A September 2009 CNN·Money article listed 15 stressful jobs that pay badly. Number 1? Social worker – median pay: $43,200.
The article states:
“Social workers step in when everyone else steps aside to help people and families in vulnerable situations. They provide patients with education and counseling, advise caregivers and make referrals for other services. And with social workers in short supply and programs underfunded, few must juggle the work of many, while reaping little reward.”
An incomplete characterization, to be sure, but basically correct.
Why is this so? Why is “the system” set up to pay social workers less than we are worth? Because the value we derive… (Did I hear someone shout, “Because we let them!”)? The value we derive from helping others is not salary-based. We choose to go places most people don’t want to go, to stare into the twisted face of pain and feel the thrill of helping those muscles relax—even just a little. The monetary value of that benefit is the price of our hearts, and that price is $WhatEverItTakes.00. We exercise our heart muscle in a big way in this profession, and we get the job done or burn out in the effort, which is all too often the case.
Given a degree of burnout that is now legend among our colleagues why, too, are we willing to risk burnout for so little money? To enable a broken system of compensation to remain broken? Are we too busy helping our clients and trying to have a life of our own to hold our leaders accountable? While that may be part of the answer—it’s not all of it.
There is a game of chicken going on between not-for-profits and funders, primarily government entities, and the not-for-profits blink—every time.
About a year ago I attended a meeting of supportive housing providers (not-for-profits) hosted by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, NY. While we were waiting for the OMH reps to come in, word went around this enormous conference table that RFP’s (Requests for Proposal) were about to be issued for the creation of new CR-SRO’s (Community Residence-Single Room Occupancy residences, a category of supportive housing). As word spread of these impending RFP’s, the individuals seated around the table, middle- and upper-level managers from an assortment of contracted service providers, looked at one another stealthily, furtively. First left, then right, a series of head movements that pulsed like a slow wave moving around the table. I’m watching this, and forgive me for being crude, but it was like someone passed gas and they were seeing if anyone else smelled it. But instead of “It wasn’t me,” the facial expressions read more like “I don’t want it,” “You can have it,” and finally, “No thanks.” But sure as heck those same people knew that their organizations would compete fiercely for those contracts, with their puny budgets.
But if the budgets are so puny that the managers responsible for running those programs are looking at each other as if to say “Good luck with that”, why do the not-for-profits blink every time?
Because in the view of many of these organizations we work for, some programs are better than no programs—even poorly run programs, some of which operate at a deficit. Because it’s better for residents recovering from mental illness to be in a woefully funded community residence than in a shelter, on the street or, heaven forbid, in a jail or prison. I get it, but—it’s not a good enough reason to underfund a program and underpay professional staff who have families and bills and student loans. The men and women who live in these residences, many of whom have lived horribly difficult lives filled with fear and tragedy and loneliness, deserve better, and so do we.
But what is our role, as social workers, in perpetuating this ill-fitting status quo of too high stress for too little money? Are we actually complicitous in maintaining, through our inaction, the very state of affairs we so object to—are we enablers?
An anonymous contributor on wiki.answers.com, in response to the question “Why are social workers willing to work for low pay?” posted:
“I am just entering the field as an LLMSW and I am very concerned about why we have accepted this (low pay) for so long. We are supposed to be able to advocate for others and we also know that we need to take care of our needs in order to be good social workers. We also know that this is one of the reasons for high burnout. Why have our leaders not stepped up? I am asking that we challenge NASW to do more. If the NASW (2010), “works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies,” then why are they not advocating for our needs so that we may continue working in our chosen field without as much fear and shame of our salaries!”
My colleague—I hear you.
A call-to-action for NASW CEO Dr. Angelo McClain
Dear Dr. McClain,
I hear you are a good man and exceptional social worker, this from a reader of mine who claims to know you for many years. I don’t doubt it. And I’ll admit right up front, I don’t know the history of the NASW’s efforts to advocate for better salaries for social workers, nor do I know of any personal efforts you yourself may have undertaken. Perhaps there are and have been many such efforts and I’m the last social worker on the block to know. It would seem, though, that despite any such efforts, we as a profession remain in a quandary over the issue of inappropriately low salaries.
