, and address poverty’s debilitating effects.

Valuable perspectives

Social workers like you bring valuable perspectives to complex, critical social justice challenges like the 12 Grand Challenges. To develop your career in this direction, strengthen your background in social welfare policy, programs, practice, and ethics, as well as your legal and ethical grounding in human services and vulnerable populations. Skills in policy analysis and community organizing can also be helpful and career-propelling. Our online M.S. in Social Work program guide can explain more:


If you are interested in pursuing your Master’s in Social Work, or even if you’re simply interested in discussing the program, please reach out to an Enrollment Counselor at (207) 221-4143 or via email at

Interested in applying to UNE Online? The sooner you apply, the sooner you hear back. Fill out an online application today at We look forward to hearing from you!

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