Is It Unfair that Social Workers are Underpaid?

Social Work Is Not So Hard

This (via Miri) is a piece by Margo, a social worker, talking about how people talk about social work as being unusually hard, and call social workers "saints." Margo doesn't much care for the assumption that social work is unusually hard, and I'm glad I read this, because it will temper the advice I read in this post, suggesting that the universally appreciated response to finding out someone's profession is to say that their job must be hard:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

I'll be more circumspect about using that one when talking to social workers.

Margo talks about social work doesn't feel unusually hard, because of Margo's personality:

I’m not sure that I agree that social work is uniquely “hard” as a profession. Certainly the work can be stressful and can cause vicarious trauma or desensitization. Certainly the work can follow you home. Certainly many jobs will overwork you and not give you enough support (material or emotional) to do the work as it ought to be done. But I’m not sure how this differs from many other jobs.

In fact, to me, most other jobs seem much more difficult than mine–prohibitively difficult, even. Journalism. Scientific research, especially in the natural sciences. Business. Finance. Construction. Food service. Computer engineering. These jobs all require skill sets that I lack and could only build with considerable effort, stress, and financial investment, if at all.

The job I chose feels easier to me than these jobs because I am suited for it.

This is one of those things that I totally missed before I read it, but seems obvious in hindsight. Of course people like their jobs more than I would! It's tempting to assume that people who have jobs that wouldn't satisfy my preferences have made a mistake, but this is just the typical mind fallacy talking; the relevant preferences are not mine, but theirs. I have a few friends who have chosen careers very different from mine, which I'd dislike for various reasons, and in many cases they chose those careers because they like them. Because they enjoy the characteristic activities of their profession, even though I would not. A salesperson may like building rapport with clients, or closing the big deal. A mathematician may like playing with a problem that has no known solution. A nurse may enjoy helping others physically, tending to their bodily needs to keep them alive. And a social worker may enjoy helping people work through less immediate challenges.

Actually, It Is Hard

But then Margo goes on to point out ways in which being a social worker really is harder than some other jobs - not because of the intrinsic nature of the work itself, but the relation between the quantity of work society demands of them, and the value (in the form of pay, for example) society places on that work:

Maybe they notice our abysmal pay. (Someone with a Masters degree and years of cumulative field experience deserves a starting salary of significantly higher than ~35k, but the money’s just not there.) Maybe they notice that we have to do the job of two or three people. Maybe they notice that our work environments can be unsupportive and even abusive.

And I would hope that they notice these things and instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have chosen social work if you wanted more money,” they will say, “It’s abhorrent that you make so little money and if there’s ever any way I can influence this situation, I will.”

At the risk of being correctly perceived as an asshole, I don't understand how to hold both these beliefs at the same time. Maybe in some possible nicer world where social workers are not assigned the equivalent of three people's jobs social work is no harder than the typical job; but in our actually existing world it seems different. It's not the case that when choosing professions, people only have information about personal aptitude, and are then assigned job prospects, salaries, and workloads at random. These are things you can and should take into account when choosing a profession.

I don't want to assume that someone else has made a mistake in picking a career - and if people are going around assuming that Margo's unhappy with social work for these reasons when in fact this is not the case, then they shouldn't. Different people have different preferences. But Margo seems to agree that the situation is unfair to social workers.

Is It Unfair?

A similar case is that of adjunct professors. Many aspiring academics, even unusually talented ones from top schools, are unable to find tenure-track positions and end up as "adjunct  professors" - basically, short-term contract instructors, often poorly paid. If a friend of mine who is an adjunct professor complains about their working conditions, then I (if I am performing humanity correctly) will say something sympathetic. But if they ask me to agree that the larger situation is unfair, then it's time for me to say something evasive.

