World War II and the Social Work Profession:
The Veterans Administration Response to Crisis
Editor’s note: The Veterans Administration, which was founded in 1930, was originally an independent government agency. In 1989, it was elevated to a cabinet department, and the name was changed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This agency consists of three administrations: the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) (Kenton, 2022).
With the entry of the United States into World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and extending throughout the 1940s, there developed a tremendous need for medical and psychiatric social workers. According to one estimate, there were approximately 1,200 vacancies in medical social work as of November 1942. Similarly, an estimated 1,000 people with specialized training in psychiatric social work were needed (Wartime Committee on Personnel in the Social Services, 1943a). This contrasted with the role of social work during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the primary focus of social service organizations was to provide individuals with the basic means to survive – food, shelter, clothing, and medical care (Howard, 1943).
This lack of specialized social work personnel was the result of multiple factors. Chief among these was the recruitment of large numbers of social workers by the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations, agencies which operated extensive war-connected programs. At least 5,000 new positions had been created by these two agencies alone as of June 1942, less than one year after the United States officially entered World War II. The majority of those positions were filled by individuals with professional education and/or qualifying experience in social work related to the position occupied. Not surprisingly, among those in greatest demand by the American Red Cross were workers having expertise in medical and psychiatric social work. The Red Cross’ immediate response to increased demand for services contributed in large part to the broader national shortage of qualified people in these specialties (Wartime Committee on Personnel in the Social Services, 1943a).
Demographic changes also contributed to the abundance of unfilled social work positions. Many workers moved throughout the country as they followed spouses engaged in military service or employment, and an unequal distribution of the supply of social workers hampered hiring. An indication as to the discrepancy in the distribution of workers may be seen by examining data from 1940 related to the population of the states per employed social worker. In that year, there were 921 people per social worker in New York, and 1147 people per worker in California. In 1940, Arkansas, on the other hand, had only one social worker to 7012 people, while Mississippi had one worker to 7772 people (Wartime Committee on Personnel in the Social Services, 1943b).
Compounding the shortage of professional social workers to meet the war years’ great need was a decline in the enrollment of Schools of Social Work, a trend which had begun subsequent to 1936 when enrollment peaked at 6779 students (Russell Sage Foundation, 1943). By November 1942, enrollment in Schools of Social Work had decreased by 26% to 5025 students (The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services, n.d.). Many potential students were discouraged from entering into graduate study in light of the numerous positions available to them without training of any kind (Russell Sage Foundation, 1943) – a situation that arose out of the need of employers to fill vacant positions, even if this meant hiring people who were poorly qualified to perform the work. A crisis existed within the profession.
The Veterans Administration
The impact of World War II on Social Work Service in the Veterans Administration was not unlike the effects of the war on other social service agencies in the United States. An increase in the number of veterans served translated into a higher incidence in the number of requests for investigations to assist with rating and diagnosis. The number of requests in June 1943 was approximately double that of June 1942. Secondly, prompt case work and medical assistance to young veterans was required in order to facilitate a smooth transition into the community and maximum independence. Thirdly, there existed a need for intense social work service in tuberculosis hospitals in order to encourage patient compliance with the treatment regime and to ease adjustment for life in the community. And finally, an increasing demand for neuropsychiatric beds compelled social workers to make preparations for the eventual return home of the veteran (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1943).
Despite this tremendous need for social work services, personnel to perform these functions were not available in sufficient quantities. During the period from July 1942 to June 1943, the ratio of social workers to neuropsychiatric patients within the Veterans Administration was less than one to 1,000. Overall, as of June 30, 1943, there existed 14 vacancies in a staff of about 100 (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1943). Those deficits in staffing reflected a national shortage of social workers.
Faced with a severe staff shortage and an inability to fill vacant positions, a detailed accounting of the reasons for difficulty in filling vacancies was prepared in December 1943. This report cited low salaries, sub-professional grades, and slow appointment procedures as primary reasons for lack of staff. Also cited was the fact that within the Social Service Department there existed inadequate casework supervision to enable employees to continue to improve their skills. Further compounding the problem was the absence of support from Schools of Social Work, which felt no responsibility to encourage students to enter the Veterans Administration due to lack of knowledge of the program, inadequate career opportunities, and insufficient casework guidance (Grant, 1943).
