Whether championing a cause that promotes economic justice in marginalized communities or testifying in court on behalf of a gay couple trying to adopt a foster child, advocacy in social work can take many forms, with advocates striving to improve the well-being of both individuals and communities.
Social workers can equip themselves with the skills needed to effect change through advocacy by earning an online Master of Social Work.
Why Is Advocacy Important in Social Work?
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics holds up advocacy as a core pillar of the profession. This comes as no surprise, given the legacy of advocacy in social work. The profession has a long history of working in the trenches to advance civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights — fighting for school desegregation, voting rights, pay equity and marriage equality, among other issues.
Advocacy is a fundamental aspect of achieving social work’s primary goals of social justice, equality and the promotion of human dignity. By giving a voice to the underserved, advocacy helps ensure that marginalized communities aren’t forgotten. Successful advocacy also teaches people about their rights and how to exercise them.
Additionally, advocacy can help people confront the challenges they may struggle to overcome on their own. Obstacles such as physical or mental health issues, economic status, or a lack of education may get in the way.
Systemic racism, insufficient public services and structures of privilege can also prevent people from resolving their difficulties and realizing their full potential. Advocacy strives to eliminate these barriers and ensure that the vulnerable have access to the resources they need to grow and participate fully in society.
Types of Advocacy in Social Work
Social workers focus on empowering individual clients and communities with the resources and services they need to stand up for themselves, solve their problems and thrive. However, they also have a responsibility to advocate for policies that can more broadly address the societal problems and systems that entrap people in poverty, poor health, violence and other situations.
Advocacy in social work calls for both a micro and macro approach, also referred to as case advocacy and cause advocacy. Both types of social work advocacy are crucial to improving the lives of underserved or marginalized communities.
Social workers regularly advocate for their clients on an individual basis. Case advocacy involves mediating, negotiating and navigating systems on behalf of and in collaboration with clients, so they can access needed medical care, shelter, sanitation and quality education.
For example, social workers may help represent clients in dispute with a school over access to special education accommodations, mediating discussions and negotiating solutions. Social workers may also work with clients to negotiate reduced medical bills with a provider or contest denied claims by an insurance company.
The landscape of available services and resources can change. Another way that social workers advocate for clients is by regularly researching emerging programs and opportunities and being aware of already existing resources that may benefit their clients. They then educate their clients and help them gain access.
As an example, social workers may closely follow bills such as the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which allows low-income seniors and disabled people to save and earn more money without losing critical benefits received through Social Security. In this way, social workers can inform and advise their clients about policy changes and how to use those changes to their advantage.
In the process of advocating for their clients on an individual basis, social workers gain an in-depth understanding of community needs and the shortcomings in existing systems that prevent people from getting those needs met. This knowledge can fuel cause advocacy.
For example, social workers have become keenly aware of the fact that women of color face considerable barriers in accessing contraception, and they die from childbirth at much higher rates than other women due to substandard care. In response, social work has taken up the cause of reproductive justice, fighting for laws that improve maternal health outcomes and guarantee access to contraception for everyone.
Cause advocacy involves working to change how organizations and institutions are run, as well as how they affect governmental policy decisions and guidelines. Advocating for structural changes can broadly impact communities and individuals and eliminate some of the hurdles that impede everyone in society from earning livable wages and achieving equal opportunity and equal status before the law.
NASW has helped draft numerous influential congressional bills that support economic justice and healthier communities. These bills push for everything from student loan forgiveness based on public service to alternatives to emergency response models that bring police to situations in which their involvement could cause harm, such as mental health crises.
Advocacy in Action
Advocacy in social work has helped achieve critical reforms. These reforms have led to meaningful changes in society.
Mobilizing Behind Civil Rights
Social work’s commitment to civil rights stretches across decades and issues. In the 1960s, NASW rallied behind the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, two pieces of legislation key to ending Jim Crow laws and ensuring voting rights for Black people.
In the 1970s, advocacy in social work turned to LGBTQ rights. NASW created a task force to confront discrimination and marginalization faced by the LGBTQ community. That task force, known today as the National Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer+ Issues, advocates for affirming policies for the LGBTQ community related to everything from property rights to hate crimes to services for youth.
Social work advocacy has played a role in the passage of legislation such as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law, passed in 2009, turned crimes committed against people because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity into hate crimes that carry heavier sentences. Ongoing LGTBQ advocacy has also factored into support for the recent Respect for Marriage Act signed by President Joe Biden, which protects same-sex marriage.
Fighting for Social Safety Net Programs
Advocacy for social safety net programs and access to them is at the heart of social work. Social workers fought for the establishment of Medicare in the 1960s, a program that has, for decades, helped millions of older adults get health care and removed a significant burden from younger family members.
In recent years, social workers’ advocacy for the Affordable Care Act played an instrumental role in securing health insurance for millions of people without coverage. Additionally, in response to efforts to repeal it, social work advocacy organizations launched opposition campaigns, educating the public on the devastating impact that a repeal would have on the well-being of millions.
Tackling Critical Public Health Issues
Whether publishing resource briefs on coping with AIDS at the height of the epidemic or condemning so-called “gay conversion therapy,” social workers have used advocacy to tackle critical public health issues. Tireless work on the part of many has led to total bans on conversion therapy in dozens of states.
Other achievements through advocacy in social work include improved access to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. By lobbying the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NASW convinced the department to adopt more flexible policies regarding telehealth. As a result, countless individuals receive medical services through virtual means who otherwise would go unattended.
Make a Difference Through Advocacy as a Social Worker
Advocacy in social work has a long history and celebrates important achievements. As a cornerstone of social work, advocacy will continue playing a vital role in advancing social justice and other goals fundamental to the profession.
Discover how Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work Program online format — and its focus on social justice and human rights — can prepare social workers to empower the underserved through advocacy.
The Arc, “The Arc Supports Bill to Allow People with Disabilities to Earn and Save More Money”
CNBC, “Biden Signs Bill to Protect Same-Sex and Interracial Marriages”
Congress.gov, H.R.3862 – Community-Based Response Act of 2021
Journal of Community Practice, “Developing the Next Generation of Social Work Activists: Support for Eliminating the Micro-Macro Divide”
KFF, “Racial Disparities in Maternal and Infant Health: Current Status and Efforts to Address Them”
Movement Advancement Project, Conversion “Therapy” Laws
National Association of Social Workers, “65 Years of Advocacy”
National Association of Social Workers, Advocacy
National Association of Social Workers, NASW Comments to CMS on Home Health Telehealth
National Association of Social Workers, National Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer+ Issues (NCLGBTQ+)
National Association of Social Workers, Read the Code of Ethics
PBS, “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement”