Finances First: How Social Workers Can Help Level the Salary Playing Field

By Alison Laurio

graphic of person floating on a $100 bill

No one wants to do the same job as a co-worker—or a similar job to someone in a comparable profession—and earn less money for it, but that situation is fairly common in social work.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the 2016 median pay for social workers was far less than that of teachers and nurses. Median pay for social workers was $46,890 that year, while registered nurses earned $68,450. Teachers earned $55,490 for kindergarten and elementary school positions and $58,030 for high school jobs, the BLS report states.

Since one of the great skills of those in social work is the ability to advocate for people and causes, some veteran social workers say these skills can be put to use to help the profession level the pay field.

Social workers can help create a pathway for higher wages by using tools similar to those in a successful New York City campaign to create equitable pay citywide—by harnessing the power of students and their skills in using technology, and by changing the thinking and the language used in connection with the issue. And since great changes rarely happen overnight, social workers can manage their future security no matter what they earn by practicing financial self-care.

Success in the City

New York City is large and diverse — and in some ways a microcosm to the rest of the country. The social worker there who ran the successful Campaign for Equitable Salaries said its duplication likely would not work nationwide. But, some of its ideas could be a starting point.

Since the profession knows words matter, ask for what it is — not just a raise but equitable pay, said Robert Schachter, MSW, DSW, the 27-year executive director of NASW’s New York City Chapter, now retired, who launched and led that campaign.

“We always knew pay was a very big concern among social workers,” he said. “The problem is, it’s very difficult to improve salaries. It’s difficult economics for employers.”

The chapter first surveyed employers in the fall of 2013, which confirmed wide pay disparities, and the campaign launched in January 2014.

“Basically, we laid out the value of social workers in New York City and in society in general,” Schachter said.

They included facts like necessary education levels, the cost of loans after attaining graduate-level degrees and costs of living in the city. Many also had to work one or two part-time jobs to get by, he said.

“We went on to talk about the importance of higher salaries and called on employers, the government and other sources like foundations and labor unions to join with us in the campaign so we could approach this together,” Schachter said. “We weren’t blaming employers for low salaries. We recognized they’re squeezed. But we all had to speak out and recognize the importance of social work in human services and the fact salaries were not equitable.”

An online petition was created, and about 5,000 people signed up, leaving comments that made it clear many saw the struggle and recognized it was important to address, he said. Then they sent statements to more than 100 employers to let them know about the campaign.

“There was a very, very interesting response,” Schachter said. “Many agreed and acknowledged the importance of what we were doing. Some were very enthusiastic. Some employers were not.”

But the ball had begun rolling, and some chapter members who also were board members for agencies acted.

“Those agencies rose salaries for social workers on staff,” Schachter said. “Our own NASW-NYC board wanted to put their money where our collective mouth was and they raised salaries for staff.”

Raises were implemented elsewhere, including by a commissioner overseeing funding for more than 600 agencies and Mayor Bill De Blasio, who hired 250 social workers and set entry-level salaries to what was being advocated, he said.

“While we didn’t have a say in what employers were going to do, we spoke out,” Schachter said. “That set expectations and created healthy tensions so employers could feel they were doing the right thing.”

Where the local-level campaign—which succeeded by raising attention and showing everyone what the stakes were—might translate to one state or another, a national effort likely would crumble under the challenges of creating general awareness and unifying different states with different populations, economies, goals and laws, he said.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is having the will and the belief that having a campaign like this is worthwhile,” Schachter said. “I believe political action has to be done collectively and done together, and needs leadership—and that’s where NASW comes in.”

“I believe if (the national office) takes this on, the steps taken in New York City show something can happen.

I think national has the ability to take this on and help chapters figure out how they can campaign, and they can make a difference.”

Engaging Students

Michael M. Sinclair initially saw two reasons for the persistent lag in social work pay: the feminization of the profession and the prototype of men as family breadwinners.

Sinclair, MSW, PhD, associate professor in the MSW department and chair of the Urban Youth and Families Specialization at Morgan State University Graduate School of Social Work in Baltimore, said about 85 percent of social workers are female, and in this country, women get less pay.

When research pointed to other female-led professions like nursing and teaching as not having the same problem, he looked at where they work. Nurses work mostly in hospitals and teachers mostly in schools.

“Social work is unique in that we are a chameleon of careers,” Sinclair said. “Graduates can work in a host of settings—prisons, schools, nursing homes, advocate groups and more. Because we’re splintered, we tend to align ourselves with our host settings. That’s why I call it a chameleon: We tend to fit into our environment.”

There are well-paid areas, like corporate employee assistance programs where clinicians are well paid.

‘If you’re doing an EAP and work for American Airlines, you’re doing six figures easily,” Sinclair said. “That’s where NASW comes into play. We have to advocate for social workers no matter the field of practice. All fields need to have adequate pay.”

