Social work today: how a community-led approach to social care can change lives

Social workers help to improve people's lives by empowering them with the tools they need to function better in their environments, improve their relationships with others, and solve personal and family problems through individual, social, and psychological support.1 Social workers contribute such vital work in our communities and have a critical role in ensuring the most vulnerable and underserved populations receive the support they need to live full and healthy lives.

But in today’s world of increasing inequality,2 aging populations3, and increasing needs of citizens, government and organizations in the private sector are facing higher demand for services with scarcer resources. Now more than ever, an innovative, community-led approach to service delivery is needed, to better support social workers to do their best work.

Engaging the community can help reduce stigma attached to benefits application, and also help to activate individuals themselves, and their families, to meaningfully participate in their own care, equipping them with strategies to impact their own outcomes. It can also help relieve the workload of social workers, allowing them to focus on the important work. Community engagement is a crucial part of social work and vital to fostering an eco-social world based on inclusion, respect, and mutual understanding.

External drivers of change

More than two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries where inequality has grown,2 posing additional challenges to social welfare, including unemployment, financial hardship, homelessness and other threats to wellbeing. Additionally, the number of people aged 65 and older is expected to double over the next three decades to reach 1.6 billion in 2050.3 These trends create an increasing demand for services from these growing vulnerable groups in the community.

These external forces are exacerbated by challenges that social workers themselves are facing. Balancing an increased workload can lead to high stress levels for most professions, but for social workers, an extended global pandemic and its effects on mental health have had a knock-on effect on their burnout. Even prior to the pandemic, economists expected a shortage of 195,000 social workers in the U.S. by 2030.4

With struggling resources and a higher demand for social protection services, it’s no longer sustainable to embed social workers within the most vulnerable families to share critical life skills. By activating communities, social workers can target and support vulnerable groups in a more coordinated and efficient way, employing person-centered and digital-first services to drive engagement from those in need of support.

A community approach

Communities are diverse, and can encompass everything from geography, to people who share the same values, customs, religion, gender, race, interests and skills. Members of a community often feel a sense of trust within their group, and can positively influence each other in their environments. Social workers help people of every background and age, but they are especially equipped to advocate for vulnerable and underserved communities.

Empowering people in their own community environment, with an understanding of the issues they face, and a respect for their particular needs and requirements within that community, can help reduce anxieties around using services, particularly fears around discrimination, and better engage people to be an active participant in their own care.

Overcoming barriers

Sustainable change in any sector needs structural support. Innovative community-led approaches practiced by social workers at ground level need policy support at government level for long-term success. Skills building for effective coordination between social workers and community groups and leaders can support progress and create new ways of working. Technology that streamlines the process of delivering services to communities can give time back to caseworkers to focus on people-centric care and equally it can empower individuals to help themselves.

Better experiences

The largest social services agency in the U.S., the New York City Human Resources Administration (NYC HRA), was looking to improve the experience of applying for supplemental food assistance.5 A key focus was putting citizens’ needs first and opening up new ways to apply for assistance. The solution they implemented is a good example of a community-led approach to social care, leading to better experiences for the individuals in need of services.

NYC HRA improved service access by enabling citizens to apply for benefits using mobile and online technology by upgrading its existing Cúram platform. This supported the needs of communities with reduced mobility, for whom multiple in-person appointments had previously posed a barrier, as well as households with additional informal caring responsibilities, who were too time-stretched to visit in person.

With New York’s extremely diverse population, the team was diligent in addressing the needs of visually impaired communities, and households with limited English proficiency by ensuring the platform supported multiple languages and providing special services to support those who are sight impaired, such as the Job Access With Speech (JAWS) interface.

Consideration was also given to communities who may not have access to technology, and the department added computers to 15 of the city’s SNAP Centers (office locations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to support access for these groups.

Community outreach

Taking it one step further, the government department works with state and local agencies, advocates, employers, and community and faith-based organizations to reach people who are not currently benefitting from supplemental food assistance but may be eligible.6 This community-led approach prioritizes older adults, and people with disabilities, immigrant and mixed status households, to help inform them about the availability of benefits assistance, and helps them understand and navigate eligibility and application. In some cases, applications for benefits can be returned to the community organizations themselves, instead of the SNAP centers directly.

Benefits for all

This community-led approach has improved experiences for those in need of social assistance, reducing barriers around access and helping to build trust and reduce stigma and misperceptions about eligibility.

The result is increased access to services, and more take-up of essential support helping those who are most in need. Increasing awareness and access to social programs like this one is vital in working toward a more equitable society. What’s more, when access to services begins sooner, this earlier intervention can create potential cost savings for the state.

With digital services and community organizations supporting administrative processes around program awareness and application, social workers have more time to spend on the complexities of creating tailored outcomes plans for individuals, and on empowering them to take a more active role in their own care coordination.

Social workers deserve recognition for the incredible work they do for society. Let’s empower them to focus on the important work, so they feel supported and engaged to make a difference where it matters most.

Learn more about New York City HRA and their approach to food assistance benefit application.



  1. The National Association of Social Workers,” American Journal of Public Health and the Nations Health, 46(1), 90–91., 1956 January
  2. World Social Report 2020: Inequality in a Rapidly Changing World,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,, 21 January 2020
  3. World Social report 2023: Leaving No One Behind in an Ageing World,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,, 12 January 2023
  4. U.S. Social Worker Workforce Report Card: Forecasting Nationwide Shortages,” NIH National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, PubMed,, 2016 January
  5. New York City Human Resources Administration Case Study: Improving the Process of Applying for Supplemental Food Assistance,” Merative,
  6. SNAP Outreach,” USDA Food and Nutrition Service,