Social Work’s 12 Grand Challenges

The Grand Challenges of social work are the larger, umbrella topics of social issues that seem almost impossible to solve. For the profession of social work, this list was formulated by some of the best and well-known in the field. Follow the link provided for more information on the specifics talked about with Dr. Richard P. Barth in the 2016 podcast from The Social Work Podcast – You won’t regret it!

In terms of the Grand Challenges, what is the point in creating them? One could say they provide a good baseline of where to really double-down on intervening and change-making. Over time, I do believe we lose sight of our goals if they are not explicitly written out and acknowledged as a whole profession, so it’s beneficial to do so in order to create a more effective plan for tackling these issues that seem ambiguous and untouchable, and perhaps even overlooked in a social worker’s day-to-day. The American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare outlined the specifics of each Challenge, and further detailed the goals of each after a ten-year period. If you’re interested in looking into that, it is a great way to read a more tangible plan with slightly more realistic objectives, with the hope that overtime, those objectives would result in the completion of a Grand Challenge.

In the short list provided below, I will simply go through a brief description of each, based on the American Academy’s description, and state my interpretation or opinions as a BSW student.

1. Ensure healthy development for all youth

The main concern here is in youths’ behavioral health, and how social workers can significantly decrease issues in development through prevention techniques. Behavioral health, I believe, is a good branching term to use in that it includes mental health and substance abuse, of which affect one’s behaviors and interactions with the surrounding environment. Healthy development, as stated in the Challenge, should be a given for all children and teens; Considering the increases in Depression and Anxiety in the upcoming generations, it would be worthwhile to take action in these preventative measures.

2. Close the health gap

Health care has continued to be a controversial political issue, but as social workers, it is difficult to have clients unable to live fulfilling lives due to inability to access care or treatment. With this, it is also important for society as a whole to have a greater understanding of physical health, and how the environment, societal norms, location, finances, and the economy each come into play – Not to mention the already discussed political arena. Here, it appears much of the interventions would be macro-level, though advocacy with individuals and in communities would aid in that effort.

3. Stop family violence

This Grand Challenge really covers all sorts of social issues, including child abuse and maltreatment, and intimate partner violence or domestic violence. Prevention services in relation to this social issue are a necessity, and equally as important is public awareness. “See Something, Say Something,” is a proactive measure that assists in increasing the public taking action. As the first social worker in my family, it has been an uphill battle convincing my family that it is OKAY to report potential child abuse or maltreatment, especially after talking with me (a mandated reporter) and realizing that the situation they witnessed in public could have only been a taste of what a child receives at home. Many people are not comfortable with reporting, and even more just do not know how. Again, public education is a MUST, and most likely a leading reason why abuse and maltreatment is so bad – People don’t recognize the signs, and don’t report because of this ignorance. Well we can do better than that, social workers! Especially when it is for the physical, emotional, psychological, and mental well-being of another human being.

National Child Abuse Hotline: (800) 422-4453

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY for Deaf/Hard of Hearing)

4. Advance long and productive lives

The gerontological population in the United States has been living longer and longer, but at decreasing satisfaction. The numbers may lead one to think, “Wow 100 years, that’s amazing,” but the older person them self, may have been living hopelessly for years on end. With the aging population and older adults, it is necessary that quality of life remains a priority. What is the point of living longer if it only gets worse? This is why I enjoy the inclusion of “productive lives.” Humans inherently find worth and self-esteem with productivity and activities. Rather than being an empty shell, we should increase the joy and fun this population has, because the fact is, we WILL be them someday. Just because you have a few wrinkles does not mean you’re any less deserving of happiness and feeling purposeful.

5. Eradicate social isolation

Social isolation and feeling one has no resources, support, or love can profoundly stunt development of any human being, as well as inhibit the feelings of fulfillment, purpose, and worth. The premise of completely doing away with social isolation would include prevention and education as it is with anything, in addition to the deepening of connections, friendships, and relationships to resources and one’s community. Increasing one’s connectivity to the world around him or her may be what allows that individual to gain a new opportunity that changes his or her life.