In your article “Helping Social Workers Help People” (July 2013 NASW News) you wrote “We know there’s a pressing need to raise social work salaries to levels that allow retention of experienced social workers and incentives for students to enter the field.”
In response, I shared the following with you.
As you know, organizations compete to win contracts from various government entities in response to RFP’s. To win these contracts, they of course try to offer the lowest bid possible. As private funding sources began drying up in the economic crisis begun in 2008, the competition for government contracts became even more fierce than it had been, historically. One of the results of this competition has been that organizations are increasingly willing to overlook social workers as job candidates in favor of individuals with some human services experience and a Bachelors or Associates Degree (in almost anything), or “equivalent experience.”
Why are they doing this? A trusted friend and colleague of mine who is responsible for recruiting and hiring new Case Managers in her program told me that it saved her $3,000 per worker, per year, to hire someone other than a Social Worker. Three thousand dollars! She was allotted $35,000 to hire Case Managers and wanted to hire BSW’s or MSW candidates, but in so many words was told it would be “really great” if she could find “other” new hires for, say, $32,000. This was extremely distressing to my friend and she tried to hire the BSW and MSW candidates anyway. She wanted social workers for her clients. The social workers wouldn’t go for it—and who could blame them? That’s the reality. That’s how tight the money is. And I have it from other sources that this is a generalizable dynamic in cash-strapped not-for-profits.
So will raising social work salaries result in hiring more Social Workers? Right now, I’m hard pressed to see how.”
I emailed this to you at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com on July 17, 2013. The full article was published in my blog The Social Work Practitioner on July 15, 2013. The NASW’s auto-reply email notes, “Individual letters cannot be responded to.” Well, what can be responded to? I am knocking on your door asking not for help, but to help. I am publicly asking you how a nation full of social workers can make higher salaries a reality. Certainly we can go outside the auspices of the NASW, but we are stronger together, don’t you think?
Dr. McClain, we need you to help us see how this is going to work. Or at the very least what your thinking is, at this point. If you lead a sensible campaign with a clear and reasonable chance of success I, and others, will rally behind you. We already have an abundance of the “pressing need” part you referred to—we need a path to a solution. We need your leadership and we need it to be a very high priority of your administration.
Are you up for it, Dr. McClain? Are you with us? We need to hear from you.
Respectfully and with best wishes,
Craig Moncho, Social Worker
Okay, I’ll get the ball rolling here, though I’m sure that I’m less qualified than Dr. McClain to figure this out. But what the hey, I’m going for it. Here are two initial thoughts to get this conversation going.
A question for our social work research colleagues
What studies can you cite (or what studies need to be done) showing the benefit to consumers and funding entities of hiring masters level social workers? Send me links, email me (contact information is available on my blog ‘Contacts’ link) and we’ll move this conversation toward meaningful action.
We need to compel government entities to require master’s level social workers to fill particular staffing niches in the RFP’s that not-for-profits are competing for. How do we do this? Social work researchers, kicking the ball back to you. We need bona fide research that conclusively proves that client outcomes are significantly improved when masters level social workers are leading the way. If bang for the buck is the “currency” economists and politicians deal in, let’s show them the research, and push—hard.
Just because no one could pay social workers enough to properly reflect the heart we bring to our work doesn’t mean we, as a profession, should be Number One on the list of the 15 most stressful jobs that pay badly.
There is a silent calculus at play among those who are in the position to fund programs for the needy and disadvantaged. That calculus takes into account an understanding that those of us who choose to become social workers have uncommonly big hearts. They know we can’t or won’t walk away from our clients. They know the price of our hearts: Insultingly low salary + $WhatEverItTakes.00 to get the job done. And we’ve been doing it, we still do it, and it’s still not okay.
So—what are we going to do about it?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. I hope you’ll talk to me, and that Dr. McClain talks to us—soon. If he takes our plea to heart, a plea made innumerable times and most recently elucidated in this article, I hope he will begin addressing the “…pressing need to raise social work salaries…” soon. I hope we will hear from him via the medium of his choosing by December 31st.
