Grand Challenges for Social Work: Identify 12 Top Social Issues Facing America

From mass incarceration, climate change, and an aging population to immigration, mental illness and rising income inequality, the most pressing issues facing America have something fundamental in common: the social factor.  As a call to action on these and other urgent problems, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW)is launching the Grand Challenges for Social Work. The Grand Challenges will promote innovation, collaboration, and expansion of proven, evidence-based programs to create meaningful, measurable progress on solving these and other urgent social problems within a decade.

The official launch of the Grand Challenges for Social Work will take place today at the opening plenary session of the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) 20th Anniversary Annual Conference in Washington, DC.

“Social factors contribute more mightily to the individual condition of people than any other single factor: more than disease, the environment, genetics, or technology,” said Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, President of AASWSW and the Dean, University of Maryland School of Social Work. “Understanding and improving the way that social factors interact with other forces is critical to our future. This is why we say, ‘social is fundamental,’ and why the Grand Challenges for Social Work are so needed to drive social progress that is powered by science.”

The SSWR conference includes more than 50 presentations from leading researchers and experts from around the country related to the 12 Grand Challenges. (See the complete conference agenda.)

The Grand Challenges for Social Work

Together the 12 Grand Challenges define a bold, science-based social agenda that promotes individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and a just society that fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, and offers pathways for social and economic progress.

Here is a description of the underlying problems, strategies, and goals of each of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

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.

More than 60 million Americans 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.

Assaults by parents, intimate partners, and adult children frequently result in serious injury and even death. Proven interventions can prevent abuse, identify abuse sooner, break the cycle of violence, or find safe alternatives.

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.

Social isolation is a silent killer, as dangerous to health as smoking. 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.

During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. 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.

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.

Innovative applications of new digital technology present opportunities for social and human services to reach more people with greater impact, 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.

The United States has the world’s largest proportion of people behind bars. 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.

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.

The top 1% owns nearly half of the total wealth in the U.S, while one in five children live in poverty. 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.

  • Achieve equal opportunity and justice.
    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.

How the Grand Challenges were chosen
Beginning in 2012, the 14-member Grand Challenges Executive Committeeguided the process of soliciting ideas for Grand Challenges, refining them, and commissioning background papers on the overall concept and the individual Challenges.


In selecting the Challenges, the Executive Committee applied five top criteria. First, every Challenge had to be big, important, and compelling. Second, there had to be scientific evidence to indicate that the Challenge could be solved. Third, meaningful and measurable progress to address the Challenge had to be possible within a decade. Fourth, the Challenge had to be likely to generate interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaboration. Finally, the solution to the Challenge had to require significant innovation.


Building bridges within and beyond social work
The Grand Challenges for Social Work create an opportunity for social work researchers and practitioners to collaborate widely with each other and with many other fields and disciplines, including health care, law enforcement, education, civil rights, technology, and climate science.

“For young people who are interested in making a big impact in the world, and who care deeply about social justice, these Grand Challenges are going to be very appealing,” said Darla Spence Coffey, PhD, President and CEO of the Council on Social Work Education and a member of the Grand Challenges National Advisory Board.

The Grand Challenges will also strive to stimulate new social science research, building the scientific evidence base that underpins the most effective social interventions.

“Social workers helped foster major positive social changes during the 20th century but this century presents a new set of complex issues,” said Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Social Workers and a member of the Grand Challenges National Advisory Board. “Building new knowledge and connecting it to practice and policy will be critical in helping social workers drive real, lasting, and transformative social change in decades ahead.”

History of Grand Challenges
“Grand Challenges” identify highly ambitious yet achievable goals that mobilize a profession, capture the public’s imagination, and require innovation. Other Grand Challenges initiatives have included the Grand Challenges for Engineering, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering, and the Grand Challenges in Global Health, co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Grand Challenges Canada.


About the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare
The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare was announced in 2009. The Academy was established in a united effort by all the leading social work organizations as an honorific society of distinguished scholars and practitioners dedicated to achieving excellence in the field of social work and social welfare through high-impact work that advances social good. The Academy has been established to encourage and recognize outstanding research, scholarship, and practice that contribute to a sustainable, equitable, and just future; inform social policy by serving as a frontline source of information for the social work profession as well as Congress and other government agencies and non-government entities charged with advancing the public good; promote the examination of social policy and the application of research to test alternative policies, programs, and practices for their impact on society; and celebrate excellence in social work and social welfare research, education, and practice. For more information, please visit


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