Desperate circumstances such as these led the Veterans Administration to consider possible remedies of the staff shortage problem to ensure that the provision of quality social services to veterans would be made possible. Major developments influencing the resolution of the problem included the establishment of a student training program, the reorganization of the Social Service Department at every station, and the association of the Social Service Department with the Department of Medicine and Surgery.
The Student Training Program
Initial Program Developments
Prior to the 1940s, no social work students had been placed at the Veterans Administration for field work training. Although the Simmons College (now, Simmons University) School of Social Work approached the Veterans Administration concerning the training of students as early as 1930, no action was taken on this request. The denial was based on Congressional legislation which prohibited access to Veterans’ Bureau records except by those persons designated by law. Students were not among the designees. Additionally, the fact that students could not be held accountable for their comments and actions was a factor in the decision to refuse the request (Griffith, 1930). However, critical shortages in the social work profession resulted in a favorable reply to a request by the Atlanta University School of Social Work in 1944 to place students at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama (Griffith, 1944). Initial correspondence between Mr. Forrester B. Washington, the director of the Atlanta University School of Social Work, and Dr. Eugene Dibble, the superintendent at Tuskegee, points to the urgency of the situation. Washington described a “dearth” of Black psychiatric social workers and “inadequate psychiatric training facilities” available for African Americans. He argued that these deficits, “combined with the anticipated increase of neurosis and mental disorders which will result from the war and be evident in the post-war period, makes it imperative that some steps be taken now to meet this emergency” (Washington, 1942).
During the period from July 1944 to June 1945, students from four Graduate Schools of Social Work (Atlanta University, Boston University, Nebraska, and Simmons) were placed at Veterans Administration facilities. These students received a payment of $1.00 per year and, in certain cases, subsistence and lodging as well (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1955) Furthermore, arrangements for the placement of students from three other colleges had been made. Not only did these associations enable the Veterans Administration to share in the responsibility for the preparation of future staff, but they also provided beneficial educational experiences for social work staff members of the facilities involved. As a result of contact with the various Schools of Social Work, employees of the Veterans Administration were made aware of current social work ideologies and methods of practice (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1945). However, it was felt that the training program as it existed was not adequately addressing the need for Case Supervisors and Chief Social Workers. Therefore, alternative educational strategies were explored.
Expansion of the Student Training Program
Although the number of social workers employed by the Veterans Administration increased from 115 in 1944 to 186 in 1945 (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1955), administrative personnel were frustrated in their efforts to recruit adequate social work staff. In correspondence dated June 13, 1945, the Assistant Administrator expressed his concerns to the Administrator: “The fact of shortage of trained and experienced social workers presents a very real problem to the Veterans Administration as the need for additional services becomes greater and the potential supply of social workers becomes smaller ” (Ijams, 1945). In light of this critical shortage of social workers, particularly supervisory personnel, the Veterans Administration became determined to establish an aggressive program for the recruitment and training of future staff members.
Thus, an innovative scholarship proposal was put forth in 1945. According to this plan, 80 scholarships were to have been granted each academic year to students enrolled in accredited Schools of Social Work. It was intended that scholarships provide full tuition plus a stipend of $100.00 per month. Additionally, the Veterans Administration was to have covered the costs of transportation to and from the field assignment and to have provided a 2-week vacation upon completion of study in order that students might arrange their personal affairs prior to entering into employment at a Veterans Administration facility. Although trainees were required to agree to only 1 year of employment, it was expected that these individuals would remain with the Veterans Administration beyond the required year, thereby serving to meet the need for experienced staff members (Ijams, 1945). Despite the promise offered by this plan, it unfortunately was found to be technically illegal (Grant, 1945). Therefore, revisions were made.
