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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org 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?