Social Work & the Modern American Family

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There’s no question that Americans – and family arrangements – are more diverse today than ever before. Children are more likely to live with single or cohabitating parents than in the 1960’s and one in six children lives in a blended family. Other differences affecting the family dynamic include social issues like gender equality and a much higher divorce rate. To serve the modern American family, social workers must learn how to adapt to and address families’ evolving needs and struggles.


To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Rutgers University Master of Social Work program.


An Overview of the Modern Family


Family social workers address myriad issues affecting a family, including poverty, homelessness, divorce, parental incarceration, and abuse.


Poverty & Homelessness

In 2016, 12.7% of the population and 9.8% of families lived in poverty. It was also determined that more females (14%) lived in poverty than males (11.3%), and that 18% of children under 18 were living on poverty. Furthermore, 22% of blacks and 19.4% of Hispanics lived in poverty as opposed to 8.8% of non-Hispanic whites.

According to a January 2017 Point-in-Time report, 553,742 people in the country were experiencing homelessness. This translates to about 17 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.



The percentage of children living with two parents in their first marriage dropped dramatically from 1960 to 2014, from 73% to 46%. The percentage of children living with two parents in remarriage, a single parent, or no parent all increased during that same time frame.



2.7 American children have at least one parent serving a prison sentence. Over 5 million – or one in 14 – have had a parent incarcerated in state or federal prison. Kids whose fathers are incarcerated between their first and ninth birthdays demonstrate more behavioral problems and early juvenile delinquency than their peers.



4 to 7 children die daily due to child abuse and neglect. In 2014, 1,580 children died in these manners. 6.6 million children are referred to child protection agencies each year, and a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds.


Two Approaches: Problem-Focused vs. Strengths-Focused


Social workers’ approaches to serving the family have evolved over the past few decades and centuries.

The first approach is a problem-focused approach. Originally created in the 19th century and further developed by social workers in the 20th century, the approach is distinguished by its view that problems are part of the human condition and that “living is a problem-solving process,” a view that normalized problems. The goal behind this approach was to enhance problem-solving skills rather than support psychological change. The approach is distinguished by spending the first half of the intervention on identifying and evaluating the problem.

Social workers apply this approach by initially discovering a deficiency. After raising public awareness, they advocate for the individuals involved and encourage clients to participate, all while demonstrating the client’s needs. Finally, they advocate for a solution.

The second approach is a strengths-focused approach that assumes humans are resilient and can adapt, and that individuals have knowledge that’s critical to defining their situation. Social workers apply this approach by collaborating with their clients to pinpoint the situation, the desired outcome, and the steps to purse a specific goal. Along the way, social workers may have to encourage clients to define difficult situations and affirm the capabilities. Other methods used to apply the strengths-focused approach to include environmental modification and an approach involving education and money.


Modern Challenges


To better serve the challenges of today’s modern families, social workers should keep in mind several tips and principles. For instance, social workers working with families should understand the family’s identity, honor the family’s skill set, and develop a strategic treatment plan while applying a culturally sensitive perspective and identifying their own personal bias. Social workers working with LGBTQ families, meanwhile, need to avoid making assumptions about a clients sexual identity based on orientation, must understand the difference between gender identity, biological sex, and gender expression, and should empower clients to make decisions that are best for them, free of biases or personal values of social work.


A Career in Family Social Work Today

The 2017 median pay for a social worker is $47,980, and the estimated job outlook for the profession between 2016 and 2026 is 16%, which is much faster than average. Prospective social workers must obtain at least a bachelor’s degree in social work to enter the profession; when they do, they can work in a host of environments, including schools, hospitals, community development corporations, and private practices.



Social workers are on the frontlines today, facing the seriousness of the issues affecting American families. By advocating for awareness, change, and healing, the future of the modern American family may well be in the hands of social workers.