The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Winter 2014
At the Forefront

The problems we confront in social welfare and social work are only becoming more complex and sprawling.

Poverty, violence, addiction, loss, trauma and other social ills have been of concern to social work and social welfare since the inception of our profession. Yet as our world changes and becomes more interconnected and complex, the sources of such problems and the best ways to respond keep evolving too. And as the body of research evidence about which interventions and strategies show benefit expands, our understanding of how to organize and operationalize our work changes as well.


At SSA, we have always been a leader in the field when it comes to anticipating and addressing emerging problems,policies and practices. More than 100 years ago, for instance, the School’s “founding mothers” were at the forefront of advocating for fair treatment of African Americans in Chicago, including in the private foster care system, and a 1909 SSA study on women who worked in industrial settings led to the School’s involvement in the planning and organization of the first government-funded welfare programs in the country in the 1930s and ’40s.

This long-standing tradition of working at the forefront of some of the most complex and important social problems continues, with the work of our faculty and students building the intellectual and scientific infrastructure addressing today’s changing landscapes. Looking through that lens, the articles in this issue of SSA Magazine provide a glimpse into how SSA is anticipating and leading where the field of social work is headed.

One such example is found in the research of Professor Scott Allard, who is leading the way in examining the rise of suburban poverty in this country and the wide-ranging implications of that major demographic shift for social welfare programs and practices. Scott is a leading scholar documenting this newly emerging trend, helping policymakers at the local, state and federal levels rethink how established anti-poverty measures operate, and should operate, for this 21st century reality.

SSA’s researchers are also at the forefront of emerging clinical techniques and models, such as new therapeutic methods like cognitive-behavioral and motivational interviewing strategies in substance abuse treatment. In “A Motivational Mixture”, SSA faculty members and alumni explain why these techniques are on the rise and take a close look at their usefulness and impact. And in our article on the School’s doctoral program, we focus on SSA’s eminent track record of mentoring the next generation of social welfare scholars who take up the helm to advance our knowledge about everything from ethics in social work to transgender issues among older adults.

Part of being a leader in the field is the willingness and ability to dive deep into the more complex and nuanced realities of emerging issues. Professor Summerson Carr’s research on motivational interviewing looks beyond the assumptions and common narrative of this increasingly popular model, for example. And in this issue’s “Behind the Numbers” column, Professor Robert Chaskin writes about some of his ongoing research at the front lines of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation and its outcomes, which has become the largest attempt to reshape public housing in the United States to date.

Anticipating the future, SSA’s faculty recently decided to bring in new faculty who can take on social welfare questions in an increasingly globalized world. Social problems and concerns like HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, economic inequality, social migration and dislocation all have strong global drivers and global consequences, and thus SSA faculty believe that we must build from our existing strengths to take on social problems that increasingly cross national boundaries and hold international implications.

We began by adding new faculty in this area last year with the hiring of Professor Leyla Ismayilova, who studies social welfare interventions in nations in transition from the former Soviet Union. For our second new faculty member in this area, I am pleased to welcome Professor Fred Ssewamala this winter, joining us from the Columbia School of Social Work. Fred’s work examines how asset-based interventions, such as those that encourage savings through matching funds, and mentoring support can change life trajectories for children living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This kind of research, which generates evidence-based solutions to problems that are increasingly globally interconnected, is a stellar example of how SSA continues to anticipate and take hold of emerging issues in the field.

Good leadership includes understanding that as a society and as a profession, we cannot simply do things as they have been done. We have to be willing to reexamine the forces that shape our world and to reconsider the help we are providing, from one-on-one interventions to national—and even international—strategies. Good leadership includes identifying where something new is happening and being among the first to begin to study what has altered, considering the implications for that change.

At SSA, good leadership includes asking deeper questions about social work and social welfare, challenging our assumptions, and continually building the capacity to remain at the forefront of our field. That is one of the proudest traditions of SSA, and we understand what it means for our work and for the future of the School and the profession. For those who have supported us in this endeavor, we appreciate your faith in SSA’s role in advancing our understanding of how to address tough and complex issues facing those most in need.