If you have no options but a job where you are underpaid and overworked, then this is unfair. If you were promised an easy life in a career and ended up with a hard one, then you've been cheated. If you chose that profession because you like it, knowing the costs, then that is sad, but no sadder than people in easier jobs making more money, but not doing what they love. It would be nice if you had better options - but that will always be true. Society is willing to pay more for some kinds of work than others - and if you don't like the deal, you can take a different one. If it's worth it to you to accept the poor compensation society offers, to get to do what you love - then it's hardly unfair to you in particular that you get the deal you took.

If you actually feel you're worse off in your dream career, then you should take care of yourself and take a job where you're treated well. (I'm only talking about cases where this is actually possible, which isn't true of everyone or maybe even most people, but seems true of most people I know personally.)

Margo seems to have chosen social work because it matters, and because they find it especially fulfilling.

It Matters

Sometimes the work absolutely needs to get done, and society hasn't recognized it yet. In that case, it can be morally imperative to do the work, and simultaneously unfair not to be well paid for it or have a reasonable workload. Margo hints at this:

But one thing that few people seem to pick up on–at least, people outside the field–is that part of the problem is that social workers are being tasked with things that should not be our job.

I don’t mean that in a flippant way; I mean that I continually feel like we are being asked to fix things things that it is simply beyond our power to fix. Or we’re being asked to slap bandaids onto severed limbs. I get so demoralized sometimes when I realize that I’m being asked to essentially help people learn how to cope with poverty or racism or homophobia or simply working a crushing minimum-wage job while raising kids alone without any help from anyone, and it feels almost cruel to try to help people be more okay with this when this is not something that anyone should be okay with.

I know there’s no other way. I know that, of course. I’m all for harm reduction. If I can help someone deal with the fact that they are going to be poor and hated by the rest of society for their entire life, I guess that’s better than not helping them deal with that.


So when I say that fixing poverty shouldn’t be my job, that’s because it should be everyone’s job. We should all care about poverty. We should all learn about what types of approaches might actually help in reducing poverty. We should all vote for legislators who pledge to implement such approaches (rather than utter rubbish like mandatory drug testing for mothers on food stamps or reducing the total number of months someone can receive public assistance so that they “just get a job already” and all that). We should all then vote those legislators out of office if they fail to follow through on this during their first terms. We should all, if we are able, donate to organizations that have a proven record of helping people in poverty and helping communities develop the resources they need to thrive.

Assuming that Margo was partially motivated to choose social work because it's a way to help with urgent and otherwise-neglected problems, I'd like to understand this way of thinking better, because it's perplexing to me. It seems to put judgments about what society in general should be doing in a different genre from career choice. I can do specific things as an individual, and I can try to influence other people to do things, to actually solve the problem, and if I'm going to do that effectively, I'm going to do it in a way that doesn't require "we all" to do something.  There is no such person as "we all," but there is such a person as me.

If I believed that these were the most important problems, or even just the problems I were personally called to work on (and in either case I'm not sure they're not, I'm still thinking about cause selection), and that society were systematically underinvesting in fixing them, and that social workers are unusually important because they're one of the few ways society tries to ameliorate this stuff - I still don't think I'd feel called to be a social worker for that reason. I'd consider all the possible paths to actually making the problem go away. Off the top of my head, that could include:

  • Get an easier or better-paying job that might be less directly socially helpful but leaves me with more energy at the end of the day, and use my excess time to contribute to the relevant political or social change that addresses the root problems, or just increased investment in social services. (I think there are lots of high-leverage ways to do this and would try to help anyone who wanted figure out what they can do on this. For example, influencing municipal and state governments is not easy but it's doable for anyone with the time for a major hobby.)
  • Work as political advocate for the same, either as a grass-roots campaigner or for a think tank or something else.
  • Get a position in government or politics, where I'd have some discretionary power related to these issues.
  • Take a very high-paying job and give all my excess income to the poor. (Not having enough money is not the only problem people have, but it's a really important one, and causes a lot of others.)

