In the earliest civilizations, those in need were faced with prejudice and discrimination. Ancient civilizations believed that people with mental disorders were being penalized by the gods and punished or banished them from society. It wasn't until 1597 that the Poor Laws were established in England to handle the needs of the poor, aged, and ill; these laws would later be accepted in the American colonies, as well. Prior to government intervention, the needy relied on monasteries and churches for charitable donations of food, clothing, and money. Almoners, distributors of alms to the poor, were common by the 13th century. With the establishment of the Poor Laws, the government took on the responsibility of aid for the first time. Almshouses were established to provide the poor with work and shelter, but many people were turned away. People had to be qualified to receive this assistance, resulting in the exclusion of alcoholics, prostitutes, and sturdy beggars (beggars seen as able-bodied enough to find employment).
Allowing children to labor in the workplace was once considered an aid to poor families, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries social services went to great lengths to end exploitation of child workers. People with disabilities were often placed in separate communities, taught in separate schools, and employed in separate settings. This separation was viewed as beneficial in the past but social service professionals today recognize the need to help disabled people become actively involved in the larger community.
Prejudices like these continued into the 1800s with the work of religious individuals called "friendly visitors." Mainly middle-class women, friendly visitors made great efforts to help poor families, but their work often focused on moral instruction. Poor people were left to feel responsible for their own miseries. By the late 1800s, charitable organizations in American and Canadian cities began to recognize the need to become more familiar with the experiences and problems of their clients. The visitors were encouraged to learn about those in need so they could focus on beneficial social work rather than moral education. Still, exceptions remained, particularly for alcoholics or those with a history of crime.
The settlement houses of the late 19th century brought more enlightened views to social services. These houses, such as Hull House of Chicago, employed well-educated people with a strong desire to see social change. The staff lived in the settlement houses with their clients and were better able to understand their clients' experiences and backgrounds. Jane Addams, who established Hull House in 1889, wrote extensively of the problems of the poor, and her efforts to provide solutions led to the foundation of social work education. She emphasized the importance of an education specific to the concerns of the social worker; by the 1920s, many universities had established degree programs in social work.
Many social agencies and federal programs were developed after World War I. The Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 resulted in the development of counseling and employment services for people with disabilities. Social security was established in the United States in the 1930s. The Pratt-Smoot Act of 1931 established book programs for the blind, bringing Braille and recorded materials to regional libraries.
Today, federal, state, and local governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars on social welfare programs in areas such as public aid, food stamps, medical insurance and assistance, and housing. A small percentage of the welfare budget consists of housing assistance, through such programs as low-income housing rent and housing costs subsidies, whereas half of the budget is for social security, employee disability, workers' compensation, and other social insurance programs.
All these efforts have led to a thriving social services industry. Although new social problems develop every day, many current problems go unrecognized by society. Federal, state, and local governments work alongside many private and volunteer organizations to identify and offer solutions to these problems.