The Professional Poor

Four social workers are having dinner together and begin talking about their salaries (or lack thereof) when someone mentions teachers. The social workers all immediately agree, “Teachers make so much money.” Then they all burst out laughing and someone states the obvious, “This is sad- the social workers all sitting around, jealous over how much teachers make!”
That is a true story from my life. I know I’ve mentioned a lot that I work in DV but I’ve never mentioned I have a degree in Social Work. I am not going to say exactly what kind of social work I do but more info on that in a minute.
First I want to point out that a challenge for social workers is an inaccurate public image. I tell people I’m a social worker and they say, “Oh so you work for the state?” Or “Oh so you work with kids?” They phrase it as a question but to me, it seems more like a statement. There’s this automatic assumption that every social worker works for child welfare services and places severely abused and neglected children into foster care.
That’s not what I do!  And I say that not because there’s something wrong with being associated with child protection workers. I don’t mean to say that because that’s just untrue. Nor do I mean to say that that type of work isn’t very challenging and important work. It is! I mean, all human services jobs are hard work …but being legally responsible for the well-being of the children of an entire state – well there’s nothing stressful at all about that! (Sarcasm). And while there are plenty of public gripes about child welfare systems in the US, let’s face it, that work is hard and most people wouldn’t chose to do it so should we really judge those who do? Anyways, my point is that I say this because it’s frustrating that society lacks insight into how diverse of a field social work is.
In the state where I’ve worked, most child protective workers do not have degrees in social work. They are required by the state to get a social work licensure at the bachelor’s level (I believe) but they could have a degree in anything.  And unless they have a master’s degree specifically in social work, they aren’t eligible for a clinical social work license.
In contrast, people who have a bachelor and/or master of social work degree do a variety of work and usually not for the state child welfare system. People with degrees in social work can do case management, counseling, community organizing, manage human services agencies and work on public policies. If they have a master’s degree, they can do all this and provide psychotherapy, make clinical mental health diagnoses and assessments and conduct clinical research. Yeah, we are kind of a big deal and yet most of society thinks we work for the state and remove children from their families. And I repeat child protection jobs are immensely important and difficult work but the assumption that this is the only work social workers do is an inaccurate representation of my profession.  I mean, heck, as a teen and young adult, I went to a few different therapists, many of whom were licensed clinical social workers but I didn’t know it.  I assumed they were psychologists, their skills seemed doctorate-worthy!
Anyways I’m not going to say which type of social work I practice other than that it’s in the DV field. But in the DV field, I could run a DV shelter, work on policy, conduct research, provide advocacy services or therapy to survivors. But so I can remain more anonymous, I chose not to say which type of work I do nor in which type of setting I work.
Anyhoozy, my point is that despite all the credentials and skills social workers have, we are still very poorly compensated. And to add insult to injury, we are typically excluded from public discourse about underpaid fields. Teachers and nurses get a lot of attention because of their lack of pay. And they deserve the attention and recognition! But it’d be nice to see social workers included as much as nurses and teachers when the topic of under compensation arises.
Case in point is this article which discusses the devaluing of female-dominated careers like teaching and nurses and the result of this is that when these professions try to stick up for themselves, they are shamed and judged. There’s no recognition that caregivers are humans with needs and have every right to ask for better. Nor is any attention paid to burnout, secondary trauma and never mind the fact these people have their own lives and bills to pay.
A lot of the article I agreed with and I was happy to see attention being given to these issues and acknowledgement that women’s work is always devalued. When women stay home to raise children and tend a household, they provide free labor. When women create and dominate professional, paid fields, they are underpaid. In either scenario, their needs are ignored. And lest we forget that while this is true for all women, the issue of being underpaid and overworked is even more drastic for women of color. And since there’s much evidence that white women make less than white men and women of color make even less, it stands to reason (to me) that women of color make less than white women in all fields, including teaching, social work and nursing. I just googled this and couldn’t find any information so that last statement is strictly my best educated guess.
Anyways that’s what I appreciated about this article. Oh and the fact that the article focused on the often neglected field of home health aides – a field that’s inadequately compensated and has a high percentage of women of color in it, particularly women of color who are immigrants. But I was disappointed that there was no mention of social workers in the article and discouraged because this is more often the case than not when people discuss underpaid careers.
There are consequences to the lack of inclusion of social workers in these conversations. Social workers do not get discounts at stores – and this is not just stores that sell school supplies. I’ve been asked when checking out at clothing stores if I’m a teacher because if I am, I could get a discount! I tell the people at registers, “No.. but I’m a social worker!” And they just shakes their heads apologetically. The last time I was asked this, I was making nearly half of what the average teacher makes. True, teachers have to pay for a lot of classroom supplies. But social workers have expensive CEUs and licensures to keep up with and if they go into private practice, which does tend to pay better but then they run into a plethora of other expenses that go along with running your own practice.
Social Workers don’t have unions. We advocate for others to have unions and good working conditions but we don’t do this for ourselves – and no one else does either… It’s not unusual for social workers to perform on-call duties, in some jobs, they’re asked to do this 24/7 100% of the time. And there’s not always compensation for this on-call time either. Many social workers have to take on fee-for-service positions, which only pay for the clinical hour and don’t pay for no shows. This creates a tricky dynamic for providers who are caring for people who are often disenfranchised and traumatized and as a result, may have trouble keeping their appointments. There’s no compensation for paperwork in fee-for-service roles. Teachers do have to do a lot of work after hours – that’s true and no doubt taxing for them. But teachers get benefits and consistent salaries and paid time off (and lest we forget the amount of vacation they get!). Social workers may not get any of these things, especially not in fee-for-service positions and if there is paid time off it’s likely only two weeks. It seems that at least some social workers are starting to push back on this model.
I say all these things not to say teachers or nurses don’t need recognition for how undervalued they are and how hard they work. They absolutely do! But I’m tired of social work not getting recognition. I’m tired of society ignoring us and misunderstanding us. And I wish that we thought more highly of ourselves to put ourselves out there and start getting the recognition we not so much deserve as we so much need.
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One Response to The Professional Poor

  1. Pingback: Urban legends and the non-profit world | Izzy In a Tizzy

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