These are not all good ideas for everyone, they're just what I came up with in the first five minutes. They are not advice. Margo can do better, with more information about their particular situation. But I'd be surprised if in any but a few very rare edge cases, "accept the unfair deal for the greater good" turns out to be better than either protecting yourself by opting out, or trying to make the deal less unfair for everyone.

Now, I've just finished complaining about "we all" language that doesn't give anyone a next action, and I immediately followed it up with a vague wish for people to be different. That's not enough, so I'll offer a suggestion for action - one that you, personally, might be able to do. Voting on the issues is hard; you're literally supplying a single bit of information. If you live somewhere with political representation, you can do better.

  1. Identify an issue where you're reasonably sure you have the correct opinion (this can be hard!), and don't face an overwhelming majority on the other side.
  2. Find someone who represents you in government, who is considering a decision related to this issue.
  3. Write a short letter or email or even tweet to them, expressing your opinion, and your support for or opposition to their position. Tell them what you'd like them to do. Briefly and politely. Most people don't ever do even this much, so this "vote" will carry much more weight (and precision) than the one in the official election.

(I do this with local government, but live in DC where I have no voting national representation. If you have the same problem, there are other things we can do.)

It Is Fulfilling

Just as picking an existing career where talent does not seem scarce (if it were, they wouldn't be able to get away with paying so little) seems unlikely to be highest-impact, it seems unlikely that social work is an uniquely fulfilling profession for which there are no good substitutes, even for people who are well suited to it. For example, it seems like some small amount of time doing one-on-one helping work on a volunteer basis, or as part of a different kind of job, might to be nearly as satisfying as doing it full-time. Again, this is just a vague gesture in the direction of the kind of thing I mean, not a specific suggestion, because Margo has much more information about their preferences, abilities, and situation than I have.

I am likely missing something important here, because Margo seems smart and has had plenty of time to think this through. What am I missing?

[UPDATE 25 April 2017: While I don't repudiate any specific claim here, my emphasis was wrong. I'm planning to write more on this, but for now, I just want to note that I think it's entirely plausible to believe that:

  1. Career X is paid less than its social value, and this is unjust.
  2. This implies that someone ought to be working to assign more social credit to people in career X.
  3. Nonetheless, that someone is not me - the best thing for me to be doing is directly producing value through career X.]

2 thoughts on “Is It Unfair that Social Workers are Underpaid?

  1. Shanice Raschilla

    Hello thankyou for posting this, even though I have gave it some long thought, as a black and puertorican woman and 21 years old. I am not ready for social work at this point in time, though I see myself doing it in the future, I have decided to take up regional planning and biology. I come from a poor working class area in springfield mass so I do know that social work and justice are greatly needed. Though I care about other people, I have not reached full maturity in orders to be the best I can be in terms of saving lives. I feel like social work is one of the hardest yet one of the most fulfilling careers out there. I respect you for it and please graciously keep on with your art and written pieces for people like me to read. Peace, love and happiness! Mwa

  2. Ket

    Hats off for people like Margo, because I tried to do social work where I would directly support a client. I learned very quickly that it was not something I had a natural inclination for, and that it was doing both myself and the clients a disservice if I kept attempting to do it. Some people can listen to a mother in distress as she has to work multiple jobs to take care of her medically fragile child. Or parents who are at their wit's end because their daughter habitually steals their credit card. Or a trans student having to call for police detail on campus because her parents tried to physically assault her.

    I learned very early on that I am not a person who can deal with that.

    I've since moved onto nonprofit fundraising, which is a much more marketable skill in the long run and pays better to boot, since there is a lot of value in being the person who can bring in the money. But it seems a step removed from what we colloquially think of as "social work" that I wonder if I really have any business calling myself a social worker, despite possession a license to practice so. By simple virtue of the fact this area of human service fits my skillset and temperament better, I make more money than a program staff person who must drive out in the middle of the night to a family in crisis. And that does feel unfair to me.


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