March has been National Social Worker Month in this country. I often wonder how unbearable life would be without the skill, commitment, tenacity and hard work of social workers, a position embedded in so many essential activities of our society.
They work with children and seniors, the sick and impaired, victims and the exploited, the unemployed and those in recovery, schoolchildren, the dying and the mourning; in hospitals, in schools, in impoverished areas, in remote villages and our metropolitan areas.
They guide, counsel, case plan, broker services, hold hands, open doors, connect people, provide crisis assistance and make life impacting decisions. Social workers are all-important and indispensable for a healthy civil society. I bet there is not one of us who has not personally, or had a family member or friend, benefited by the outstanding work of a social worker.
As significant and important a role as social workers play in maintaining our quality of life, they are culturally veiled and obscured. Seriously, how many television series or movies have you seen lauding the value of social work?
To see another vantage point on how “devalued” social workers are in our culture, look at how they are compensated. In most human services industries, except in some county or state government agencies, to be a social worker one must have a Master’s degree. In many organizations like mine, you not only have to have a Master’s degree, but be a licensed (or soon to be licensed) therapist.
Becoming a social worker is a major investment in time and money; it is not dissimilar to the requirements for a registered nurse. But according to the 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics Wage Reports, the median salary for a registered nurse is $12,000 more per year than that of a social worker.
Let’s make a broader comparison based on the same data set. On average, computer programmers make over $20,000 per year more than a Master’s level social worker. Certainly, programmers provide an important and necessary skill, but they don’t contribute the same positive social impact and value to society provided by social workers.
Throw in the ridiculous compensation for Wall Street bankers and other corporate pirates, and, well…I won’t go there.
Let’s bring this closer to home. My organization, the Family Care Network, is a California-licensed, nonprofit Foster Family Agency (FFA). We specialize in providing Therapeutic Foster Care and mental health services to the most challenging, high-needs children and youth impacted by trauma. Research clearly demonstrates that left untreated, these vulnerable victims of abuse and neglect will experience serious problems the remainder of their lives at a great public and personal expense.
Shockingly, the state of California only allocates about $15.13 per hour for FFA social work services, less than the 2013 median wage for short order cooks, gas station attendants, security guards, crossing guards, janitors, lab animal caretakers and landscape workers.
More importantly, it is less than 50 percent of the median salary for California’s county/state social workers, who are hired under less stringent qualification requirements. How’s that for an expression of devalued worth?
This month has been a time to celebrate the tremendous positive impact social workers make to our communities and quality of life each and every day. It is also a time to rethink what is really important and valuable, and to bring the profession of social work out of the shadows and into the light.
We seem to applaud when someone, by hook or crook, makes millions of dollars; but “cry foul” when someone dares to want to make a decent living wage for hard work that truly benefits society.
Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services.