The Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative (GCSWI), spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW), represents a major endeavor for the entire field of social work. Similar to the UN’s Millennium Goals, and new Sustainable Development Goals, GCSWI calls for bold innovation and collective action powered by proven and evolving scientific interventions. We have identified 12 of the most persistent social issues, tackling problems such as homelessness, social isolation, mass incarceration, family violence, and economic inequality, as well as generating interventions that can be evaluated and taken to scale in the slideshow below.
Each year, more than 6 million young people receive treatment for severe mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. The financial costs for treatment services and lost productivity attributed to behavioral health problems such as depression, conduct disorder, and substance abuse are estimated at $247 billion per year . Strong evidence shows us many behavioral health problems can be prevented before they emerge. By unleashing the power of prevention through widespread use of proven approaches, we can help all youth grow up to become healthy and productive adults.
More than 60 million Americans experience devastating one-two punches to their health—they have inadequate access to basic health care while also enduring the effects of discrimination, poverty, and dangerous environments that accelerate higher rates of illness.
To secure true, sustainable, population-based health changes, the health professions must unite and develop transdisciplinary approaches to examining the multilayered contributions of political, economic, and social determinants of population health inequities. Innovative and evidence-based social strategies can improve health care and lead to broad gains in the health of our entire society.
Family violence is a common American tragedy:
Every nine seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten.
As many as one in three women (35.6%) have experienced rape, physical violence, and/ or stalking by an intimate partner.
Every 10 seconds there is a report of child abuse.
37% of all children in the United States will experience an investigation by a child welfare services (CWS) agency because of suspected child abuse.
Assaults by parents, intimate partners, and adult children frequently result in serious injury and even death. Such violence costs billions of dollars annually in social and criminal justice spending. Proven interventions can prevent abuse, identify abuse sooner, and help families survive and thrive by breaking the cycle of violence or finding safe alternatives. A growing body of research suggests that settings in which screening and assessments could occur (such as WIC clinics, schools, and primary care) provide an important opportunity for interrupting and addressing family violence, including both child maltreatment and intimate partner violence.
ncreased automation and longevity demand new thinking by employers and employees regarding productivity. In the United States, the number of people over the age of 65 will double between 2000 and 2030. These older adults are increasingly faced with the prospect of as many as 25 years of relatively healthy living beyond the typical retirement age of 65. On the other end of the age spectrum, one in seven young people in the US are not in school or working, disconnected from opportunities to make needed societal contributions.
Throughout the lifespan, fuller engagement in education and paid and unpaid productive activities can generate a wealth of benefits, including better health and well- being, greater financial security, and a more vital society. Younger people can benefit from inclusive pathways to civic and volunteer service, education, and work. And older people will gain from creative solutions that reduce the widespread age discrimination and stereotyping that currently exist which fundamentally limit their participation in productive roles.
Social isolation is a silent killer— as dangerous to health as smoking. National and global health organizations have underscored the hidden, deadly, and pervasive hazards stemming from feeling alone and abandoned. The challenge is to educate the public on this health hazard, encourage health and human service professionals to address social isolation, and promote effective ways to deepen social connections and community for people of all ages. One challenge is to understand how information technology can be used to enhance social connections among vulnerable populations. The use of newer information and communication technologies (e.g., digital social networking services available via smartphones) can bolster needed connections. A social isolation module developed by the Institute on Aging at Boston College in 2017, for example, includes YouTube videos and links to other references about the importance of addressing social isolation, and has been used widely, from local and national health services, to social services agencies and train staff, and to also inform the general public.
During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. In the United States, the annual cost to maintain a person on the streets or in shelters, which often involves health care settings and law enforcement agencies, ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 per person. By comparison, it costs $13,000 to $25,000 annually to end chronic homelessness if people can be placed in existing permanent supportive housing.
Periods of homelessness often have serious and lasting effects on personal development, health, and well- being. The challenge is to expand proven approaches that have worked in communities across the country, develop new service innovations and technologies, and adopt policies that promote affordable housing and basic income security.