Together, maybe we can make this dream of a higher salary that someone will actually pay, a reality.
Questions for Further Consideration
1) How can we effectively advocate for higher salaries for social workers?
MSW w/ or w/o licenses are being “used” by employers, whether for profit or non-profit(designation of latter two entities is mostly in regards to how profits/taxes are reinvested and reported) due to weak leadership of your main union, which appears to be the NASW in reading this posting. IF you have a license as a result of an advanced degree(beyond Bachelors), it’s more than appropriate to demand pay/compensation commensurate with your efforts(this is being “professional”) getting to where you are and what you do. Ya’ll need a stronger voice and representation that really care and have clout.
Again, the beginning of better pay for social workers is when agencies start acting like social workers are important to their success. Mostly “staff is our most important resource” is not much more than platitude. My new book: Employee-Centered Management – The Coming Revolution in Social Services (with Forward by William Waldman of the Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work) provides some direction for agencies willing to re-invent themselves. Should be available by Mar. 1.
Larry, this is an extremely important topic, I think we’d all agree. I greatly admire and respect the fact that you are taking it on at this level. I very much look forward to reading your book. Please let us know when it comes available, be it on March 1, or the day after that.
Thanks for writing.
Craig – my book has been out for about two weeks now. You can learn more about it from my website (www.socialserviceleaders.org) or on the Amazon page directly. The title is: Employee Centered Management: The Coming Revolution in Social Services.
Larry Wenger, MSW
Dr. Robert Vernon at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis would be a great resource. He used to have (and probably still does) something on his office door re: this subject. We should not accept that Social Worker=poorly paid.
Thanks for the tip—I will follow up. And thanks for reading my post.
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Great Post! I recently had a conversation with my former graduate supervisor regarding pay. He said to me that ‘we allow agency’s to define our [SW] worth’. Those agency’s who pay slightly higher do so by design to keep SW’s employed with the thought and feeling that ‘I will never get this pay elsewhere, so I will just suck it up and continue on’. The ideals of a good SW are not necessarily taken into account, rather has the job been completed according to the outcomes we are trying to meet? (from the not-for-profit standpoint from my experience).
I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
I assume the “we” your former graduate supervisor was referring to is “we” social workers? It is certainly the case that the closer an agency comes to paying social workers what they are worth, the more employee loyalty they will earn. But who is deciding what the services of a social worker are worth? There’s the rub. In the absence of a concerted effort, as a profession, to set the standard, or at least influence it, organizations will pay only what they feel they need to in order to get the job done. Do we, as a profession, have the will, the intelligence, the creativity, the energy, and the heart, to undertake a level of self-advocacy not yet seen, so that we have a greater voice in determining the level of our compensation? I sure hope so.
Thanks for reading and contributing! Hope to hear from you again.
Hi, Craig and Sarah! Social workers in some county agencies in Minnesota have been unionized since the 1970s — I had my most liveable wage and best benefits (terrific pension, which I’m benefiting from now) when I worked in CPS in the county from 1977-1989 — in many ways a most rewarding job, too. On the other hand, there were two strikes, one of which was two months long and quite adversarial — at the time I was a supervisor, so had to cross the picket lines formed by my staff. Much deep and pervasive learning from that nightmarish experience, one of which was that without social workers, many of the other professionals lost hope, especially when overwhelmed while trying to help families with multiple and overwhelming difficulties. So, in its absence the value of social work in empowering and nurturing hope became evident, and I’ve never forgotten….
Very interesting to hear your experience. It must have been hard crossing that picket line—wow. Is it more common for government entities to have unionized staff? Don’t know if Sarah works for the government or in the private sector, but I’m sure curious.
As the song says “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Is that what it takes to be appreciated—absence? In the case you cited, it’s clear that the answer is “Yes,” which certainly has implications.
ABOUT TIME SOCIAL WORKERS & PAY EQUITY CAME INTO THE 21ST CENTURY. I HAVE
ENDURED LOW LOW WAGES FOR 36 YEARS.
Dana, it is long past time. But the day will come, as long as we can marshall the knowledge and spirit to drive things forward.
