Social Work in 2020: What Current Students Should Know about the Field

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Students entering a social work course of study are likely to be planning for graduation in the next few years. As they decide how they want to specialize their studies, they must not only consider the issues currently shaping the industry, but also look ahead to understand how the industry will transform in the future. The year 2020 may not seem far away, but the industry is constantly in flux. In particular, issues that may seem to be lingering in the background of society today can end up in the spotlight down the line. With this in mind, here are a few of the major issues individuals studying social work today should be cognizant of as they prepare for meaningful careers in social work.

Women’s rights

Despite decades’ worth of inroads in women’s rights issues, gender inequality still exists throughout the country; and this issue is coming to a head as the makeup of the American family changes and women take on new roles in society. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union explained that many sectors still face major struggles with gender discrimination, with women often at a disadvantage. Major areas where issues are prevalent include:

  • Employment: Many of the laws surrounding employment still limit protections for women, particularly when it comes to maternity. When combined with potentially discriminatory work policies, these laws create an environment in which women are, at times, completely prevented from working in some sectors or are forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy. Furthermore, wage disparity and job security often exist when returning to work after a pregnancy. The ACLU explained that women in the workplace, on average, earn 78 cents for each dollar earned by men. The disparity is even greater for black women (64 cents) and Latinas (54 cents).
  • Homelessness resulting from violence: A report from Amnesty U.S.A., a nonprofit devoted to providing social justice support to groups facing civil rights challenges, pointed out that issues surrounding gender violence are still prominent in the U.S., a statement that echoes the ACLU’s perspective. Discrimination from police, landlords, and schools is still fairly common for survivors of gender-based violence, the ACLU said. Research from the U.S. Department of Justice found that approximately 25 percent of homeless women are facing homelessness because of violence.
  • Education: Stereotypes about education preferences related to gender are also causing problems, the ACLU found. In many cases, programs are created and funded based on assumptions about the abilities and preferences of boys and girls. More than 1,000 public K-12 schools in the U.S. currently have single-sex education programs in place. The ACLU doesn’t specify the types of programs and strategies that it is highlighting as potentially discriminatory, but its claims are noteworthy because gender stereotyping can be particularly difficult for young people to deal with as many are exploring who they are and need equal opportunities to learn.

A report from Amnesty U.S.A., a nonprofit devoted to providing social justice support to groups facing civil rights challenges, pointed out that issues surrounding gender violence are still prominent in the U.S., a statement that echoes the ACLU’s perspective.

Looking ahead, social workers may face a growing need to support individuals and families in the aftermath of gender-based violence, work in schools to ensure gender equality and to support women who may be facing discrimination due to pregnancy or wage inequality.

Civil rights in the LGBT community

The report from Amnesty U.S.A. highlighted the need for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to receive fair and just treatment. Today, 76 countries still criminalize sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Furthermore, harassment remains common in many nations, including the U.S. This is evidenced in an article from Human Rights Watch that explained LGBT youth are facing high levels of discrimination at school. One parent describes the experience for an LGBT student as “like walking through a hailstorm.”

Because schools play such a dominant and formative role in the lives of children, they can easily have an outsized influence on their persona growth. The Human Rights Watch report explained that LGBT children who are bullied or discriminated against may face considerable physical and psychological risks, potentially causing serious detriment to their education. To some extent, schools have improved in their ability to support the civil rights of LGBT children, as policy and legal gains have pushed many schools in positive directions. The problem is that these efforts happen at an uneven rate and are enforced even more sporadically.

