Guest Post: Fair Wages for Social Workers

Fair Wages for Social Workers

It’s time for fair wages for social workers!

Thank you to Debbie Reilly for contributing this guest post.


Why are Social Workers Underpaid?

Let’s refresh ourselves on where our lofty profession got its start. Social work took root in the United States in 1898 when Jane Addams founded Hull House, a settlement house that helped to ensure immigrants and other vulnerable people gained tools and skills to escape economic and social poverty.  Because Addams came from a wealthy family, money or payment for her time and services was not an issue.


I wonder, for us, if the thought of money is somehow “the root of all evil.”  Or maybe we think that if we help people, doing good is its own reward.  We get our self-worth from helping people. We feel guilty about including our own needs as professionals.  Or maybe we don’t really see ourselves as professionals.


The Pay Disparity between Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals

In other “helping” professions such as doctors and lawyers, gaining wealth is expected.


Heather Linderfelt, author of Physician Salary 2019: Salaries rise again, but so does paperwork, stated that according to a survey conducted by Medscape, the overall salary of primary care physicians increased 20 percent from $195,00 to $284,00 and specialist salaries increased 21.5 percent from $284,000 to $342,00 from 2015 to 2019.


Here is a list of wages for helping professions according to Krysten Godfrey Maddocks, author of the article A list of Helping Professions: Big Hearts, Big Opportunities.


  1. A clinical mental health counselor earns a median wage of $44,000 and there is and expected increase in demand of 23% through 2026.
  2. A human services professional with a bachelor’s degree averages $64,000 and looks to 18% growth.
  3. A police officer with an associate’s degree in criminal justice earns $63,000.
  4. A nurse with a bachelor’s degree earns $68,000 with 15% expected growth.
  5. A psychologist with at least a master’s averages $75,000 with anticipation of 14% growth.
  6. Social work is the seventh most meaningful occupation. However, the median wage for social workers is $46,890 (with an anticipated 15% increase in demand for social workers through 2026).


How often have we heard a social worker say, “It’s okay, we don’t do it for the money.”  Can you imagine hearing a doctor say that?  Our own profession even hides from having the discussion of more money. How many times have you spoken to a group of social workers about making more money? How many continuing education seminars have you gone to entitled “How to Gain Wealth as a Social Worker?”


We are the profession that teaches others about awareness—of homelessness, immigration, sexual assault, and women’s empowerment.  We as social workers do not even have awareness in our own field.


Social Workers are Undervalued

According to Dr. Lynn Jones, we don’t clearly articulate the education that professional social workers have. Some social workers have been in their positions for a while, and they have become comfortable with their jobs and do not articulate their value. Most social workers talk about their experience with their clients but not about the education that they have worked hard to achieve. Outsiders to the profession may think that anyone can be a social worker; all a person needs is a kind heart.


We need to place more value on our hard-earned education. We talk about doctors and admire all their education and knowledge as we do for many other helping professions. But we have created a profession where mission trumps money.  As social workers, we come to our field because we are motivated by our mission.  We like what we are doing so much that we ourselves forget our own self-worth.  We say we went into social work not to make a paycheck, but to make a difference. Why can’t we do both? Why is the scale so unbalanced?


Stand-Up for Fair Wages for Social Workers

What will the future bring with funding cuts, increased competition for funding, and fees for service revenue?  It seems sometimes that we leave our career up to chance—maybe because we are too busy with our clients.


If we think the career chooses us, then maybe we think the “career” will just lead us where we need to go.  What about empowerment for social workers?


We need to learn how to focus on our personal as well as professional goals. We need to work at understanding and articulating our differentiating skills and abilities.  We need to research the field and each position so we can make creative and strategic work choices as well as learning how to negotiate fair wages for social workers. Now is the time!



About the author: Deborah Ann Reilly, LMSW

Debbie Reilly is a Licensed Master Social Worker, Certified Case Manager and the owner of Get Life Moving Solutions Life Coaching. She earned an M.A. in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh and is a graduate of the Institute of Life Coaching. Debbie finds that there is no single approach that works for everyone (that would be far too easy!) and employs a variety of strategies, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational interviewing and Seasons of Change Theories, to support her clients.


©2020 Deborah Reilly, LMSW. All rights reserved.
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Sharon Martin has a passion for clinical supervision, mentoring new social workers, blogging, and reading all things social work related. She is a California Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years in the field. Sharon has worked extensively in Bay Area non-profits and successfully runs a private counseling practice in San Jose. Sharon writes regularly for PsychCentral and the Good Men Project. She's also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.

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