Historical perspective to social work practice


What examples of the history of a particular social problem or construct could you use to illustrate the importance of an historical perspective to social work practice?

The prevalence of false confessions and coerced guilty pleas has received renewed attention, in light of the use of DNA evidence to prove the innocence of persons convicted of serious crimes (Innocence Project, 2011). To date, 289 individuals have been exonerated through post-conviction examination of DNA evidence. Of these, 17 were on death row and 70% are members of a minority group. Allegations that race plays a significant role in wrongful convictions are hard to argue against when the most recent U.S. Census estimates indicate that 72.4% of the populace is Caucasian (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). More to the point, African-Americans represented 62% of the DNA exonerations despite making up only 12.6% of the population. In contrast, Caucasians represented 28.4% of the DNA exonerees. Based on these statistics, African-Americans are 7.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than Caucasians in the United States.

Wrongful convictions have a long history in the United States. A presidential commission published findings in 1931 that revealed police agencies on a national level routinely engaged in coercive and sometimes brutal interrogation methods that frequently resulted in false confessions and guilty pleas (Leo, 1992, p. 38). The victims of the so-called ‘third degree’ methods were frequently poverty stricken, young, and members of minority groups (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, 1931). The third degree methods in widespread use in the United States for the first three decades of the 20th century.

Even though third degree methods had faded from widespread use three decades earlier, the Supreme Court felt the need add additional protections against coerced confessions and guilty pleas in Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) (Cipes, 1966). The Miranda decision not only provided protections against self-incrimination, but it extended these protections to indigents. In 1966, two thirds of those arrested were living in poverty, so the Miranda decision represented a major shift in case law towards protecting the human and civil rights of the poor. The emergence of Innocence Projects since their inception in 1992 therefore represents a continuation of historical efforts to counter the exploitation of the most vulnerable segments of our society by police agencies intent on creating the impression of competency in solving crimes.

What are some historic or contemporary examples that illustrate the intertwining nature of social work and the economy?

The origins of social work have been attributed to the need to counter social malignancies created by a capitalist economy (Finn and Jacobson, 2008, p. 72). The concept of a free market is inherent to capitalism and the fate of day laborers is no exception. For example, an average of 117,000 day-laborers cluster in groups at locations across the United States where prospective employers know to find them (Theodore, Valenzuela Jr., and Melendez, 2009, p. 423). This informal employment market creates a significant imbalance in power between employers and day laborers, which contributes to below poverty wages, extreme job insecurity, and unsafe working conditions. The forces behind this informal arrangement include industrial restructuring, worker dislocation, increased reliance on informal or casual employment arrangements to avoid labor protection laws, the need for a flexible and cheap workforce, and shifts in economic conditions. Importantly, nearly 93% of day laborers in the United States are immigrants and many of these have entered the country illegally.

In response to the prevalence of violations in labor standards, a number of day labor work centers have emerged in the United States since the year 2000 (Theodore, Valenzuela Jr., and Melendez, 2009, p. 425). These centers range in sophistication from a few scattered benches in an otherwise empty parking lot, to a full-service community organization. These day centers are typically supported by a number of organizations, including churches, local government agencies, community organizations, law enforcement, local merchants, and unions. The primary purpose is to provide a hiring hall for day laborers and employers, but English-language classes, emergency services, worker’s rights training, formal job training, and legal assistance may be offered.

One of the primary benefits of these day centers is to eliminate the chaotic interactions that previously took place by putting employers on notice that the transactions are being monitored (Theodore, Valenzuela Jr., and Melendez, 2009, p. 426-433). As one day labor work center worker stated “… we are witnesses to what is happening. We take down the name of the worker [and] & #8230; employer and & #8230; their phone number or license plate number…” This oversight or regulatory activity resulted in increased and standardized wages, fair allocation of jobs, and a mechanism for grievance resolution.

What factors account for the difference between the Charity Organization Societies and the Settlement House Movement?

Charity Organization Societies (COS) framed poverty as an illness that could be passed down through generations (Finn and Jacobson, 2008, p. 74-75). This philosophical approach contrasts with the historical evidence showing that poverty can also be created by social forces. For example, the economic collapse that triggered the Great Depression and the entrenched racist social policies dating from the colonial period. In contrast, the philosophical approach of the Settlement House Movement (SHM) is consistent with this historical record.

