Understanding the 13 Grand Challenges for Social Work

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Adolescent students do schoolwork in a classroom.Society is transforming at a rapid pace and social workers must do the same to provide the best support to their clients. Social work professionals handle circumstances and cases that deal with violence, substance abuse, isolation, inequality and other issues. With experience, proper training and a positive mindset, social workers across the nation have developed strategies for addressing these concerns, but many challenges remain.

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare developed the Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative blending science with the values and principles of social work to create a just and cohesive society. The objective is to foster new, transformative ways of addressing the many key issues that impede social work and societal success. Edwina Uehara, former president of the Society for Social Work and Research, believes this scientific approach will lead the way to a better world in social work.

“Science is the foundation for positive social change,” she said. “We must employ tested methods built on robust data to achieve lasting impact on a scale that makes a profound difference in people’s lives.”

These social work grand challenges might be thought of as a way of focusing the efforts of social work to create new, innovative approaches to the difficulties faced by society. By using scientific methods, Richard Barth, former president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, said these grand challenges can become issues of the past.

“With its deep scientific knowledge base, social work is highly qualified to analyze and intervene to help our society make substantial measurable progress in the next decade on conquering these grand challenges,” he said.

The 13 Grand Challenges for Social Work

The grand challenges facing social work professionals encompass a broad range of issues, from inequities in health care and income to family violence and social isolation.

Understanding each of the grand challenges is crucial for social workers who seek to employ empirically informed interventions to address society’s most pressing issues.

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth

According to a 2022 report from Mental Health America, approximately 15% of youth experienced a recent major depressive episode. Additionally, the organization reports that more than 2.5 million youth in the U.S. have severe depression. Unfortunately, more than 60% of these young people aren’t receiving mental health treatment. Substance misuse is also on the rise, with roughly 4% of youth experiencing a substance use disorder in the past year. With family-focused interventions, social workers can help guide families to prevention programs that can better aid child development and mental health.

2. Close the Health Gap

When families have limited access to health care and are also dealing with discrimination, poverty and living in dangerous environments, the odds of contracting an illness increase drastically. According to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, 9.7% of Americans didn’t have health insurance in 2020. However, with evidence-based social strategies, social workers can help bridge the health care gap and provide effective solutions to families and others in need.

3. Stop Family Violence

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people are abused by their spouse or intimate partner every minute, equating to more than 10 million abuse victims every year. This violence doesn’t only threaten the well-being of its victims but also costs billions in spending for criminal justice. Social, family-focused interventions can help individuals identify abuse early on and prevent it from happening in the future. Like most of the other grand challenges of social work, the key to stopping family violence is to be proactive rather than reactive.

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives

According to the Administration for Community Living, the number of Americans aged 65 and older will grow dramatically over the next few decades, reaching 94.7 million by 2060. As the population of older Americans continues to grow, rates of health-related issues and conditions will also increase. This puts more pressure on health and social services, which makes it critical for social workers to develop interventions for helping the elderly and promoting greater overall health in aging populations.

5. Eradicate Social Isolation

Social isolation is far more dangerous than many would expect. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social isolation has been linked to increased risk of premature death, heart disease and stroke. By educating the public about strategies to promote social interaction, social workers can help isolated individuals improve their overall mental, physical and spiritual health.

6. End Homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were approximately 580,466 homeless individuals in the U.S. in 2020. Over 70,000 of them were veterans and unaccompanied youths. Homelessness can negatively impact individual health in multiple ways, and the effects are often long-lasting. By developing new service innovations and technologies and creating new policies to ensure affordable housing, social workers can help reduce the number of individuals experiencing homelessness.

7. Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment

Climate change and urban development have had an adverse impact on population health. According to The Nature Conservancy, the impacts of climate change strain agricultural systems and contribute to an increase in severe weather events such as storms, floods and wildfires. Helping conserve and protect the Earth is perhaps the biggest of the grand challenges of social work. However, by developing transformative social initiatives that engage communities to take charge, society as a whole can improve.

8. Harness Technology for Social Good

As in many other fields, technology has the power to transform social work, allowing professionals to target their efforts for maximum efficacy. By utilizing technology in creative ways — such as applications designed for case planning, setting up treatment plans and organizing assessments — social workers can provide proper assistance to individuals and communities in need.

9. Eliminate Racism

Although America has come a long way since its founding, it has yet to fully eliminate one of its greatest historical flaws — racism. It’s no secret that the United States has a lengthy history of racism and white supremacy that still plague society. Racial inequality rears its ugly head in a myriad of ways, such as through racist policies, racial bias and discriminatory practices such as redlining. Social work has made considerable progress in the fight for equality and civil rights. To truly eliminate racism, social work must help develop a model that identifies hard evidence and employs practice-based interventions.

10. Promote Smart Decarceration

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there were more than 1.8 million incarcerated people in 2020. The churn of jailed individuals (the number of times people are booked into a facility in a year) is skyrocketing at an alarming rate. By developing evidence-based solutions, social workers can promote smart “decarceration” — the act of removing individuals from institutions — and find effective ways to decrease the number of individuals going to prison, while offering sufficient solutions for overall public safety.

11. Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality

Extreme economic inequality impacts the overall health and well-being of less fortunate families and individuals in need. By developing innovative ways to address tax and wage differences among the elite and the impoverished, extreme economic inequality can be reduced. This can help struggling families and individuals across the nation.

12. Build Financial Capability for All

A recent report from LendingClub (April 2022) revealed that 61% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. By adopting new policies that support income generation and decrease economic hardship, social workers can more effectively serve those who are struggling financially.

13. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice

Prejudice is a barrier that negatively impacts access to education and employment opportunities. By confronting racism, stereotypes and other injustices, the opportunities for everyone to advance in society increase.

Become an Agent of Positive Change

As society continues to change, so will the social work landscape. That’s why it’s critical for social work professionals to further their education. By pursuing a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Nevada, Reno, you can receive the tools to hone your skills in the ever-changing world of social work.
With an MSW, you can navigate social work’s grand challenges and provide effective solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing problems. Start your journey today.

Recommended Readings:

5 Careers in Corrections for MSW Graduates

Homelessness in America: Statistics, Resources and Organizations

How Early Intervention Can Help Solve Childhood Obesity in America


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions

Grand Challenges for Social Work, The Challenges

Lending Club, 61 Percent of U.S. Population Now Lives Paycheck to Paycheck

Mental Health America, The State Of Mental Health In America

National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Statistics

National Health Statistics Reports, Demographic Variation in Health Insurance Coverage: United States 2020:

Prison Policy Initiative, Data Toolbox

The Nature Conservancy, Climate Change FAQs