Thanks so much for reading, and taking the time to comment.
I am following up on your request for information on studies of the correlation between social work educational preparation and the quality or effectiveness of the practitioners’ services (compared to those without social work education). In my book with Needha Boutte-Queen, we reviewed the literature on the relationship between holding a license in social work and the quality of services provided by the licensee. While not a perfect proxy for being educated as a social worker or having a social work degree, the variable of having a license or not is sometimes all that researchers have to go on. We found that licensed social workers (most of whom have social work degrees) are more likely than non-licensed practitioners to pursue continuing education, to use supervision, to honor self-determination, to show cultural sensitivity, and to develop longer lasting relationships (pp. 14-17). Dr. Edward Mullen from Columbia University and colleagues conducted a systematic and comprehensive review of studies of the effectiveness of social work interventions, especially with older people. They found evidence that social work interventions are effective with a wide range of problems and populations; about two-thirds of clients are likely to benefit from their social work services.
I’ve also put out a request on a local list service, and I’ll pass on what colleagues report.
Stay passionate! (One of my favorite sayings regarding “burn-out” is that we can’t burnout if we’re not on fire in the first place!)
Bibus, A. A., & Boutté-Queen, N. (2011). Regulating social work: A primer on licensing practice. Chicago: Lyceum Books.
Mullen, E. et al. (2008). What can be concluded from general reviews of social work effectiveness. Presentation at the 11th Annual Inter-Centre Network for the Evaluation of Social Work Practice Meeting, Finland, September 24-26, 2008.
I am happy to hear from you, and thanks so much for your time and generosity.
The results you describe in saying “…licensed social workers (most of whom have social work degrees) are more likely than non-licensed practitioners to pursue continuing education, to use supervision, to honor self-determination, to show cultural sensitivity, and to develop longer lasting relationships” is wonderful to hear, in that it confirms more than our suspicions—it confirms our experiences. And I agree, it is not a perfect proxy, but… I would be surprised if there were much of a difference in the findings if licensed and unlicensed social workers were grouped together and compared to those functioning in the capacity of a master’s level social worker but without the benefit of that education.
I hope for more, more unequivocal, irrefutable studies that can reliably prove that outcomes are better and costs are lower. You have already proven that such research exists—the more the merrier, I say! With the research there, it only remains to incessantly make the case for both raising salaries, and requiring that social workers and only social workers are functioning in key positions. I believe this can be done.
“We can’t burnout if we’re not on fire in the first place!” Love it!
Thanks again for your interest and support. Looking forward to hearing what our colleagues on the list serve have to say.
We don’t have to go as far as researching why social workers should be paid a higher salary. All it takes is to know that insurance companies or governmental agencies would not reimburse for services provided by other than a licensed social worker. Why is that?
Dr. Olga Rivera
So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. In my role as insurance chair for the NC Society for Clinical Social Work, this issue comes up again and again at the tables–and we are the lowest paid among those complaining (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.). No one will step up as an organization because of fear of “colluding.” I get that this is a real legal issue (or is it?), but it is laughable. Really? “They” won’t allow us to talk to each other about these ridiculously low salaries? “They” are afraid of us? And our $43,000 salaries? Really? If our organizations won’t step up, I’m thinking we need to start grass roots campaigns in each community. Reach out to our colleagues individually (perhaps craft an appeal letter for the state insurance commission, insurance companies, as well as government organizations [Medicaid, etc.]), ask them to make an appeal to these organizations (perhaps with the form letter), and challenge them to reach out to 5 colleagues, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how else to begin the process, but it’s got to begin. And I, for one, am tired of waiting for someone else to step to the plate. Join me, anyone? Can we start this grassroots campaign nationally??
I’m not sure I understand what the collusion is. Could you say a little more about it? As I’d mentioned in my reply to Larry there are some not-for-profits who appropriately value their staff both in terms of salary and the quality of the work environment (physical space, caseloads, etc.). Alas, they are few and far between.
