According to a 2022 poll by West Health and Gallup, more than 112 million Americans struggle to pay for medical insurance. Homelessness statistics are also high. Nearly 600,000 Americans are classified as homeless, which means they are unhoused at night. In California alone, 40 out of every 10,000 people are homeless. Mental health issues and addiction also continue to plague communities across the country.
All of these individuals are considered vulnerable, and it is the job of social workers to provide solutions and access to critical services to help them improve their lives. It is no wonder social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the country; it is estimated that there will be more than 74,000 jobs available for social workers every year in the coming decade. This is an encouraging statistic for anyone thinking of entering into the profession, as there are plenty of employment opportunities available for those with the right training. If you obtain higher education credentials in the field, you will go even further.
You may be asking: “What can I do with a master’s in social work?” It is important to look into career options before you enroll in training, as this can give you an idea of where you may end up. A master’s degree in social work can help you not only to move up the career ladder, but also to bring about positive change for vulnerable populations.
Rather than dealing only with individual clients, you can increase your opportunities to get a job in policymaking, management and advocacy, or work in an advisory capacity. Job opportunities also include positions within the military, the government, healthcare facilities, the criminal justice system and mental health institutions. There are also plenty of jobs for highly qualified social workers who opt to specialize in family welfare.
In all positions as a social worker, you will be dealing with vulnerable populations, so it is important to familiarize yourself with who they are and what you can do to become their advocate.
What are vulnerable populations?
‘Vulnerable population’ is a broad term that is used to describe people who are disadvantaged in one way or another. It may be because of health issues, racial disparities, physical disabilities, gender identification, family situation, addiction or mental illness.
Many people fall into this category because of their economic situation. The loss of income, for example, can see a family become vulnerable because they do not have access to adequate housing, healthcare, education and other important resources they need to participate fully in society.
In the field of social work, there are some broad classifications of vulnerable populations. These are not rigidly defined, and social workers sometimes have to use their judgment to decide whether or not a person is vulnerable when they do not fit into any of the categories below.
Children are considered vulnerable for many reasons. They are often afraid to report abuse, and many are loyal to abusive caregivers. In some cases, children are too young to report abuse. Sometimes they are unaware that they are living in an abusive home, and in many cases, their caregivers take steps to make sure that abuse remains hidden.
Social workers must identify children who are abused. Their role is to alert the relevant authorities, be an advocate for the child and make sure that they are moved to a safe and protected environment. This branch of social work is left to child welfare social workers, school social workers and family welfare social workers.
People who are chronically ill and disabled
These individuals are considered vulnerable because of the dependency they have on the healthcare system. They may also have mobility issues that hinder access to resources or facilities that the rest of the population can reach more easily.
Part of the role of a social worker is to ensure that these individuals have access to resources including healthcare and affordable medications, as well as any other facilities that can improve their lives and interactions with the rest of their community.
Low-income and homeless individuals
These are people who are at risk in many ways. Those without a fixed address are more likely to have poor health, they are unlikely to have readily-available access to warm meals, they are exposed to the elements, they are less likely to participate in the education system and are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Social workers must identify these individuals and guide them to institutions that can help to provide the necessities. They also help reintegrate these individuals back into society. It is the job of the social worker to help people to overcome addiction and guide them towards healthcare facilities and mental health treatment options.
Racial minorities often suffer disadvantages in terms of access to healthcare, education, employment, and other basic needs. Social workers must support these individuals by increasing awareness of facilities that can help uplift their standards of living, and work to alleviate problems like homelessness, addiction and mental illness within these populations.
Social workers also provide advice and guidance about education, healthcare, employment and childcare to empower families so that they can be independent, socially integrated and well-represented in the future.
The elderly are vulnerable because their access to basic facilities, such as healthcare, can be reduced. They are also more likely to suffer from chronic illness, and those without caregivers are often neglected.
A social worker’s job is to make sure that the elderly have access to healthcare and community services, and that they are properly cared for. They ensure that they have the food and medications that they need, that they get regular exercise and that they interact with others in society.
Veterans are frequently overlooked as a vulnerable population, but many of them suffer from problems that are directly related to their time in service. These can include lifelong injuries that can affect mobility, mental health conditions such as PTSD, or social problems such as reintegrating into society after they leave the army.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the biggest employers for social workers. Their role is to provide the support that soldiers need after their service and to ensure that they have access to basic services.
