The History of Human Services – and How You Can Get Involved Today

Human services play an extremely important role in our society. They protect the most vulnerable people, assist those who need a helping hand after a crisis, and generally strive to make our communities happier, healthier, and more flourishing places to live. So even if you don’t directly utilize the services on offer, you are definitely still benefiting from their existence.

Yet, of course, life wasn’t always this way. In the past, there were few protections for people and very limited official sources of assistance. This is why the development of the human services and social welfare fields was so important. Yet, even now, there is still a lot of work to be done. In this post, we’ll take a look at what human services means and its history, as well as different ways for you to get involved in the field if you feel inspired to.

What does ‘human services’ refer to?

Human services essentially refer to any type of official service set up to meet people’s needs. There are systems designed to help people on an individual level, as well as in larger groups and communities. Some operate at the national level, and others on an international scale. Likewise, some might be permanent organizations and systems, whereas others could be set up on a temporary basis in response to a short-term need or problem.

There are many different circumstances in which people might require assistance, and as such, the types of programs that are included under ‘human services’ are equally broad. There are systems designed to help people with problems as wide-ranging as drug abuse, natural disasters, criminal justice issues, mental health conditions, poverty, homelessness, child neglect, and much more. These services work not only to reduce the negative impacts of social problems but also to promote and enhance the wellbeing of both individuals and society at large.

Human services also refer to an academic discipline, specifically an interdisciplinary field which covers aspects of subjects such as psychology, social sciences, and public policy. It is possible to study for a human services degree at college, which is intended to prepare you to work in the sorts of programs and organizations mentioned above.

What is the history of human services?

The history of human services and social welfare systems can be traced back further than you might think. For example, in ancient Rome, grain was distributed for free or at subsidized prices to citizens who couldn’t afford it, and many churches in Europe ran charitable programs to help the poor during the Middle Ages. As urbanization grew, government-run human services began to grow too. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 in England offered relief to those unable to work, although it was the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw the largest introduction of organized systems of welfare provision.

In the United States, the American Association of Public Welfare Officials was set up in 1930 to provide relief during the Great Depression. Over the next decade, the human services sector saw a lot of growth, including the Social Security Act of 1935 that established systems such as unemployment insurance and support for the elderly. Further developments and programs were later set up in 1964 and 1965 as part of the Great Society legislation in an attempt to combat issues including poverty, hunger, unemployment, and illiteracy.

Of course, the problems that human services are designed to tackle are still ongoing. Today efforts are still being made by governments, charities, local authorities, and even private individuals to fight against issues such as inequality, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and many more. That’s why it’s important for as many people as possible to get involved and make our society a better place to live.

How can I get involved with human services work?

Perhaps the quickest and easiest way that you can get involved with human services work yourself is to start volunteering. There’s always a need for enthusiastic and passionate people to help with different programs, whether it’s at a one-off event in your local community or regular events hosted by a national charitable organization. In addition, many groups have more information on their websites about how you can get involved, whether by providing specific skills such as web design or simply by being an extra pair of hands.

In addition to making a valuable contribution to human services, volunteering can bring you a surprising amount of personal benefits too. For example, it can help you make new friends, learn new skills, boost your self-esteem, improve your health, and give you a sense of purpose. This last part is especially important because having a sense of purpose is linked with longer life expectancy and also a higher quality of life. Plus, volunteering can be fun!

For those who would rather dedicate themselves more fully to human services, you have the choice of doing a human services degree program. This degree generally lasts four years on a full-time basis (longer if you study part-time), with many colleges giving you the option to study online. These human services degree programs are an ideal option if you are interested in studying a rich curriculum related to meeting human needs in a wide variety of ways and then subsequently carving out a career in this industry.

What will I learn on a human services degree?

If you decide to enroll in a human services degree, you will complete a selection of academic modules on a variety of topics related to the field. In most courses, there will be a series of core modules that are compulsory, and then for the remaining credit requirements, you will be able to choose from a list of elective courses.

The specific modules that are available to you will vary according to the institution that you study with. However, the list that follows gives you a good indication of the types of topics you’ll cover in your human services degree:

  1. The Human Services Professional
  2. Developing the Helping Relationship
  3. Person-Centered Planning and Case Management
  4. Measuring the Effectiveness of Human Services Delivery
  5. Making Public Policy
  6. Ethics in Public Leadership
  7. Leadership and Volunteerism
  8. Research Design
  9. Abnormal Psychology
  10. Crisis and Positive Intervention
  11. Racial and Ethnic Relations
  12. Advocacy in the Global Community
  13. Restorative Justice
  14. Mobilizing and Coordinating Community Response
  15. Courts and Judicial Process
  16. Victimology
  17. Juvenile Delinquency and Justice
  18. Social Influences on Behavior
  19. Prevention and Treatment of Addiction
  20. Human Development
  21. Child and Family Relationships
  22. Motivation and Emotion
  23. Advocacy, Policy and Disability Law
  24. Proactive Intervention Strategies for People with Disabilities
  25. Cross-Cultural Psychology
  26. Influence and Persuasion


No matter which modules you take on your human services degree, you can anticipate being taught through a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, group discussions, and assigned reading. Assessment could be carried out through coursework or by examination, and you may also have to give presentations or complete group work.