6. End homelessness

Homelessness, to me at least, would have been a subcategory to social isolation, but because it is such a vast issue with many branches and developing concerns, it is understandable why it is its very own Grand Challenge. Homelessness in itself reaches veterans, youth who have aged out of foster care, individuals abusing substances, those involved in criminal activity, and a vast lot of other social issues. Tackling homelessness could infiltrate all of these other categories, and in turn, lead to decreased rates in these as well.

7. Create social responses to a changing environment

Changing environment does not only include the social environment and systems, but the actual physical environment in which we live. Issues such as climate change and continuous urban development impact individuals and whole groups of people on a daily basis. In order to see positive developments, it is necessary to keep communities engaged in the ever-changing environment and updated on those changes and effects of such. Moreover, it is beneficial to educate the masses on environmental resources and caring for the physical world as a means to diminish the negative influences of more controllable issues.

8. Harness technology for social good

We are in the digital age, with the constant dings of phone notifications and social media updates. It is with these multitude of platforms, that it has actually never been easier to reach people and get the word out about social work and the many social issues (and Grand Challenges). We, as a profession, have a unique opportunity, to take advantage of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and everything in between to provide awareness to society, as well as slickly utilize prevention techniques through educating the public.

9. Promote smart decarceration

The prison-system has long shown an increase in negative outcomes for incarcerated individuals, of which decrease the likelihood of reform and change of self after being released from prison (if that opportunity occurs). The key word here would be “smart.” Decarceration is not a topic to take lightly, and prisons will never completely disappear, due to the individuals that need to be incarcerated for the safety and well-being of themselves and the general population. Consequences for those who have committed crimes will continue, but more effective programs need to occur in order to see an increase in long-term results and positive societal behaviors. Prolonging stays within prisons that do not provide the counseling, therapy, and tangible HELP those in prison need to experience, does not help society. Raising awareness on the extreme issues and overwhelming disparities observed within prisons would aid in the decarceration process, as well as focus resources on more evidence-based and effective approaches in dealing with and CHANGING criminal behaviors.

10. Reduce extreme economic inequality

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and it is for reasons outside of the control of the low-income individuals. Society has turned its back on those in need, and those with power and money have become greedier and more hostile toward economic equality, as it may seem to them to be a sacrifice on their part. Here, equitable interventions would be beneficial. Though perhaps these would also be the most controversial, seeing as though everyone is generally for EQUALITY, but once someone starts getting more services than others (even though they are worse off), everyone becomes up in arms and pointing fingers. This Grand Challenge calls for a unique change of society’s perspective, as well as the realization and acceptance that poverty is a cycle, and very much uncontrollable.

11. Build financial capability for all

I was slightly surprised this was included after its similar counterpart (#10), especially when only having 12 Grand Challenges. However, I do understand it. It is quite meaningless, as social workers, to decrease economic inequality, and pay and income gaps, when it is only temporary. Long-term results is what we aim for, because that is what will most effectively impact society. The word “build” is also important here. It reminds me of the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We must build, teach, and develop individuals to understand finances, taxes, and how the all of that works and impacts their daily lives. When they learn all of the basics, and perhaps even beyond that, they could potentially grow their income to even greater heights without assistance.

12. Achieve equal opportunity and justice

Though in the modern world, many continue to say this has already been reached, social workers know better. There is still much progress to be made in terms of gender/sex, sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity in relation to employment, income, opportunities, and beneficial and accurate results when utilizing the justice system. Currently, it is under controversy, especially with the increase in sexual harassment and sexual assault and abuse charges. But in this sense, it is also making progress in that individuals who have suffered this specific injustice feel supported enough to take a stand.


**DISCLAIMER: I do not own or am affiliated with the Social Work Podcast or the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare in any way – The content is 100% their’s. I am simply an active and appreciative listener, who wants all of you to grow in the knowledge provided.**

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