On May 12, 1947, Technical Bulletin 10A-45 entitled “Training Program for Social Workers Associated with Part- time Work in the Veterans Administration” was released. The program announced in the bulletin provided for part-time social work field work positions for 80 students enrolled at Schools of Social Work approved for their medical or psychiatric course. Selection of students for this program was made by the Branch Chiefs, Social Service Sections, as these individuals were considered to be the most qualified to assess the potential of applicants for future positions of leadership in the Veterans Administration. Trainees involved with this program were compensated at a rate of $1.63 per hour and were expected to work a minimum of 24 hours per week during the period of appointment. Upon completion of training, the trainee was notified by the branch office of available positions. Although field work employees were required to apply for employment in the usual manner, they were given preference over other applicants (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1947).
This program establishing paid field work positions did not replace the previously described “without compensation” training program which continued to be open to students from recognized Schools of Social Work. Rather, it sought to strengthen the overall training program by allocating additional positions and financial incentives which would serve to attract the most outstanding graduate students in social work to the Veterans Administration (Hawley, 1947). During the first year the program was in effect, 73 students participated in training. Of the 73, 43 were ultimately employed by the Veterans Administration (Planning, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Social Work Service, Veterans Administration, 1955a).
The Reorganization of the Social Service Department
In June of 1945, the Social Service Department at every station was reorganized. Success in achieving this reorganization did not come without a certain degree of effort on the part of Social Service, however. The original request for reorganization, including reclassification of personnel from sub-professional to professional grades, by the Medical Director in November 1943 met with no immediately favorable reply. Therefore, in April 1944, Social Service addressed a memorandum to the Director of Personnel emphasizing the urgency of the need. This memorandum was endorsed by the Central Office physicians responsible for Tuberculosis, General Medicine and Surgery, Neuropsychiatry, and Education and Research Services (Stipe, 1947).
The arguments made in favor of reclassification of social work positions were several. Chief among these was the nature of the responsibilities assumed by workers and the preparation required for their performance. A second was that approximately 60 vacancies existed within the Veterans Administration. Many of these positions had been open for several months, while some had been open for as long as 1 year. To make matters worse, further expansion was expected in the volume and variety of social work responsibilities with regard to the administration of medical care, as well as monetary and vocational benefits. Finally, it was mentioned that “several hundred” promising candidates had declined offers of employment during the 2-year period preceding the request for reorganization. It was believed by Social Service that these refusals were due both to the lack of opportunity for growth and advancement given the required preparation and attendant responsibilities associated with social work positions and to the availability of comparable yet better salaried positions within the Veterans Administration, other federal agencies, and civilian agencies (Stipe, 1947).
In response to this appeal for consideration, a joint committee composed of two members from the Civil Service Commission and one member from the Veterans Administration Classification Division was appointed to conduct a study for the purpose of making a recommendation concerning Social Service’s request for professional status (Stipe, 1947). After an intensive investigation, it was the recommendation of this committee, which completed its work in the spring of 1945, that four types of new (professional) positions be established. These positions included Chief Social Worker, grades P-4 and P-3; Case Supervisor, grade P-3; and Social Worker, grade P-2. This classification system differed from the previous system in which all social workers within a station were of the same grade, subprofessional SP-6. Such a system did not provide for direct social supervision in the areas of administration, e.g., program planning, and direct service (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1946).
The new classification system, in contrast, provided for a division of duties within each department, administrative leadership, and supervisory assistance to staff members attempting to improve their practice skills. In the “Annual Report of Social Service for 1946,” the following observation concerning the effect of the reorganization was made:
The VA is beginning to take its stand among social agencies as one offering a real career opportunity. Its wide range of positions, with varying degrees of responsibility, and its variety of medical settings, provide a chance for the trained social worker to use to the utmost, the level of skill which he (sic) possesses in assisting veterans in problems that are preventing their advantageous use of VA benefits (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1946).