This section of society can face problems accessing basic facilities because they can fear discrimination, and often encounter real discrimination and even violence. It is not unusual for LGBTQ communities to suffer from mental health issues and addiction, or to isolate themselves from the rest of society.
Social workers are advocates for the LGBTQ community and other similarly affected groups. They help them access healthcare, education and even employment. They also educate society about the need to accept everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.
How do social work policies impact vulnerable populations?
Social workers deal with all sorts of problems that impact the vulnerable; from issues around access to housing to violence and discrimination against minorities.
The role of the social worker has evolved over recent years. Although they still provide direct assistance to individuals and communities, they are now also tasked with empowering and advocating for the less fortunate. Without social workers, vulnerable populations would have less assistance, and the problems they face would continue to amplify, impacting not just themselves but future generations as well.
Problems like homelessness affect not just homeless individuals, but society at large. In places where there are large populations of homeless people, for example, there are increased levels of crime. The homeless have to find the means to survive, and if they do not have social workers to turn to, they have fewer opportunities for support and assistance, and are perhaps more likely to turn to crime to keep themselves fed and clothed.
Social workers play an important role in identifying vulnerable groups and providing vital services. They ensure that such people live decent lives with access to healthcare, education, housing and other social services.
The recent pandemic highlighted just how important social workers are in every society. Many people lost their jobs, their homes, and access to healthcare and education. Social workers stepped in to help, providing access to vital resources that kept many families afloat. Without this support for families, many would have suffered more severely.
Social workers play an important role in the way society is shaped. Without them, it would be more difficult to maintain order, contain poverty, educate the young and ensure that the population stays healthy.
Societal upheavals have become commonplace, and they are expected to increase in the coming decades. Whether we are talking about income disparities, migration, or problems that are brought about by climate change, there is a need for social safety nets not just in America but across the world.
These safety nets are designed and administered by social workers, and through their advocacy, we maintain community order, health, safety and security for all.
How can social workers advocate better policies?
Advocacy in social work takes many forms. The most common is ‘case advocacy,’ also known as micro social work. It involves working directly with clients, connecting them with resources, providing advice and working out a support system.
You do not have to wait to join management ranks to become an advocate. Even at the micro level, social workers are contributing towards policy changes by becoming active voices for those they represent. You can join community groups that deal with the vulnerable and use them as a platform to pass advice and information as well as speak out about how to transform the system so that everyone in the community benefits. However, those who have a master’s degree in social work can work at a higher level, helping shape policy and guiding decisions that have positive outcomes for vulnerable populations.
Some social workers become advocates through politics. By running for a political position, you are in a unique position to spread awareness about issues that afflict your communities and clients. Positions within politics can also result in influencing laws and bylaws in favor of vulnerable groups.
Social workers can also become advocates for their clients by working with private and public organizations to change policy. Many non-governmental organizations play an active advocacy role, and engaging with them can bring significant change in the distribution of resources for the less fortunate.
To be a good advocate you must be in touch with the issues in your community and the world at large. As such, you should aim to keep in touch with people who provide different perspectives and those who have experience in enacting change within communities. You should also educate yourself, always seeking new ways to help the needy.
A good advocate is open-minded and culturally competent. You must be prepared to help all vulnerable people regardless of their background, ethnicity or circumstances. You should create lots of professional connections because they will come in handy when your clients need referrals. Make sure you know what resources are available and how they can be accessed easily. You should be prepared to help your clients deal with institutional bureaucracy as they try to access vital resources.
You will encounter advocacy during a master’s degree in social work, but remember, every community is unique. Although you will learn in broad terms how to be an advocate for your clients and the community, it is up to you to employ that knowledge in the best way possible so that you can have maximum impact on those you serve. Good knowledge of your clients is important. If you understand their circumstances, you will be better placed to provide the kind of help that they need. Do not assume to know the answers — rather, involve the vulnerable as you design solutions and allow them to share their ideas about how best to deal with different situations.
Keep in mind that you must do all this with empathy and understanding but without getting personally drawn in by the complex situations you encounter every day. Compartmentalize your life, and set aside time for rest and relaxation. A clear mind helps you serve your clients much better.
Vulnerable populations exist in all societies, and it is largely the job of the social worker to make sure that they are catered to. Social workers provide access to vital services, offer advice are advocates for their clients. It is a complex and demanding role, but with the right education, you can become an excellent social worker. A master’s degree in social work equips you with the knowledge and skills to carry out social work at macro, micro and mezzo levels.