By: Jeann Linsley
Spring 1996, Vol. 3, No. 1
Ask almost any social worker, and they’ll tell you they’re not in it for the money.
Social workers continue to be relegated to a low pay status which devalues their work and short-changes their clients, say some experts.
According to recent surveys, social work salaries have not kept pace with inflation, and salaries remain low compared with other professions, even female-dominated helping professions.
Some child welfare workers in supervisory positions are paid less than meter readers, according to one survey.
According to a new survey by Howard University Professor Philip Schervish for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the 1995 median social work salary of between $30,000 and $35,000--when adjusted for inflation--has increased in real dollars only slightly since 1961.
In 1993, the last time an NASW survey was done, that range was $25,000 to $29,000, says Schervish.
"We’re not looking at any advancement of the profession," says Schervish. "Salaries are basically stable."
"I think there is still a question about how well the services of social workers are valued," says Leila Carlson, executive director of the Iowa Chapter of NASW.
"There' a tendency to think ‘Anyone can do that type of work,’ " says social work professor Brenda McGowan at Columbia University in New York City.
The 1995 survey included 153,000 social workers around the country, most of them MSWs.
"Relative to inflation, we’re still losing ground," says Schervish. "The increases we’re seeing are due to increased experience and cost-of-living adjustments. There hasn’t been the ratcheting of salaries that we saw in the nursing profession ten years ago."
In both the NASW survey and one conducted by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), social work salaries were compared to those of other professions.
The CWLA found, for example, that the median (mid-point) salary earned by supervisors of residential child welfare programs was $24,075. That compares with a median salary of $35,724 for registered nurses, and $24,492 for meter readers.
Social workers in child welfare with master' degrees fared better--the median salary for that group was $28,010--but that salary was still not comparable to registered nurses' salaries. When social workers moved into administrative child welfare positions, they began to earn comparable salaries to psychologists and librarians. And CEOs of child welfare agencies even made more than salaried doctors and lawyers--but there were only 250 people reporting in these positions, compared to thousands in the lower level ones.
MSW social workers fared best in California in the CWLA survey, earning an average salary of $29,332.
New York came in second, with an average MSW salary of $29,118. Missouri child welfare workers with master' degrees were paid the least, earning an average of $24,808.
"Salaries tend to be higher in the western regions, and lower in the southern regions," says Jennifer Boyd, a research associate at CWLA.
Another factor which might be affecting Midwestern salaries is the number of social workers working for church-related agencies, which have less money to devote to salaries, says Carlson of the Iowa NASW Chapter.
Sue Hance, director of membership services for the California Chapter of NASW, says MSWs right out of grad school can expect to earn about $20,000 to $24,000 in outlying areas and smaller cities, while new MSWs in more urban areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles earn about $30,000.
By far the highest paid social workers were those in universities, business/industry, and private solo settings, according to the NASW survey.
Still, Schervish emphasizes that insurance benefits and other expenses cut a large chunk out of the earnings of private practitioners, who gross an average of $42,000 to $45,000.
"Private practice is not the panacea that everyone thought it would be," says Schervish.
Despite two decades of effort by the NASW to achieve pay equality, both the NASW and the CWLA surveys again found that pay equity remains elusive. Even though the NASW membership is overwhelmingly female, the NASW survey found that average annual salaries of male members were $2,500 to $5,000 more than those of female members.
Patrick Curis, director of research for CWLA, says men in executive social work positions in child welfare agencies make more than women, and that "women haven’t made it into the positions where they are running the big agencies."
Beyond the issue of gender inequity, Columbia Professor McGowan says social work salaries in New York are affected by a "declassification" of jobs, the practice of hiring less qualified people for positions previously reserved for MSWs.
Because there is always a ready supply of hirees with less experience and who demand less pay, such declassification results in an ample supply of qualified individuals, lowering demand for MSWs and perpetuating low pay for those social work positions.
As a result, "there is no shortage (of social workers) that would force up wages," says McGowan.
A similar declassification of former master' level social work positions is occurring in California, according to Hance of the NASW California Chapter.
Master' level social work positions are being taken by individuals with certificates in marriage, family and child counseling, who come much cheaper than MSWs, says Hance.
McGowan said the lack of a licensing mandate in states like New York also drives down salaries, because it allows the market to be flooded with less qualified social workers.
According to Schervish, "Some of the public sector settings are under court order now to increase their percentage of degreed, professional social workers."
For many social workers, coping with low salaries means moonlighting. The number of social workers earning income from supplemental employment nearly doubled between 1993 and 1995, the NASW survey revealed. Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed in 1995 reported supplemental earnings beyond those of a regular full-time job, compared to 18 percent in 1993.
Salary inequities have prompted the New York City Chapter of NASW to recommend a minimum salary for New York City social workers of $35,000.
In addition, the Chapter' Salary Task Force is working on a three-year plan to address the issue of improving the image of social work and helping agency directors find ways to raise salaries.
The low salaries bode ill for the children who are served by the child welfare system, says Boyd, of CWLA. "Kids in need of great stability are not getting that stability," she says, referring to high staff turnover rates.
Still, new students continue to enter schools of social work despite concerns about their earning power upon graduation. Maybe they see other rewards ahead and are willing to sacrifice the "big bucks" for professional satisfaction.
Or to join in the fight to be paid what they’re worth.
Jeann Linsley, CSW, is a social worker and free-lance writer in New York City.