Part of overcoming adversity is having the presence of mind and the resources available to transcend one’s circumstances. This is at the heart of social work: finding resource disparities common to vulnerable populations and reducing them as much as possible on either a case-by-case basis or a much broader scale.

The American ideology that drove massive immigration booms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the idea that anyone can succeed, regardless of income, race, etc. – conveniently omits a pressing detail. To be certain, people born in the bleakest of situations can and have reached great levels of success, but they don’t “start” in the same position as ethnic majorities born in affluent areas.

Race and income aren’t the only two determinants that can make a population vulnerable. A person’s age, gender identity, education level and many other factors can greatly affect their success. Social workers must be well-attuned to the specific problems faced by vulnerable populations, who comprise the vast majority of their clientele. Let’s take a closer look at five of the most vulnerable populations and the problems that shape their circumstances.


There are multiple sub-specialties under the social work umbrella that focus on problems faced by children. In a vast majority of cases, social workers (whether they are family social workers, child welfare social workers or school social workers) must closely assess the family dynamics in the child’s home. In the case of child abuse, social workers must balance advocacy for the child’s safety and protection – including the legal requirement to report abuse – and support for the parents to encourage a healthy environment.

This population is vulnerable for several reasons. First, in the aforementioned case of child abuse, children are often too afraid to report their parents, or they’re unaware that they have the option to do so. They may feel conflicted, hesitating to report abuse out of loyalty to their caregivers. Abusive parents often take measures to ensure that their children don’t report them, including the threat of greater punishment and manipulating them into believing the behavior is normal. This is especially prevalent in cases of sexual abuse, which is one of the most common forms.

According to, one-third of all girls and one-fifth of all boys will experience sexual abuse before they reach eighteen years of age. Beyond abuse, social workers also help children with many problems that also affect adults, like school (as opposed to work) relationships, traumatic events, healthcare and education deficits, and so on.

The LGBTQ Community

The now well-known acronym LGBTQ refers to a set of sexual identities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, respectively. In recent years, several other terms have surfaced surrounding sexual identity, including “non-binary,” “gender fluid” and more. In all cases, these populations are regularly subject to discrimination on both a personal and societal level.

Transgender individuals, especially women of color, are disproportionately affected by hate crimes. In 2017, 29 transgender people were reported murdered. All groups within the LGBTQ community have experienced violence on an elevated scale, and the threat of it squanders their ability to thrive in communities all over the world. On a political and institutional scale, LGBTQ individuals are subject to various forms of discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, education and other sectors. Ongoing legal battles about separate bathrooms for transsexuals, military service restrictions and so on only serve to complicate and confuse this community’s rights.

As a social worker, it’s important to understand that this population faces a very unique and frequently changing (because of ongoing policy changes) set of challenges and that each sex/gender identity within the community is its own population. A social worker in this area must be resourceful enough to connect disenfranchised members of this community with services that circumvent institutional and personal discrimination.

The Incarcerated

More than 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States. Prisoners suffer from increased rates of mental illness, depression and suicide. They also battle learning disabilities, sexual harassment and a number of other issues faced by the outside population.

This population is more vulnerable than most for multiple reasons. Prisoners have limited contact with the outside world. Their negative thought patterns worsen when they can’t reconcile with the people they hurt in the past. Their relationship with family and friends is weakened by their incarceration. They lose out on financial and educational opportunities.

Correctional social workers are vital in reducing the discrepancy between the number of prisoners that need help and the number of prisoners that receive help in our overcrowded penal system. In addition to assessing and justifying the need for mental health services, correctional social workers also focus on successful re-entry into society. This can entail several efforts, including but not limited to:

  • Marriage and family counseling services
  • Educational programs in prison
  • Job and life skills training
  • Drug and alcohol counseling
  • Behavioral therapy

Low Socioeconomic Status

The correlations between education level, income level, homelessness and socioeconomic status are so strong, it’s nearly impossible to statistically separate these terms. A vast majority of a social worker’s caseload will consist of clients who have experienced at least two of these four issues. According to First Focus, child poverty is a particularly potent cause of homelessness, dropping out of school and even turning to crime.

Children who are poor are less likely to attend school regularly because of frequent changes in housing status, reliance on financial assistance and lack of the necessary school supplies. This kicks off a downward spiral, involving the infrequent attendance of a low-income-area school that spends hundreds of dollars less per student than schools in other regions, a greater propensity for crime and a higher likelihood to become either incarcerated or homeless.

To best address the many issues correlated with a low socioeconomic status, social workers must be thorough in their assessments. Poverty, lack of education and homelessness affect everyone differently, and each client has to be motivated in a way that compels self-sufficiency. The social worker should be coaching their way out of the client’s life, not the other way around.

The Elderly

Though the subject is not publicized as passionately as child abuse, elder abuse is a very common issue in the United States and other regions of the world. Many people picture a nursing home employee taking cash from an elderly person’s room, but elder abuse takes many other forms. Three of the most common include:

Neglect – Whether it’s a family member, caregiver or anyone else responsible for taking care of an elderly person, neglect involves the failure to provide the minimum level of health and safety. This includes hydration, food, shelter, hygiene, and so forth.

Physical, Verbal or Sexual Abuse – Like with any other population, the elderly demographic is not immune to physical, verbal and sexual abuse. This includes physical harm, verbal abuse (insulting, humiliating, threatening, etc.) and sexual abuse (inappropriate touching, sexual acts).

Financial Exploitation – The aforementioned nursing home scenario is a common example of financial exploitation of the elderly, but it isn’t the only one. Home caregivers and other members of the community can financially abuse the elderly by forging signatures, stealing, misusing entrusted assets and deceiving the person in any way for financial gain.

The point of learning about the circumstances that affect different vulnerable populations is not to pigeonhole each client, but to prepare social workers to apply appropriate interventions. Each case is unique in how the client responds to their problems, but the problems themselves tend to be very consistent (i.e., malnutrition among welfare recipients or depression within the LGBTQ community) across each group. When a social worker combines thorough interviewing and assessment skills with thoughtful action, they can quickly and efficiently recognize common problems and solve them in a way that yields the best outcome for each client.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

September 2019

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