I am in agreement with you about the need for a grassroots campaign on the one hand, but also top-down involvement, which is obviously difficult to compel, even in our own organization (for those like me who hold NASW memberships). But of course it is the grassroots activity that can help drive the top-down response in a positive direction.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I’m not satisfied shouting into the wind about this—something needs to be done. With the need to work and having a family, wow, it’s hard. In the meantime I, we, should continue this conversation about what is possible, given our core responsibilities. There’s got to be a way.
Thank you so much for engaging. While I certainly encourage you to continue participating in this forum, as time allows, please also feel free to reach out to me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. This goes for everyone involved, I am very willing to continue exploring this with you. After all, we just want to be happy in our work. We want our programs and organizations to thrive and be models for service delivery. And that means making sure that social workers, and all staffers, are appropriately valued.
Yes, yes, yes. Who could ever say “no” to higher salaries and better funded programs. But it’s a bigger problem than that. Focusing on the money side allows us to not have a hard look at management. In case you have not seen it, the 2013 Gallup survey on employee engagement says that only 30% of American workers are fully engaged in their work. My anecdotal look at social agencies tells me that things are not much better on the non-profit side of things. You know what that means? It means that if your annual personnel costs are sat, $5 million, there’s a good chance that $100-200,000 is being wasted due to absenteeism, tardiness, turnover, unnecessary accidents, “not-my-job” etc.etc. Now the easy way to respond to this is that our 2013 employees have no work ethic and are impossible to manage. I prefer to take another route to a solution. I think we have management upside down. For 50 years or more, social agencies have been using all available resources for the clients and hoping that the employees will “hang in there” due to their commitment. Here’s the upside down part. In my opinion, when we start by taking care of employees, the needs of the clients will be met in an even more superior way. There are many examples in the for-profit world of the wisdom of taking care of employees first. It results in better customer service and far better financial performance for the organization as a whole. Think about it.
Thank you Larry. I have been saying this for years. If nonprofits did their best to improve working conditions for employees it could decrease burnout and job turnover. Which would be good not just for social workers but also for the agency and the communities they serve. I have heard so many social workers talk about developing health problems (anxiety, trouble sleeping, severe headaches, etc) because of the pressure they are under at work.
When we talk about social work burnout we too often put 100% of the responsibility for coping onto the shoulders of the individual practitioners. I feel strongly that the employers need to bear some responsibility for helping their staff deal with the stress brought on by the demands of the job.
Right on, Rachel!
Anxiety is not the only problem. I live in New York City everything is so expensive. Fordham university cost over 80k, rent over 1,500, childcare over 1,200 and everything else added on its too much. 43,000 for master level is a disgrace. Most social work that does fieldwork is working over 40hrs and is not being properly compensated and there are not enough incentives for anyone to stay in this field.
Larry, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
The focus in so many not-for-profits has been on keeping the programs running, and social workers (and non-social workers) have too often been viewed as expendable. Use ‘em up, get new ones. I hate, hate, hate to say that. But I’ve seen it too often.
I managed a program that was quite successful at one of the better run not-for-profits, and we were offered a budget increase because we exceeded our contracted program goals. This was every manager’s dream. BUT, while this increase was offered so we could scale up the services we provided (serve more consumers), the funder would not let us allocate any of the funds toward hiring another case manager. Or half a case manager (20 hours). Now how does THAT work? What are “they” thinking? So what did I do? I got another MSW-intern.
What I have seen, not coincidentally at the smaller not-for-profits, is much more of an emphasis on employee satisfaction. Everyone knows each other, knows the struggles and challenges up close and personal. Smaller organizations tend to be much flatter, less hierarchical. Social workers and other staffers are valued and invested in. So we, too, are faced with a dilemma that permeates organizations of every shape and size and purpose—the bigger you get, the less seen you are, the less invested in. Good news is, there are leaders out there who understand this and do truly value their staffers. Unfortunately, there are just not enough of those leaders.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Larry.
Reblogged this on fblog.