According to the Human Rights Watch, there are many parts of the country where students and teachers must contend not only with a lack of protection from discrimination but with systems that actively prevent them from dealing with discrimination. This problem is particularly acute for transgender or gender non-conforming students, as many states and districts have not adjusted policies and expectations to reflect diversity within the population. These areas of concern are becoming more acute, but many states still have a long way to go in providing civil rights for all students, teachers and staff. In fact, some states have policies that outright restrict teachers and staff from talking about LGBT issues at school. These states are:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

According to Human Rights Watch, policy and legal actions must be taken to create a safe learning and working environment for LGBT individuals in the education system. Some states have begun moving ahead. Twenty states have specific laws in place prohibiting bullying of students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, 21 states have legal protection in place protecting against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Another two states also safeguard against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The legal and policy environments surrounding gender and sexual orientation discrimination in the education system highlight how much progress is still underway in terms of civil rights within the LGBT community, and social workers looking ahead to 2020 can likely expect LGBT rights to continue to be a major area of need moving forward.

New family dynamics

Family care is a major area of emphasis for many social workers. Whether it is ensuring children are safe at home, providing support for parents in the form of child-care referrals? or providing counseling in the aftermath of domestic violence, social workers frequently interact with families and must be prepared to support the shifting demographic. According to Pew Research, the makeup of families in the U.S. is changing quickly. In 1960, approximately 73 percent of children in the U.S. lived with two married parents who were in their first marriage. This statistic refers to those involved in a heterosexual couple. Another 14 percent lived with two married parents, with one or both having remarried at some point. Nine percent of children lived with single parents at the time and 4 percent lived in a household with no parent present. In most cases, a grandparent is taking care of children in these situations.

Fast forward to 2013 and those figures have changed dramatically, and with a consistent curve. Approximately 46 of children lived in households with two married parents in their first marriage. Another 15 percent were in a household with two married parents with one or both having been remarried. Thirty-four percent of children lived in a single-parent household and 5 percent had no parent at home. Accounting for data gathered by Pew Research in 1980, this represents a rise of single-parent households from 9 percent in 1960 to 19 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2013.

The study found that the increase in children living without a parent at home is caused largely by the economic recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s. The report also found that the majority of these children are living with a grandparent.

What this data struggles to account for are same-sex couples who are living together and raising children. Pew Research had serious concerns about data quality regarding this particular demographic and therefore included any related findings with the single-parent household findings. Regardless of some uncertainty in the data, the study shows a clear shift in the makeup of families in the U.S., and social workers need to consider how these new demographics may impact the care needed by parents and children alike.

The aging population

Age demographics in the U.S. are changing as a generally declining birth rate is leading to a significant difference in the size of the elderly and working populations. This presents a major employment challenge because the number of people requiring elder care will be disproportionate to the number of people in the work force able to provide that care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the total fertility rate in the U.S. – a figure that determines the annual birth rate to a hypothetical group of 1,000 women – dropped 12 percent from 2007 through 2013 and rose just 1 percent from 2013 to 2014. A total fertility rate of 2,100 births per 1,000 women was considered as the necessary level in which one generation can replace itself for the period of 1990 through 2014. The actual TFR in the U.S. for that period dropped from 2,081 to 1,862.5.

As of 1990, the fertility rate in the country was barely keeping up with the need to replace the population each generation, and that figure has declined significantly in the years since. If population replacement does not occur, the problem of caring for older generations becomes critical. The National Association of Social Workers identified the acute need to improve support for older adults as a major national issue heading into a new presidential administration. Any political issues aside – the report focuses on key policy needs, not politics – the NASW explained that the growing elderly population is also increasingly diverse from a demographic perspective, creating a situation in which care requirements can vary substantially within the elderly community. Key needs highlighted by the NASW include ramping up evidence-based health programming, supporting informal caregivers and reducing poverty among the aging population.

These are all issues that will touch the social work community in a major way, and individuals training for a future in the sector must consider how the rapidly aging population will impact their career development.

Preparing for 2020 and onward

Aspiring social workers have a lot to consider as they determine the best career pathway for them. Selecting a program with a comprehensive curriculum can go a long way in giving students the breadth of education and experiences needed to inform career decisions. The Rutgers University Master of Social Work program is among the best public universities in the nation. The RU MSW program offers the flexibility of online learning options and can help expose students to varied areas of study within the social work field as they prepare to solve the problems of tomorrow.

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