The Association of the Social Service Department with the Department of Medicine and Surgery
The status of social work in the Veterans Administration was further enhanced with the passage of Public Law 293, which is commonly referred to as “the Medical Corps Bill,” in January of 1946. This law abolished the Medical Service as it was then constituted and provided for the establishment of a Department of Medicine and Surgery under a Chief Medical Director. With the passage of this legislation, the Social Service Department became associated with the Department of Medicine and Surgery in an auxiliary capacity. Within this department, appointments of physicians, dentists, and nurses were made according to regulations prescribed by the Administrator of Veterans Affairs without regard to civil service requirements. Social workers and other auxiliary employees, including pharmacists, dieticians, and occupational therapists, continued to be employed on the basis of civil service regulations, however. According to another provision of the law, a social worker was appointed as a member of the special Medical Advisory Group, an organization of professionals who advised the Administrator on the subject of medical care in the Veterans Administration. Additionally, Social Service became structured in a manner similar to that of other professions in that 13 branch offices were established which exercised operational authority over field stations (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1955).
The decentralization to branch offices was considered to be of particular importance, as this arrangement made possible the direct personal supervision and guidance of field stations by highly qualified social workers who were based in the branch offices. This form of organization resulted in Central Office in Washington, D.C., having closer contact with the various field stations. As was noted following implementation of this system:
For the first time Central Office is in a position to gather systematically information on the need for new policies and needed revisions of old policies, through having supervisory personnel in continuous touch with every station; for the first time there are channels for guiding stations, regardless of their isolated location, toward uniformity in high standards of service to be rendered (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1946).
In general, inclusion of Social Service in the Corps Bill, albeit in an auxiliary capacity, gave formal recognition to the significant contribution made by social workers in the care of veterans. Indeed, this piece of legislation was the first ever to mention social workers in relation to the Veterans Administration (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1955). Passage of Public Law 293 truly paved the way for the continued improvement of the Social Service Department by providing for the input of Social Service into the decision-making process at the highest levels of administration within the Veterans Administration and by providing for a mechanism by which Central Office and the field stations might engage in a productive interchange of ideas.
In combination, the previously discussed efforts resulted in a tremendous increase in staff members. Whereas the Veterans Administration employed 115 social workers in 1944, there were 1023 social workers on staff in 1947 (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1955; Planning, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Social Work Service, Veterans Administration, 1955b). These individuals held positions at Central Office, the various branch offices, and at mental hygiene clinics, tuberculosis hospitals, neuropsychiatric hospitals, and general hospitals throughout the Veterans Administration system (Veterans Administration Social Work Service, 1946).
The increase in social work personnel which occurred in the Veterans Administration during the 1940s, also occurred in social service agencies throughout the United States. According to the 1947 edition of the Social Work Year Book, there were approximately 72,000 social workers in the United States at the time of the 1940 census. By 1947, data submitted by governmental and voluntary agencies indicated the existence of about 100,000 positions in the field (Russell Sage Foundation, 1947).
A similar trend was apparent in the Schools of Social Work, the source of future social work personnel. As noted previously, enrollment in Schools of Social Work as of November 1942 was 5025 (The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services, n.d.). Within a 5-year period, enrollment had nearly doubled to just under 10,000 students. This increase may be attributed in part to the development of innovative programs, e.g., the Veterans Administration student training program, that encouraged professional-level education by providing financial incentives and opportunities for training. Also responsible for this overall increase in enrollment was an increase in the number of men pursuing an education in the field of social work. During the 1942-1943 academic year, men comprised only one- eighth of the total number of students in Schools of Social Work. Moreover, an even smaller percentage of men were actually engaged in full-time graduate work (Russell Sage Foundation, 1945). In comparison, on November 1, 1947, 28% of the full-time students enrolled in the graduate schools and specializing in social work were men. It is likely that many of these individuals were returning veterans, as 28% of all students in Schools of Social Work were receiving veterans’ benefits (Russell Sage Foundation, 1949).
Despite the tremendous increase in social work personnel, the demand for well-trained workers continued to exceed the available supply as the 1950s approached. As had been the case throughout the 1940s, there existed a fear of having to fill vacant positions with untrained or partly-trained personnel. Therefore, the emphasis which had been placed upon graduate social work education, adequate casework supervision, and staff development during and immediately following World War II persisted into the next decade (Russell Sage Foundation, 1949).