“I tell my students, ‘I’m a social worker. I haven’t taken an oath of poverty. We have dispelled that myth, and do not be embarrassed by that.’ Social workers historically were mission-oriented and money became secondary. Now we have to advocate for ourselves and not be reticent or bashful in doing that.”

The profession also should address the way it is depicted in movies and on television, and social workers should work with NASW and TV programmers to make sure that depiction is accurate, he said.

“We know what ER doctors and police do because we see it on TV,” Sinclair said. “We need shows to depict social workers correctly because many people are not aware of all the things social workers can do.”

There are things that can help, he said. Social workers should have a public education campaign in March, which is National Social Work Month. Social work programs and agencies should be educating the public on what social workers do, beginning with a yearlong public education campaign. And social workers who are successful need to self-identify with the profession.

If the profession came together under one large umbrella, other professionals or Congress could go there if they have a question.

“I think if we did have that, we could speak with one voice to ask things of our legislators,” Sinclair said. “We want to acknowledge our diversity, but we need to come together with common threads.”

Financial education, which is currently only addressed if a professor has a particular interest, should be added to coursework, including information on loan forgiveness, Sinclair said. “Another way it could be done is if NASW had a couple of people to go to universities and talk to an assembly about salaries, how to handle loans and how to find grants. Somebody needs to inform our students.”

“When they go into the labor market, students aren’t equipped to negotiate because they don’t know their value,” he said. “We have to empower them and fortify them with the tools, tell them these are the expectations you should have.”

One idea to reach the public is to have NASW chapters or the national office produce promotional videos like commercials, Sinclair said. “We don’t need Warner Brothers to put together a documentary on social work. We could do two-minute, four-minute videos. Roku has a free channel. The students in my urban growth and culture class put together a video on urban social work and put it on YouTube. They state in the video, ‘I’m an MSW student at Morgan State University.’”

Each chapter could have a contest and award monetary prizes for the top three videos, he said.

“We could let young people promote us and do it on an annual basis. People should have accurate information about who we are. If a social worker does something, get that in the news and get it out at the state level.”

Student Attitudes

Allison Peeler, LMSW, senior communications specialist for recruitment marketing at the University of North Texas in Denton, discovered what social work students believed about the profession and pay when working on her master’s thesis, "Perceptions of Professional and Financial Worth among Master of Social Work Students," completed in 2015.

Her thesis included working with three focus groups at the University of Texas at Arlington. The groups were second-year and advanced-standing MSW students, and the goal was exploring professional and societal perceptions of financial worth.

Peeler said “the message ‘I don’t work for the money’ has been repeated so often that people and social workers themselves have come to expect it.”

She felt angry when hearing fellow grad school peers talk about how they expected and were ready to accept low pay.

“It also made me question whether the high value social workers place on the work they do served to rationalize this exploitation,” Peeler said “I wanted to take a deeper look at perceptions of the social work profession to explore how those beliefs might potentially be impacting social workers’ perceptions of their financial worth.”

While all participants in each focus group agreed that average rates of social work pay were unacceptably low, they expressed ways they’d found to cope with it — and reasons they felt called to practice social work in the first place. They talked about how important their work was, how it was more than a job — it was a calling. They were proud of social work’s unique contributions to the greater good, and that they were a part of that.

“A few students also confirmed my hypothesis that focusing on the value of the work could somehow justify continued low wages,” Peeler said, but after one student said social workers don’t care about the money “the room got hot.”

Her students did not want to work a second job or be told they were barely going to clear $30,000 after just earning a master’s degree. She said the students were frustrated but “also seemed to feel pretty stuck under it.”

Peeler said suggestions in her paper included to pledge now to no longer use language like “It’s not about the money” or “social workers don’t make much money,” and to discourage others from using that language or making jokes about it. Encourage positive and professional self-talk, and ask yourself what your financial worth is and how you can affirm it in a positive way.

She also advises students to ask their school to bring

in specialists to speak on these topics. “Practice speaking positively about your profession and worth,” Peeler said, “rather than rationalizing a faulty system with old, played-out storylines.”

She has a website where she covers these issues at

Self-Care Includes Finances

student carrying books, dollar sign

Suze Orman grew up on Chicago’s South Side, earned a BSW at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then moved to California and worked as a waitress, making $400 a month for several years before walking into a Merrill Lynch office and applying for a job focused on retirement planning. She got that job, then became a vice president at Prudential for four years. She then owned her own firm from 1987 to 1995, the year her first book came out.

The financial adviser, television personality, motivational speaker and author of more than a dozen books is often called a financial guru, and her voice has reached millions. She loves serving people, she said, beginning with plates of food and “now just a plate of financial advice.”

“In social work, a lot of problems you deal with are with people who have very little self-worth,” Orman said. “They’ve been beaten down in every possible way. They don’t know what to do.”