The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities, including minorities, women, children, older adults, rural and urban poor, and individuals with a history of mental or behavioral health problems. These challengers disproportionately affect these communities, which include climate-related disruptions in employment and income; escalating food insecurity; and the effect of extreme weather events on the marginal, ecologically vulnerable, and inadequately resourced locations where the poor often live. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.
Grand Challenge participants are exploring efforts to redress environmental impacts on the well-being of indigenous peoples, engaging young people to address environmental problems in vulnerable communities, and encouraging budding technology entrepreneurs to develop tech-enabled solutions for developing and least developed places with little or no infrastructure.
Innovative applications of new digital technology present opportunities for social and human services to reach more people with greater impact on our most vexing social problems. Some examples include:
Social media and digital solutions that provide online help-seeking, advocacy, peer support and self-care, health promotion & education.
Mobile technology that provides access to interventions, real-time assessment, and connection to mental health professionals.
Wearable technology and sensors that combine self- report questionnaire responses with physiological data and mental health information to create more personalized feedback and enhance client self-management.
Robotics and artificial intelligence that can be used to treat depression in older adults and autism spectrum disorder.
The United States has the world’s largest proportion of people behind bars. Mass incarceration and failed rehabilitation have resulted in staggering economic and human costs: nearly $1 trillion dollars in social costs are borne mostly from incarceration in urban and impoverished rural communities.
Our challenge is to develop a proactive, comprehensive, evidence-based “smart decarceration” strategy that will dramatically reduce the number of people who are imprisoned and enable the nation to embrace a more effective and just approach to public safety.
The top 1% owns nearly half of the total wealth in the United States, while one in five children lives in poverty. Earning growth is concentrated among workers with graduate degrees; stagnation and decline characterize the earnings of workers with a bachelor’s degree or less. We can correct the broad inequality of wealth and income through a variety of innovative means related to wages and tax benefits associated with capital gains, retirement accounts, and home ownership. In addition, greater access to high quality and continuing education can provide enhance economic opportunities that can make a critical economic difference throughout the lifespan.
Nearly half of all American households are financially insecure, without adequate savings to meet basic living expenses for three months. In addition to posing financial barriers such as the cost of raising children, unstable employment, fluctuating income, and unmanageable health-related expenditures, financial instability and insecurity are major sources of psychological strain, sometimes leading to “toxic stress” that interferes with healthy human development. Persistent financial hardship and economic inequality contribute to poor physical and mental health.
We can significantly reduce economic hardship and the debilitating effects of poverty by adopting social policies that bolster lifelong income generation and safe retirement accounts, expand workforce training and retraining, and provide financial literacy and access to quality affordable financial services.
The United States is an increasingly diverse nation. Today, children of color represent a majority of students in America’s public schools. Nevertheless, some groups of people continue to be consigned to society’s margins. Historic and current prejudice and injustice bar access to success in education and employment. Addressing racial and social injustices, deconstructing stereotypes, dismantling inequality, exposing unfair practices, and accepting the super diversity of the population will advance this challenge. Ending educational, health, social and legal injustice is critical to fostering a successful society.
Work on this challenge will necessarily touch on a wide range of issues and groups, notably integrating Latino/a immigrants into society, increasing the success of African-American children and youth, promoting fair housing and inclusive communities, among many others. Specifically, the policy goals for this grand challenge include the universalization of health care access, the elimination of zero tolerance policies in schools, and the identification of key strategic approaches to address structural aspects of stigma and racism that contribute to inequality.
Slideshow images: credited to the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Used with permission.
Featured image credit: Do something great by Clark Tibbs. Public domain via Unsplash.
A new kind of parenting education…one that reaches everyone, everywhere, all the time would go a long way toward addressing the challenges. Visit advancingparenting.org to read about what we do, why we do it, and our plans for the future.
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