I agree with you whole-heartedly. I have been involved in discussions regarding salary with social workers on LinkedIn, however invariably the conversation turns to “we didn’t get into social work for the money”, as if there is something noble about undervaluing your worth. I didn’t go into social work to be living in poverty, either. The interest that has built up on my student loans over the years has me owing twice what the total was when I graduated. The concept of a decent vacation is a distant dream, let alone a comfortable retirement. I love social work and I love the work I do. However, it’s very difficult not to feel somewhat resentful when I’m trying to stretch my too-meager paycheck to cover basic living expenses. I hope the new CEO of the NASW takes up this issue and works as tirelessly for us as we work for our clients.
I’m really feeling you on this—I’m sure many of us are.
There is no virtue in the kind of struggle so many of us must endure to do the work we love. I’ve been spending too much time lately wondering why we are so undervalued for the service we provide society. As long as I can feed my kids, and myself, I will try to do more than just wonder. That’s what gave rise to this article.
Thanks, Mary. Take good care of yourself, and I’d appreciate it if you can stay tuned. Let’s see where this takes us.
Hello “fblog!” Thank you for re-blogging my article. I hope that others will follow your lead.
With regards to your letter to Dr. McClain; consider getting other social workers to sign on to your letter. Then make an appointment with NASW at their DC office and hand deliver the letter with the signatures. It would also help to have a few other social workers with you.
I firmly believe that NASW needs to step up to the plate. They are the largest professional social work association in the US. They have the resources (including a team of lobbyist). Unfortunately they have not shown interest in doing so. This is not a new discussion but one that I have seen repeatedly, even on the NASW LinkedIn discussion forum.
Your suggestion is a very good one.
Without a doubt, there needs to be some kind of grassroots campaign. Ideally, though, I think it would be more effective to work both ends against the middle, rather than “either-or.” Keep the pressure on the NASW to advocate in this area, and “do what ya gotta do” to take care of yourself and your family.
It has been quite amazing to hear how people are feeling about this important issue. It makes me ever more curious to understand the NASW’s historical perspective regarding higher salaries for social workers. What have they tried, and where? What’s not been tried? What other organizations, individuals, or groups are currently involved in this effort? Where have they been able to gain a foothold or be effective, and where have their efforts fallen flat? I certainly will be keeping my ear to the rail on this one, because it’s not about to go away. All of us, no matter our occupation or calling, want to feel we are valued in real and tangible ways.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Rachel.
I was lucky enough to become a union member when I became a CPS social worker, which directly affected my pay in a positive way. I would call for social workers to unionize through the help of NASW. We pay our fees every year even though most of us are making working class, even working poor wages. What is NASW doing to help? I read a paragraph about the wage debate in one of their recent newsletters, but nothing more.
I have so many questions for you—hope you don’t mind.
1 Is the fact that you are unionized particular to being a Child Protective Services social worker?
2 Is it particular to the nature of your setting? To your employer?
3 Have you ever gone on strike or has your union ever threatened a walk-out, only to have their demands met?
In writing this article I wondered about the issue of unionization of social workers, and assumed I never heard anything about it because it either didn’t exist, or social workers might not be able to bring themselves to strike because of their devotion to their clientele.
I am very interested in hearing how this works, and wonder if any other social workers are either unionized or know a social worker who is a member of a union, and what that’s been like for them.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Hi Craig! I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner, I’ve been away from blogging for a bit. I work for a county government and we are strongly union. My union has been able to keep my salary as a social worker competitive with people in the private sector and I make more than my friend who is working entry level IT. This is a big deal because it means we are earning a living wage and valued for what we do. It is palpable. Our union has fought for vacation time, benefits, the privilege of seniority, and title protection for us. Title protection equals higher wages. You have to be licensed to call yourself a social worker. Even if one has a degree in social work they cannot claim themselves as social workers without the license. I think this is huge and needs to be national if we want higher wages.
My state has title protection for social workers, but in Arizona, for instance, one can have a degree In a different field and call themselves child protection social workers. Their pay is also very low. It is degrading to have a masters degree in social work and be licensed and work with someone who has the same title and went to school for sociology and is not licensed – and be paid the same!
Unions are what got us title protection and high wages, they also got us reasonable case loads so there is a good professional to client ratio. We got that by negotiating for more positions in our dept. would that have been done without a union? Unfortunately I think not.