Majority of Americans Hold Social Workers in High Regard

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By Paul R. Pace

Eighty percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of social workers and 81 percent of those who have interacted with a social worker say a member of the profession improved their situation or that of a family member, according to a new survey from Ipsos, a global market research and public opinion company.

NASW has been working for years to improve the public image of social workers, says Greg Wright, communications director with the NASW National Office in Washington, D.C.

“We sought this survey because we wanted to check the temperature and see what the public perception was,” Wright explained. “We were pleased to learn that social workers have a high public opinion favorability rating. We are also glad so many Americans who have been helped by social workers said the social worker improved the situation for them or their families.”

“But we were also made aware that the public generally does not have a good understanding of all the areas where social workers work and are making an impact on their lives,” Wright added. “They also need a better understanding of the social supports social workers have helped secure over the decades.”

Still Work Ahead

The survey, released in conjunction with National Social Work Month in March, found social workers still have work to do in educating the public about the positive contributions the century-old profession has made to the nation.

For instance, only 34 percent know social workers played a key role in creating safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and only 28 percent are aware that social workers played pivotal roles in the modern civil rights movement.

“The survey showed social workers touch the lives of millions of Americans—about one out of six people said they or a family member was assisted by a social worker, mostly in mental health or private practice settings, social services or child welfare, and hospitals,” said NASW CEO Anthony Estreet, PhD, MBA, LCSW-C.

“Although we need to expand our public education efforts, we are glad to know the public backs work NASW is doing to support the profession, including boosting social work salaries and passing legislation to ensure social workers are safer at work,” he said.

Social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the United States, with about 708,000 people now employed in the profession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is expected to grow by 64,000 by 2031, BLS said. Social workers are greatly needed as the nation grapples with pressing social issues amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need for more mental health services, poverty and income inequality, entrenched systemic racism, and our increasing aging population.

NASW and the NASW Foundation turned to Ipsos to conduct the survey of current public opinion about social workers. Ipsos interviewed a nationally representative probability sample of 1,016 adults aged 18 or older. The survey was conducted using KnowledgePanel®, the largest and most well-established online probability-based panel that is representative of the adult U.S. population. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Key findings from the report show:

  • Slightly more than half of respondents said social workers should be paid more than the BLS-reported median pay of $50,390 a year. Thirty-four percent neither agree nor disagree that social workers should be paid more and only 13 percent disagree with higher pay. 
  • Few Americans know social workers can work in potentially dangerous settings. However, 84 percent would support Congress passing legislation that would provide agencies where social workers work with grants to help improve safety.
  • Eighty-six percent of Americans are aware that social workers work in social services and child welfare and 65 percent said they know social workers practice in mental health/private practice and substance use (behavioral health settings). However, many people are unaware that social workers work in a variety of other settings. For instance, only 46 percent know social workers are involved in advocacy and community organization; 45 percent know social workers play a key role in hospice care; and 30 percent know social workers are involved in financial benefits and support.

Raising Awareness

NASW and the NASW Foundation hope the survey findings will be used to raise awareness of the social work profession beyond Social Work Month. And the findings will support efforts on the local, state and federal levels to advance the profession. NASW promotes and develops social work professionals while the NASW Foundation supports charitable and educational activities.

“The survey supports our call for higher pay for social workers and legislation to improve social worker safety,” Wright said. “We hope folks will use the survey information when they are lobbying regulators or lawmakers. They can also use it in presentations, research, on social media and in advertising. In other words, we hope it will be used to convey a positive attitude toward social workers.”

“We are excited by the results and glad Americans have such a positive attitude toward social workers and that so many have benefitted from their life-affirming work,” Estreet said. “NASW will use this data in our advocacy activities and in our mission to promote the profession. We hope other supporters and partners will do the same.”

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