The Top Twelve Grand Challenges Facing Society Today

Last year, the Society for Social Work and Research Conference in Washington, DC, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) unveiled its 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work with a bold call to action to help solve the toughest problems facing our society today.

When we reflect and take inventory of our ever changing society, a path of progress towards justice and equality can be seen on the horizon. However, we must be diligent in identifying those challenges and barriers that may retard our progress and growth while increasing inequality for our most vulnerable citizens.

In September 2015, the United Nations unveiled 17 Global Goals for Sustained Development in an effort to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix global climate change by 2030. The idea behind the global goals was to identify areas with the ability to affect the most change. Then, microtarget those areas through individual, organizational, and governmental action in order to maximize impact and improve outcomes.

However, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare have narrowed down their target areas even further by identifying 12 Grand Challenges in which they believe social workers both domestic and international can directly impact to improve outcomes for those we serve.

“This critical effort identifies and seeks to address the full range of major challenges facing society, from ending homelessness and stopping family violence to promoting smart decarceration and reversing extreme income inequality.”

Twelve Grand Challenges for Social Work

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth
“Each year, more than six million young people receive treatment for severe mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. Strong evidence shows us how to prevent many behavioral health problems 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.”

2. Close the Health Gap


“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. Innovative and evidence-based social strategies can improve health care and lead to broad gains in the health of our entire society.”

3. Stop Family Violence
“Family violence is a common American tragedy. 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.”

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives
“Increased automation and longevity demand new thinking by employers and employees regarding productivity. Young people are increasingly disconnected from education or work and the labor force faces significant retirements in the next decades. 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.”

5. Eradicate Social Isolation


“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. Our 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.”

6. End Homeless
“During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. Periods of homelessness often have serious and lasting effects on personal development, health, and well-being. Our 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.”

7. Create Social Response to a Changing Environment
“The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”

8. Harness Technology for Social Good
“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. These new technologies can be deployed to more strategically target social spending, speed up the development of effective programs, and bring a wider array of help to more individuals and communities.”

9. Promote Smart Decarceration
“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. 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.”

10. Reduce Extreme Economic inequality
“The top 1% owns nearly half of the total wealth in the U.S, while one in five children live in poverty. The consequences for health and well-being are immeasurable. 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. Greater lifelong access to education will also provide broader economic opportunities.”

11. Build Financial Capability for All
“Nearly half of all American households are financially insecure, without adequate savings to meet basic living expenses for three months. 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 re-training; and provide financial literacy and access to quality affordable financial services.”

12. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice
“In the United States, some groups of people have long been consigned to society’s margins. Historic and current prejudice and injustice bars 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. All of this work is critical to fostering a successful society.

How will academics, practitioners, schools of social work, governmental and NGO social welfare agencies respond to the call? As a practitioner, we have all seen grand action plans created only to sit on the shelf and never see implementation. Will they provide information to impact change, then wait for someone else to spring into action to implement, or will the experts in our profession lead the charge by engaging in public debate on the issues social workers have the most direct impact?

Together, the 12 Grand Challenges define a far-reaching, science-based social agenda that promotes individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and a just society.

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