Grant, I. (1943, December 23). Reasons for difficulty in filling vacancies. Correspondence from Irene Grant to Dr. Mella. Box 5, Folder 30. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Grant, I. (1945, July 18). Correspondence from Irene Grant to Lowell Iberg. United States Veterans Administration Social Work Supplement Papers, Box 5, Student Training-History. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Griffith, C. M. (1930, January 2). Correspondence from Charles M. Griffith to Harriet L. Parsons. Box 4, Folder 23. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Griffith, C. M. (1944, March 15). Correspondence from Charles M. Griffith to Forrester B. Washington. Box 13, Folder 98. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Hawley, P. R. (1947, June 13). Correspondence from Paul R. Hawley, Chief Medical Director, to Chief, Social Service Section, Veterans Administration Branch Office No. 1. Box 5, Folder 36. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Howard, D. S. (1943, September). American social work and World War II. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 229 (1), 138-144.
Ijams, G. (1945, June 13). Proposed in-service training and scholarship program for social work personnel. Correspondence from George Ijams, Assistant Administrator, to the Administrator. United States Veterans Administration Social Work Supplement Papers, Box 5, Student Training-History. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kenton, W. (2022, July 13). Veterans Administration. https://www.investopedia.com/termsv/veterans-administration.asp
Planning, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Social Work Service, Veterans Administration. (1955a, February 2). Table IV: Recruitment of paid field work social work students (academic years 1947-48 through 1953-54). Box 14, Folder 102. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Planning, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Social Work Service, Veterans Administration. (1955b, February 2). Table XVII: Professional graduate education VA social workers (March 1947, May 1950, November 1954). Box 14, Folder 102. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Russell Sage Foundation. (1943). Social Work Year Book (7th Issue). Russell Sage Foundation.
Russell Sage Foundation. (1945). Social Work Year Book (8th Issue). Russell Sage Foundation.
Russell Sage Foundation. (1947). Social Work Year Book (9th Issue). Russell Sage Foundation.
Russell Sage Foundation. (1949). Social Work Year Book (10th Issue). Russell Sage Foundation.
Stipe, J. H. (1947, January 24). Correspondence from Jack H. Stipe to Anne Taylor McCormack. Box 5, Folder 35. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Veterans Administration Social Work Service. (1943). Annual report Social Work Section, July 1942 to June 1943. Box 1, Folder 1. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Veterans Administration Social Work Service. (1945). Annual report, July 1944 – June 1945. Box 1, Folder 1. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Veterans Administration Social Work Service. (1946, July 26). Annual report of Social Service for 1946. Box 1, Folder 1. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Veterans Administration Social Work Service. (1947, May 12). Technical bulletin 10A-45: Training program for social workers associated with part-time work in Veterans Administration. United States Veterans Administration Social Work Supplement Papers, Box 5, Student Training-History. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Veterans Administration Social Work Service. (1955, May 20). Significant events in VA social service history. Prepared for Karl de Schweinitz. Box 14, Folder 100. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services. (1943a, March 3). Essential services and training needs in the welfare field: Preliminary report of the Wartime Committee on Personnel in the Social Services. Box SW35, Folder 3. The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services. (1943b). Professional education for social welfare services in war time. Box SW35, Folder 3. The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services. (n.d.). Certain principles and problems of training. Box SW34, Folder 4. The Wartime Committee on Personnel in Social Services Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Washington, F. B. (1942, December 4). Correspondence from Forrester B. Washington to Eugene Dibble. Box 13, Folder 98. Veterans Administration Social Work Service Papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For further reading:
VA History. VA History Office, U. S. Department of Veteran Affairs. https://www.va.gov/HISTORY/VA_History/Overview.asp
The Evolution of Social Work: Historical Milestones. https://online.simmons.edu/blog/evolution-social-work-historical-milestones/
Social Work in the Armed Forces. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). https://www.socialworkers.org/Practice/Military-Veterans/Social-Work-in-the-Armed-Forces
Savitsky, L., Illingworth, M., & DuLaney, M. (2009). Civilian Social Work: Serving the Military and Veteran Populations. Social Work, 54(4), 327–339. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23719627
Wooten N. R. (2015). Military Social Work: Opportunities and Challenges for Social Work Education. Journal of Social Work Education, 51(Suppl 1), S6–S25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4469218/