Towards the end of your human services degree course, you will most likely be required to complete a lengthy independent research project and write a dissertation. This can be on any relevant topic of your choice, although it will have to be approved by your faculty supervisor. This is a great opportunity to take a deep dive into a subject that is of particular interest to you or is linked to your personal career goals, so take your time choosing. It could also form the basis of later academic study at the master’s or Ph.D. level if that’s a route you’re interested in taking.

How do I choose a human services degree?

There are many different human services degree programs out there, so it can be a little overwhelming at first when trying to choose between them. To make it easier, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you want to study on a full-time basis or a part-time basis? Not all colleges offer both options.
  2. Do you want to study on a traditional program held on campus or study online via distance learning? Again, not all colleges have the choice of both teaching styles.
  3. If you want to enroll in a campus-based course, where would you like to go? Does it need to be within commuting distance from where you live, or would you be happy to move? If so, where to? Is studying abroad of interest to you?
  4. Do you want to take a general human services degree or one with a specialist track such as criminal justice? The latter narrows the options available to you but can provide you with a more concentrated focus on a topic you’re particularly interested in.
  5. Which aspects of human services appeal to you the most? Each program will have a unique curriculum, so check the specific modules on offer for each one and see which aligns the most with your interests and career goals.
  6. What sort of career do you want to progress to after you graduate? Try to choose a program with a curriculum that matches your aspirations.
  7. What support services does the college offer? It’s not all about the academics – you want to make sure you’ll enjoy your time on the course.
  8. What sort of reputation does the college, and the program, have? You want to make sure that the degree you earn will be valued by potential future employers.
  9. How much is tuition? Are there any scholarships available that you are eligible for?
  10. What are the entry requirements for the program? It’s important to choose a human services degree that you’ll be accepted on.
  11. What are previous graduates doing now? How many are in employment?
  12. What do previous graduates say about the course? They will have the inside scoop!


What sort of jobs does a human services degree prepare you for?

The fact that the field of human services covers such a broad range of programs, systems, and organizations means that the types of jobs a human services degree prepares you for are equally diverse. Following graduation, you could work anywhere from a community center, school, correctional facility, or hospital to a government agency, non-profit organization, mental health treatment center, or substance abuse rehabilitation center.

The following is a small selection of the positions that could be available to you. It’s worth noting that some career paths will require you to complete master’s level study after your human services degree, take other shorter certification courses, or pass a licensing exam.

  1. Director of Social Services
  2. Case Manager
  3. Community Economic Development Officer
  4. Emergency Management Specialist
  5. Social Worker
  6. Grief Counselor
  7. Child Advocate
  8. Sociologist
  9. Public Health Educator
  10. Crisis Intervention Counselor
  11. Community Outreach Worker
  12. Probation Officer
  13. Juvenile Court Liaison
  14. Community Organizer
  15. Family Therapist
  16. Drug Rehabilitation Specialist
  17. Life Skills Instructor
  18. Group Home Worker
  19. Youth Worker
  20. Psychologist


What skills are required to work in human services?

In addition to the specialist abilities and knowledge that you will learn on a human services degree, there are several transferable skills that will prove useful to you if you want to work in this field. Firstly compassion and empathy are key because you’ll be working with a lot of people who are struggling with difficult issues, and this will enable you to both relate to them and to assist them to the best of your ability. Hand in hand with this is the need for a genuine desire to help others, even when it’s complicated or challenging.

It’s important to realize that working in human services can mean having to deal with some troubling cases at times. As such, it’s critical to have the mental strength to cope with this and also the ability to set clear boundaries with both your clients and yourself. Being able to separate your work life from your home life enables you to look after your own mental health and wellbeing too.

Other key skills to have include communication, observation, attention to detail, decision making, problem-solving, time management, patience, and active listening. These will allow you to handle multiple complex cases at once, keep track of all the detailed information that’s required in order to do so, and generally best serve the people in your care – even those who are reluctant to open up and trust you. Don’t worry if you feel you don’t have all these attributes yet, as studying for your human services degree will give you plenty of time to work on them!