The philosophical differences between COS and SHM has a significant impact on how the needs of the poor are addressed. COS organizations distinguished between the worthy and unworthy poor, focused on moral mentorship, advocated an individualized approach (caseworker), and discouraged material aid. SHM organizations, on the other hand, did not discriminate and viewed all poor people as citizens with the same human rights as everyone else. They established community centers in poor neighborhoods and offered group cultural events, classes, and other community activities (group workers). SHM organizations were pro-labor and sought to counter the negative effects of industrialization in a capitalistic society through group reform efforts. In essence, SHM sought to compensate for a society that fostered poverty and COS sought to correct the character defects that lead to poverty.

What factors contributed to the decline of social justice-oriented practice in social works history beginning in the 1920’s?

Organizations that utilized an SHM philosophy tended to frame poverty as the natural outcome of government and corporate pro-industrialization policies (Finn and Jacobson, 2008, p. 79-80). This stance placed SHM and similar organizations in the crosshairs of the ruling elite. For example, a pamphlet commissioned by the War Department outlined feminist and pacifist organizations in an effort to identify subversives promoting the spread of communism. As a result, SHM leaders were characterized as subversives in the early 1920s, long before the rise of McCarthyism. The pamphlet was circulated among the ruling elite and progressive pending legislation was stalled or shelved altogether.

In 1921, the formation of the American Association of Social Workers created a division within the social work profession, beyond the philosophical divisions in terms of caseworkers (COS) and group workers (SHM) (Finn and Jacobson, 2008, p. 81-82). By limiting its membership to only those with advanced degrees, many group workers were marginalized.

In the 1930s, the social reform movement went through a professionalization phase, conferring an increase in social status and the impression of scientific method. However, the more progressive elements in social work claimed this shift merely represented the dominant colonizing influence of industrialization. The result was the loss of funding and social support for the group worker approach and the fostering of a caseworker style of social work. Later, the rise of McCarthyism created a hostile environment for anyone who could be remotely perceived as communist or supporting communist ideals. By its very nature then, group workers and their approach to social issues fell on hard times.

What are some examples in your community that illustrate social work’s engagement with human rights, peace, and citizenship?

The International Rescue Committee (2012) has a number of local organizations that provide services to refugees who have been subjected to torture. In Tucson, Arizona, refugees who have experienced torture could received a furnished residence, rent subsidies, health care coverage, food assistance, English language classes, job training, access to local schools for children, and legal services. In Tucson, three groups were recently cited for littering the desert, as a way to discourage members from providing water to illegal immigrants. These groups, No More Deaths, Tucson Samaritans, and Humane Borders, argued that they were trying to save a few of the hundreds that die every year while attempting to cross the desert from Mexico into Arizona.


Cipes, Robert. (1966 Sep.). Crimes, confessions, and the Court. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 9 Apr. 2012 from www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/flashbks/oj/cipesf.htm.

Finn, Janet L. And Jacobson, Maxine. (2008). Just Practice: A Social Justice Approach to Social Work, 2nd Edition. Peosta, Iowa: Eddie Bowers Publishing.

Innocence Project. (2011). Facts on post-conviction DNA exonerations. The Innocence Project. Retrieved 9 Apr. 2012 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Facts_on_PostConviction_DNA_Exonerations.php#.

International Rescue Committee. (2012). The IRC in Tucson. Rescue.org. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2012 from http://www.rescue.org/us-program/us-tucson-az.

Leo, Richard A. (1992). From coercion to deception: The changing nature of police interrogation in America. Crime, Law and Social Change, 18, 35-59.

National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission). (1931) Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, No. 11. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Roberts, Stephanie and Weathered, Lynne. (2009). Assisting the factually innocent: The contradictions and compatibility of innocence projects and the criminal cases review commission. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 29, 43-70.

The Washington Times. (2010 Mar. 17). Arizona activists cited for leaving water for illegals. WashingtonTimes.com. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2012 from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/mar/17/arizona-activists-cited-leaving-water-illegals/?page=all.

Theodore, Nik, Valenzuela Jr., Abel, and Melendez, Edwin. (2009). Worker centers: Defending labor standards for migrant workers in the informal economy. International Journal of Manpower, 30, 422-436.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Redistricting Data. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 9 Apr. 2012 from http://2010.census.gov/2010census/data/.

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