The American Association of Public Welfare Officials was established in 1930 during the Great Depression by state officials who had been charged with the task of distributing "relief" to their constituents. The original purpose of the organization was to help the state officials represent their concerns to the federal government and carry out the new functions. In 1932, the association opened offices in Chicago and changed the name to the American Public Welfare Association (APWA).

The human service sector began to grow during the 1930's and some APWA members were even present when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. The act established federal benefits for the elderly and enabled the states to make more adequate provisions for laws regarding children, the disabled, public health, and unemployment compensation. 

During World War II, APWA developed national relief policy and met with federal officials to clarify the role of public welfare agencies in emergency war times. At this time, APWA began to emerge in a role that it maintains today as a link between federal agencies and states. The association's work to improve social services culminated in the Social Security Act Amendments of 1950 where social services were broadened to reach more beneficiaries around the country.

In 1953, APWA supported President Eisenhower's Reorganization Plan No. 1 that created the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as one of the executive departments of the federal government. Then, during the 1960s, APWA members maintained their roles as major players on the field of public human service policy as the federal government made key changes. For instance, the Public Welfare Amendments of 1962 and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created family assistance programs that would eventually lead to modern programs.

In 1974, the organization moved to Washington, D.C. in order to consolidate its base of operations and focus on social reform policy. The Health Care Financing Administration, the predecessor to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, was established in 1977. Then, in 1979, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare was renamed with the modern title of the Department of Health and Human Services.

During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration ordered the largest tax cut in American history and the responsibility of human services was largely transferred to the states. APWA's goals during this time were to expand policy representation and increase public awareness about human services. In 1986, APWA launched a three-year project to reassess the nation's commitment to low-income families and their children. The project, A Matter of Commitment, led to the national policy debate that resulted in the enactment of the Family Support Act of 1988.

Starting in 1987, APWA developed a five-year Successful Projects Initiative Awards Program to help identify and recognize innovative efforts of state and local human service agencies. In 1988, APWA established the National Commission on Child Welfare, which created guidelines and standards for agencies in assessing child protective services.

When President Clinton was in office his administration called for changes to public welfare and asked for reform plans. APWA submitted a plan developed by state human service commissioners to improve services and streamline programs. Beginning in 1996 the association began to help state and local human service agencies implement program reforms through integrated training, leadership development and practice focus.

In 1998, APWA changed its name to what it remains today, the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), in recognition of the much broader human service agenda it was addressing. The association developed a groundbreaking document called Crossroads: New Directions in Social Policy to present to the Bush Administration and Congress that highlighted reforms to improve efficiency, serve with dignity, and promote independence to beneficiaries of human services. More than a dozen recommendations from this document were signed into law in 2002.

Just one year later in 2003, more than 20 APHSA recommendations were signed into law in the Senate Finance Committee's welfare reform bill. The association continued to increasingly facilitate discussion and provide services to administrators in the human service field during this time. In 2005, a second edition of Crossroads was released to encourage policy reforms, followed by Focal Point in 2009.

More recently, APHSA launched a comprehensive, modern policy agenda called Pathways: The Opportunities Ahead for Human Services, which was developed in coordination with APHSA's state, local and affinity group leaders, and articulates a vision for transformation to our field to meet increased demand for assistance at a time of tight budgets and heightened public expectations for effective outcomes in health and human services.

Today, APHSA has three Collaborative Centers; the National Collaborative for Integration of Health and Human Services (National Collaborative), the Center on Child and Family Well-Being (CCFWB), and the Center for Employment and Economic Well-Being (CEEWB). The Collaborative Centers focus on achieving our members Pathways vision. These platforms are creative teams of members and partners organized around the impact areas identified in our Pathway'sinitiative to:

  • Develop and advance influence campaigns for policy change;
  • Elevate innovations and solutions;
  • Develop tools and guidance for the field;
  • Leverage our OE practice to strengthen the drivers of general organizational readiness, continuous improvement, and performance;
  • Shape and spread key messages using framing science; and
  • Test and refine emerging applications

In 2018, APHSA released its bold five-year plan (through 2022) to advance on its newly adopted mission statement to “advance the well-being of all people by influencing modern approaches to sound policy, building the capacity of public agencies to enable healthy families and communities, and connecting leaders to accelerate learning and generate practical solutions together.” Together with policymakers; connected sectors such as education, justice, housing, and health; community-based organizations that are an integral part of the communities themselves; and the families served, APHSA is helping to build well-being from the ground up so that all people in all places can thrive.