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The research

Before we can talk money, we’ve got to talk worth. I wanted to know what perceptions already existed about the social work profession - both externally and internally. There was no question that inadequate social work wages were affected and dictated by various factors other than simply what social workers thought about themselves. 

First and foremost, there was a very limited amount of literature available on the topic of professional worth of the social work profession, including public perception and internal professional self-image. (You might notice the inherent worth implications in that fact alone.)


What DID exist led to the following causes and affects of :

Historic disempowerment

  • Inherent power and gender issues related to being a female-dominated profession

  • The inverse relationship between the number of women in a profession and its average salary

  • Wage gap

  • Glass ceiling and escalator (even in social work)

Outcome #1

While research DID suggest that the public generally thinks the work social workers do is GOOD, the confusion around social work’s professional role along with the effects of historic disempowerment lend themselves to an overall negative and unclear public image.

Outcome #2

Social workers may have unintentionally internalized a negative or unclear professional self-image and may be communicating it back to each other in subtle ways.

External professional ambiguity

  • Professional overlapbetween social workers and other professionals

  • Elastic supply of labor

  • Employers who are willing to sacrifice licensed and trained social workers to fill some vital social work roles

  • General public who may unconsciously marginalize social workers along with the populations they serve

  • Lack of clarity about what social workers do

Internalization of 

external devaluation

  • Expectation and reinforcement of low pay

  • Social media accounts and blogs that jokingly reinforce internal devaluation 

  • Low collective and self-efficacy

  • Internal conflict and competition

  • Lack of role clarity

Central hypothesis

It seemed that all the combined factors describedin the literature - historic disempowerment, professional ambiguity and the internalization of negative messages as a result - had had the capacity to diminish or limit social workers’ perceptions about their professional worth.

And what I really wanted to know was: what impact did those perceptions have on the way they were financially valuing themselves?

Social work on social media

social on social

I explored some pretty nontraditional “research” as well and discovered that social media can be pretty rough on social work too. I found entire accounts that seemed to be dedicated to negative, self-abusive and self-critical social work content- sometimes posted BY self-identified social workers! What?! That’s like some serious social worker on social worker crime. They made light of the “social workers are overworked and underpaid” message, and wonder why that story remains true.

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Financial literature in social work

There was a small handful of salary survey data available, but it should be noted that most of it contained reports only of members of professional organizations or those with licenses. Additional data was available anecdotally through professional websites, but I was unable to verify the information through rigorous research methods. Regardless, to say that these sites and reports paint a comprehensive picture of the social work state of pay would be inaccurate. Bureau of Labor Statistics data was reviewed as well, but it should be noted that this data is self-reported, either through census or based on employer records. If people who are not actual social workers by training identify as social workers in either of those ways, their data becomes confounded with data regarding trained social workers.

There are also so many types of roles that social workers can hold. However, the fact that many social workers hold positions where their title is something other than "social worker" definitely contributes to the difficulty in compiling an accurate depiction of social work pay.

In terms of gender playing a role in financial valuation of a profession, consider this:

I read a study where the researchers gave men and women a certain sum of money and asked if it was sufficient. They reported that men said no and asked for more money 4 out of 5 times more than the female participants. Those that asked for more were given a raise of 7.4% on average. Add this gender-based money problem to pervasive effects of historical and professional disempowerment of our profession, and you can see how these factors might create a low sense of efficacy when it comes to advocating for higher wages, individually OR as a group.

What is financial worth?

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Financial worth is operationally defined as a person’s perceived maximum earning capacity plus the rate of usefulness to society they believe they possess.

The term was created because a comprehensive financial valuation term in the social work literature that captured more than dollar value couldn't be found in the literature. And social workers place their worth on more than dollar value. While this research challenges the “it’s not about the money” message, it’s also not ONLY about money. The NASW code of ethics and core values- as well as the fact that social workers keep doing the WORK- make that clear. A critical ingredient of social work worth is perceived societal contribution- what they are doing for the greater good.

Any study concerning social work earnings should make sure to take this important factor into account.


All the research noted throughout this website can be verified by clicking the button below. If you have questions regarding any of the material, please don't hesitate to contact me for more information!



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