Last updated June 18, 2015
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Elizabeth F. Hoffler and Elizabeth J. Clark

Social Work Matters

The Power of Linking Policy and Practice

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

—Jane Addams

This book is titled Social Work Matters for a variety of reasons. Social work matters because the profession is absolutely necessary for a healthy society. The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. As we continue to deal with the consequences of a devastating economic recession, the looming fear of instability, and a government that is no longer able to meet the needs or fulfill the promises made to millions of people at risk of falling through the cracks, the social work profession continues to pick up the pieces of a broken system and determine how to make that system whole again.

To this end, social justice is the fuel that drives social workers and is what sets social work apart from other professions. Social justice is defined as “an ideal condition in which all members of a society have the same basic rights, protections, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits. . . . Social justice entails advocacy to confront discrimination, oppression, and institutional inequities” (Barker, 2003, pp. 404–405).

Social workers work with individuals, families, communities, and systems and can be found in almost every corner of our lives, including schools, prisons, hospitals, mental health clinics, addiction recovery centers, skilled nursing facilities, hospices, private practice, and state and federal government, to name but a few. They form the front line and make up the threads of society’s social safety net. Social workers are first responders to natural disasters, are officers in the military, and are members of the U.S. Congress. They own their own businesses and work in and run foundations, nonprofits, and corporate organizations and companies throughout the country.

The profession of social work has existed for over a century, since its founding in settlement houses like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. Social workers—like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Dorothy I. Height, and Whitney M. Young Jr.—have been key architects on groundbreaking social initiatives like civil rights legislation, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid and Medicare and provide the majority of mental health services throughout the country. Social workers assist people when they face emotional, difficult, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These social work matters are the issues that our nation struggles with and are challenges that we must overcome. They include poverty, inequality, insecurity, fear, violence, trauma, loss, and pain. Our world would be radically different without the contributions of social workers.

The idea for this book emerged, in part, from recognition of the breadth and depth of social work services just described. We created the book with two goals in mind. First, we wanted to portray what social workers accomplish in different fields on a daily basis. The work of social workers can seem overwhelming in the variety of positions they hold, the tasks that they accomplish, and the intensity and gravity of the work that they do. The profession is often misunderstood and undervalued. This does a disservice to the profession as well as to clients and society as a whole.

Second, this publication seeks to link the traditional, direct practice side of social work with the critical policy and advocacy components of the profession. The book explores the transition from micro-level service, working directly to improve the lives of individuals, to the macro-level work of altering our social systems and institutions through broad social action and advocacy.

Social workers have advocated for social justice and promoted equality since the founding of the profession. In the Encyclopedia of Social Work, Schneider, Lester, and Ochieng (2008) stated that “the term advocacy was first evidenced in the [1917] Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections” (p. 61). Furthermore, “social work advocates fought for basic human rights and social justice for oppressed, vulnerable, and displaced populations” (Schneider et al., 2008, p. 61). The Social Work Dictionary defines advocacy as “the act of directly representing or defending others. . . . championing the rights of individuals and communities through direct intervention and empowerment” (p. 11).

Advocacy is the cornerstone on which social work is built. It is so important that it is framed in three sections of the NASW (2008) Code of Ethics. Advocacy for individuals, communities, and systems is not just a suggested activity for social workers—it is a requisite. Social workers are ethically obligated to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources . . . they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully” (NASW, 2008, p. 27). The Code of Ethics further notes that “social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions” (NASW, 2008, p. 27). Without advocacy, there would be no social work profession (Clark, 2009). Social workers acquire resources for clients, organize communities for causes, and coordinate grassroots advocacy campaigns.

In this book, we explore the direct connection of practice to policy and the ethical obligation of social workers to understand and foster the relationship between the two. Each of the contributors provides a personal narrative that was, or could have been, influenced by the application of a particular policy or piece of legislation. They provide analyses of broad implications and describe the importance of advocacy at organizational, local, state, or federal levels to the achievement of maximum client opportunity and benefit. In short, they illustrate the intricacies of the linkage of practice and policy.

Although the majority of social workers practice directly with clients, determining how to achieve successful outcomes on an individual basis, their understanding of the challenges facing their clients puts them in an excellent position to advocate for broader social change. Social workers with practice experience make excellent advocates because they understand clearly the challenges facing their clients, including clients’ presenting problems, holistic environmental factors, and client strengths that can be drawn on so as to help them.

At this time of incredible demand for social work services, combined with ever-diminishing resources, the professional role of advocate is more critical than ever before. The chapters of this book illustrate what social workers do each day to improve the lives of others and the macro-level action that can be taken to help systems better serve those for whom they were created. We hope this book increases public understanding of the value of social work services, and we hope that it inspires all helping professionals to recognize the potential they have to create positive change.

Social worker Dorothy I. Height (1990) once said, “We hold in our hands the power to shape, not only our own, but the nation’s future” (p. 75). Height’s social work colleague and fellow civil rights advocate Whitney M. Young Jr. said during his tenure as NASW president,

There is a lot to tell the public. The important thing now is that we can begin saying something as persistently as we can. The media and the government, regardless of their reasons, cannot continue to disregard the findings of current research and the knowledge of thousands of social workers who know as much or more as the so called experts on the social problems draining the spirit and resources of this nation. (Young, 1971, p. 7)

We wholeheartedly believe that social work is not just “value added,” but is necessary to ensure that our country continues to provide opportunity, ensure equity, and help millions of individuals as they seek to fulfill their potential, whether that means battling addiction, escaping poverty, caring for loved ones, accessing education, or overcoming a variety of life’s obstacles. As you read these narratives, you will understand that social workers are the professionals to help them do just that.


Barker, R. L. (2003). The social work dictionary (5th ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Clark, E. J. (2009). A broader vision for the social work profession. Retrieved from

Height, D. I. (1990). 1990–2035: 45 years from today. Ebony, 46, 75.

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Schneider, R. L., Lester, L., & Ochieng, J. (2008). Advocacy. In T. Mizrahi & L. E. Davis (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social work (20th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 59–65). Washington, DC, and New York: NASW Press & Oxford University Press.

Young, W. M. (1971, March). From the president. NASW News, 16, 7.