Understanding The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

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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 are introduced to cases centered on violence, substance abuse, isolation, inequality and more. With experienced, proper training and a positive mindset, social workers across the nation have developed strategies for addressing these issues, but many challenges remain.

The American Academy of Social Work & Welfare developed The Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative that blends science with social work values and principles to create a just and cohesive society by fostering new, transformative ways of addressing these issues. Edwina Uehara, 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… 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.”


“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.”

The Grand Challenges might be thought of as a way of focusing social work’s efforts to create new, innovative approaches to the difficulties faced by society. By using scientific methods, Richard Barth, 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.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the 12 Grand Challenges and consider how social workers might employ empirically informed interventions:

two kids in a class writing on paper

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 1 in 10 children has a serious mental health issue. Additionally, in 2011, youth depression in the U.S. was at 8.5 percent. By 2014, it heightened to a rate of 11.1 percent. Unfortunately, 80 percent of these children are left with limited or insufficient treatment. 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 but are also dealing with discrimination, poverty and living in dangerous environments, the chance of contracting an illness increases drastically. With evidence-based social strategies, social workers can help bridge the healthcare gap and provide effective solutions to families in need.

3. Stop Family Violence

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of 20 people living in the U.S. are physically abused by their partners every 10 minutes. That’s 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.

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the aging population will grow exponentially between 2012 and 2050. In fact, the population of adults aged 65 and older is expected to grow to 83.7 million, which is almost double its estimated population of 2012 — 43.1 million. As the aging population continues to grow, the risk of more health-related issues and conditions occurring increases. 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 can be more harmful than expected, according to Psychology Today, leading to actual physical pain and hormone imbalance. By educating the public with ways to successfully promote social interaction, social workers can help lonely individuals improve overall mental, physical and spiritual health.

6. End Homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homeless, there are approximately nearly 549,928 people who are homeless on any given night in the U.S. (January 2016). Homelessness can negatively impact individuals’ health in multiple ways, and the effects can last. By developing new service innovations and technologies and creating new policies to ensure affordable housing, the rate of homeless individuals can drop significantly.

7. Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment

Due to climate change and urban development, the health of the earth and its individuals is devolving. By creating transformative social initiatives that engage communities to take charge, society as a whole can improve.

8. Harness Technology for Social Good

Living in the digital age, technology makes a large impact on many of life’s tasks. By utilizing such technologies 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. Promote Smart Decarceration

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, people go to jail over 11 million times every year. The churn of jailed individuals 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.

10. Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality

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

11. Build Financial Capability for All

Economic hardship reigns in the U.S. Many households live paycheck-to-paycheck at best. By adopting new policies that support income generation and decrease economic hardship, social workers more effectively serve struggling families.

12. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice

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

As society continues to change, so will the social work landscape. That’s why it’s critical for prospective professionals to further their education. By pursuing the Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno, you can receive the tools you need to craft your skills in the ever-changing world of social work. With an MSW, you can navigate the Grand Challenges and provide efficient solutions to some of the nation’s most challenging problems.


Suggested Readings

The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

How Social Workers Improve The Quality of Life in Nursing Homes

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Social Work




American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Ensure healthy development for all youth/

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Family Focused Preventative Interventions

National Center for Children in Poverty

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Close the health gap/

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Guest Editorial

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Stop Family Violence

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Advance long and productive lives

Psychology Today
National Alliance to End Homelessness

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – End Homelessness

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Create social responses to a changing environment

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Promote smart decarceration/


Prison Policy Initiative

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Reduce extreme economic inequality

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Build financial capability for all/

American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare – Achieve equal opportunity and justice

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Mental Health America