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Resources on Social Work History

Social welfare was sparked by the social conditions that were created in the 19th century, after the Civil War, and by the industrial revolution. While charity work has always existed throughout history backed by religion, the scientific approach towards caring for those who needed help started in the 1800’s. Social work applies social theory and research to improve the lives of those in society who need help. It uses other social sciences such as psychology, psychiatry, and sociology to provide answers to basic societal problems such as hunger, homelessness, limited education, discrimination, and abuse of various types (domestic, elder, child, substance, and sexual to name a few).

After the Civil War, many people immigrated to America, and many freed slaves moved to the cities looking for work. Poverty and other urban problems grew. Institutions like almshouses, orphanages, and settlement houses were built to help with basic needs such as health care, food, housing, and education. Along with poverty, other problems increased such as dangerous work conditions, child labor, discrimination against minorities, and long work weeks. Social Workers were the driving force behind many public policies that have changed the way society reacts to these problems. These policies include unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, minimum wage, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. There is also better treatment of those with disabilities, and mental illness, and civil rights are granted to all people regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

The Dewey Library has a robust collection of resources tracing the historical origins of social work in the United States.For more detailed information about the history of social welfare in America, check out some of the following sources in Dewey Library.

The following reference books can be found in Dewey Library:


  • Social Work Dictionary by Robert L. Barker - Dewey Library / Reference : HV 12 B37 2003

  • Social Work Almanac by Leon H. Ginsberg – Dewey Library / Reference : HV 90 G53 1995

  • The Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America edited by John M. Herrick and Paul H. Stuart - Dewey Library / Reference : HV 12 E497 2005

The following books can be found in Dewey Library:

  • Milestones in the Development of Social Work and Social Welfare by Robert L. Barker - Dewey Library / HV 40 B22 1999

  • Newsletter – Social Welfare History Group by the Social Welfare History Group - Dewey Library / Periodical : HV 16 S63X

  • Charity and Mutual Aid in Europe and Northern America Since 1800 edited by Bernard Harris and Paul Bridgen – Dewey Library / HV 51 C43 2007

  • The Locus of Care : Families, Communities, Institutions, and the Provision of Welfare Since Antiquity edited by Peregrine Horden and Richard Smith - Dewey Library / HV 51 L63 1998

  • With Us Always : a History of Private Charity and Public Welfare edited by Donald T. Critchlow and Charles H. Parker - Dewey Library / HV 16 W58 1998

  • From Poor Law to Welfare State : a History of Social Welfare in America by Walter I. Trattner - Dewey Library Reserves / HV 91 T7 1999

  • In the Shadow of the Poorhouse : a Social History of Welfare in America by Michael B. Katz – Dewey Library / HV 91 K349 1996

  • The Reluctant Welfare State : a History of American Social Welfare Policies by Bruce S. Jansson - Dewey Library Reserves / HN 57 J25 1993

  • The Dangerous Classes of New York, and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them by Charles Loring Brace - Dewey Library / HV 743 N5 B8 1973

  • Widows and Orphans First : the Family Economy and Social Welfare Policy, 1880-1939 by S.J. Kleinberg - Dewey Library / HV 699 K585 2006

  • Social Welfare : a history of the American Response to need by June Azinn and Mark J. Stern - Dewey Library / HV 91 A94 2005

And a few interesting web sites:

If you have questions about doing Social Welfare research, talk to Elaine Bergman, our Social Welfare Bibliographer. She can help with advanced database searching and other quick ways to obtain the information you need. E-mail her at ebergman@uamail.albany.edu or call 442-3965 to set up an appointment.

Blog post created by Judith Mueller