Social workers have endeavored to identify, understand, and address the needs of various populations for hundreds of years. In doing so, they often encounter specific challenges that require tailored solutions. Perhaps a client speaks a different language or has an unfamiliar cultural background, for example. Maybe a family’s religious beliefs influence their decision-making. Or it could be that a set of traditions or values impact how a client will respond to assistance.
By valuing and promoting diversity in social work, professionals in the field can better comprehend and address the needs of the populations they serve. Recognizing the nuances of various cultural groups and developing cultural competency regarding unique populations will empower social workers to bring about positive outcomes in the lives of individuals, families, and whole communities.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity in America Is Increasing
The 2020 census reported that more than two-fifths of Americans now identify as people of color. Not only that but over half of the nation’s youth are people of color. While the Latino or Hispanic population comprised 6.4 percent in 1980, the group now represents 18.7 percent of American residents. The nation’s Black population has shifted as well. In 2019, 46.8 million American residents identified their race as Black, up from 36.2 million in 2000.
Research also reveals that more and more people are self-identifying as more than one racial or ethnic identity. The percentage of individuals who self-identify as only “Black or African American” has declined from 93 percent in 2000 to 87 percent in 2019. 2.8 million Americans self-identify as Black and Hispanic, while 5.2 million Americans self-identify as multiracial (Black and non-Hispanic).
Acknowledging the inherent dignity and worth of each person lies at the heart of social work. By learning about the prejudice, discrimination, and racism that various groups have historically faced and still experience today, social workers become better equipped to advocate for their clients.
Generational Differences Affect the Needs of Clients
In addition to serving populations that represent various racial and ethnic backgrounds, social workers also work with clients of various ages and generations. As the largest generation in American history grows older, many social workers find themselves working with the elderly. They may work alongside family members who are caring for aging parents or work within a hospital setting where they help elderly patients navigate the health and social services available to them.
Social workers are also imperative to the well-being of rising generations as millions of young people face mental health challenges. Through group or one-on-one counseling, social workers can help children and teens process trauma or work on behavioral issues with a culturally sensitive approach.
Cultural Backgrounds Shape Individuals and Communities
Race, ethnicity, and age each have a significant impact on how people experience the world. However, there are also other factors that social workers consider when working toward the best possible outcomes for clients. These factors include various elements of a person’s cultural background such as their family dynamics, traditions and values, or religious beliefs. Learning about each of these factors in a client’s life can help social workers build meaningful relationships that lead to positive outcomes.
Determining the various factors—from race and ethnicity to religion and values—that influence how people live their lives may seem like an arduous task at first glance. But the truth is that doing so eliminates confusion and facilitates connection. Perhaps the most concrete example of this is addressing language barriers. Ideally, a social worker will fluently speak the language of their client. However, this is not always possible. Social workers can help bridge the gap of understanding by taking steps to eliminate language barriers, such as partnering with interpreters or curating a collection of materials and resources in a variety of languages.
In addition to language differences, social workers can meet clients’ needs by acknowledging other variances in cultural backgrounds. For example, understanding the values of a family or community can help social workers achieve a more equitable world for the population they serve. If a family receiving food assistance has religious beliefs that influence their dietary choices, a social worker can help them find grocery stores or markets that meet their needs. If the residents of a nursing home are collectively facing loneliness and isolation, a social worker can facilitate events and gatherings that help the residents connect and meet their communal needs.
No one social worker can be expected to understand every variance across cultures or how to address each need. Instead, social workers can embrace humility as they develop greater cultural competency, recognizing that there will always be more to learn and that as they are faithful to do so, their clients will benefit greatly.
Diversity Among Social Workers Is Rising
As diversity increases in the general American population, it is increasing among social workers as well. In August 2020, the Council of Social Work (CSWE) reported the following demographic data on social workers who graduated with an MSW between 2017 and 2019:
- Nearly 90 percent were women
- More than 22 percent were Black/African American
- 14 percent were Hispanic/Latino
Information on the general social worker population points to increased diversity as well. Research from Zippia says that, in 2010, 18 percent of the social worker population self-identified as Black or African American. In 2021, that number had risen to 20 percent. The percentage of Hispanic or Latino social workers rose from 10 percent to 12 percent in the same period.
How to Become a Culturally Competent Social Worker
To serve an increasingly diverse population, social workers must pursue education and knowledge that prepares them for a thriving career. This begins with earning a Bachelor of Social Work degree (BSW). Graduates of such a program may choose to enter the workforce through job positions such as caseworker, family service worker, or mental health assistant.
Many BSW program graduates pursue a Master of Social Work degree (MSW), which can prepare them to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). These professionals may work as mental health therapists, substance use and recovery counselors, or hospital social workers, in addition to many other roles.
When researching social work degree programs, aspiring social workers will want to look for programs that include cultural competency in the curriculum. This may look like courses in racial and ethnic relations, the experiences of minority groups, or the impact of racism on society. Classes may also explore the application of social welfare policies in diverse communities, such as the differences in how a housing assistance program might function in a rural area when compared to one in a densely populated urban environment.
Beyond the classroom, degree programs can include cultural competency development through field placement. Prospective students can ask enrollment advisors about the various settings where students conduct their internships, including the diversity of the client populations and the staff.
Accredited BSW programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience, while accredited MSW programs require a minimum of 900. Since students spend such a great deal of time in these environments, it’s important to be intentional about ensuring that their internship placement can facilitate further understanding of and contact with people of various cultural groups.
Meet the Needs of a Diverse Population as a Culturally Competent Social Worker
As the American population grows increasingly diverse, social workers who uphold the dignity and value of each person can make a positive difference for both individuals and communities.
The Online Bachelor of Social Work degree at Spring Arbor University equips confident, ethical social workers committed to advocating for the people they serve.
The online BSW at SAU includes coursework and instruction in cultural competency. For example, students take a class called Racial and Ethnic Relations, which examines the cultures and experiences of minority ethnic groups in the US. In this course, students also study the impact of prejudice, racism, and discrimination on both minority groups and white society.
In a course titled Human Behavior in the Social Environment, students consider how the interaction of the individual, culture, race, gender, and the social environment affect human behavior. Practice with Individuals and Families teaches students how to conduct interventions with diverse and vulnerable populations.
As students progress into the internship phase of the program, they earn real-world experience among diverse populations and cultural groups. Ongoing connections with faculty, staff, and fellow students in SAU’s social work program provide students with a network of diverse voices and perspectives who can help each other grow in developing cultural competency as a lifelong pursuit.
Through coursework, fieldwork, and networking, SAU’s online Bachelor of Social Work degree deepens student’s understanding of family systems, varying religions and approaches to spirituality, differing traditions and values, and racial and ethnic diversity. Students learn how to help diverse populations by studying theories and practices as well as considering the model for love, charity, and aiding the suffering seen in the person of Jesus.
Become a culturally competent social worker who is equipped to serve, help, and advocate for diverse populations. Learn more about SAU’s online Bachelor of Social Work degree.
- Brookings, “New 2020 census results show increased diversity countering decade-long declines in America’s white and youth populations”
- Pew Research Center, “The Growing Diversity of Black America”
- Council of Social Work (CSWE), "THE SOCIAL WORK PROFESSION: FINDINGS FROM THREE YEARS OF SURVEYS OF NEW SOCIAL WORKERS"
- Zippia “Social Worker Demographics by Race”