“The same is true with you. If you feel less than, you will spend more than. We will spend more if we feel bad. We’ll go out to eat or buy someone a gift. Then when we see our monthly statements, it’s even more depressing.”

When you value who you are and you understand you have self-worth, you will find your net worth will rise, she said. “Self-worth has a lot to do with how you save, spend and invest. It all starts with how you feel about yourself.”

And, she said, you have to put yourself first, using as an example the directions every passenger receives before the plane takes off—when a flight attendant describes how a plastic oxygen mask drops down if something happens on the plane. The directions say to put your own mask on first before helping your children with theirs.

“You cannot help others unless you help yourself first,” Orman said. “Unless you are powerful in your own life, how in the world can you help others?”

Orman said social workers need to understand the role money plays and do three things: live below your means but within your needs; only purchase needs versus wants; and learn you can get as much pleasure out of saving as you do from spending.

Living below your means but within your needs translates into things like being able to afford a 2,000-square-foot apartment but renting a cheaper 1,000-square-foot place because it has all the space you really need.

That doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself once in a while, Orman said.

Her message is save, save, save, and the earlier you start, the better it is.

If you put $100 away every month in something like a Roth IRA tax-free retirement account starting when you’re 25 and continue that every year until you’re 65, with average annual returns of 11 percent over 40 years, you will have $1 million. If you think, “I’m young, what difference will 10 years make?” and start saving at age 35, you will have only $300,000, Orman said.

“Those 10 years cost you $700,000,” she said. “The longer the money you invest has time to compound, the more you make.”

Orman said schools should teach students about finances beginning in high school.

“Before you take out a student loan, you better know what that means,” she said. “The more social workers are educated about finances, the better they are able to help clients. It also means fewer personal problems for social workers. If they instituted that as a mandated class, they would be helping the entire field. Schools should absolutely do that.”



Social Work Advocates masthead

Help for Members: NASW Weighs In


“Social work pay is something we’ve been trying to get a legislative fix for in several congresses,” said Anna Mangum, deputy director of programs at NASW.

In March, the federal bill “Improving Access to Mental Health Act,” was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a social worker, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a physician. It is a bipartisan bill that would make mental health services more available to older Americans and boost the rate that Medicare reimburses clinical social workers.

It is a companion to a House bill introduced earlier in March by U.S. Rep Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a social worker who is chairwoman of the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

NASW’s main goal on the bill is that it increases access, said Dina Kastner, NASW senior field organizer.

“Yes, it will increase wages/compensation, but that is not our stated goal in this bill,” Kastner said. “Our angle on the bill to increase Medicare reimbursement to social workers is that this increases access.”

In addition, NASW is a co-sponsor and supports passage of the Social Work Reinvestment Act. In its March statement in support of the initiative, NASW lays out the background facts, including increased demand for social workers and the services they provide and the expectation of “an imminent shortage of professionals to meet the increased demand for social work services.”

“The initiative’s goal is to enhance societal well-being by securing federal and state investments to support recruitment, retention, recognition and adequate reimbursement of professional social workers,” it states.

Pay / Reimbursement

Members call with questions on reimbursement, and most of these are from clinical social work members.

“On a normal day, we routinely receive at least two calls a day on reimbursement,” said Mirean Coleman, NASW’s manager of clinical social work practice. “If there is a crisis in the social work community where fees are being increased, we may receive as many as 15 calls a day on reimbursement.”

Jennifer Watt, NASW’s director of membership, said calls to Member Services are tracked for “a range of broad issues, including requests for consultations and complaints.”

She said the tally is not perfect since reps select one or two codes per call even if the member brings up a number of issues.

Watt said during January, reps coded 3,927 inbound calls. Of those, 306 were coded as requests for consultation, which includes legal and ethics as well as help with clinical practice. In MyNASW (online community), there are 413 posts mentioning “reimbursement” and 90 mentioning “salary.”

Raffaele Vitelli, vice president of NASW’s Professional Education and Product Development, said a collaborative with the Commission for Case Manager Certification can help social work case managers elevate their profile.

“CCMC reports that 58 percent of employers pay for case managers to take the exam, and 44 percent require the credential, while the majority of CCMs earn more than $80,000 annually,” he said.

Also, the “Supervisory Leaders in Aging” certificate program is designed specifically with the intent of grooming social work leaders in the aging field, Vitelli said.

When it comes to licensing, he said he never saw it as a way to grow a profession’s wages.

“For social workers, licensing was a way to protect the public from charlatans and impostors, and a gateway to title protection.”

Coleman said there are cases where licensing can be helpful.

“Although licensing does not increase salaries, it does open job opportunities for social workers who work in states where licensing is required or preferred,” she said.

NASW Press, cover of money book

Money and Psychotherapy: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals

This publication tackles the money taboo head-on, helping mental health professionals understand how money can affect their ability to be effective in their work, and teaches how to address money-related issues with their clients.

Purchase at NASW Press