Will a Social Work Salary Support Your Dream of Helping Others?

You’ve always sought a career that allows you to help others, which is why it’s no surprise you’re drawn to the social work field. You’re excited by the idea of helping people through difficult situations and providing a helping hand to those who need it most. You’re tough enough to fight for those who don’t have a voice and resist the systems that work against them.

I love my job written on a memo at the officeWhen it comes to the roles and responsibilities, you’re ready to sign on the dotted line. But there’s one small detail you’re still curious about — the social worker’s salary. Unlike some people, you’ve never been in it for the money. But you still need to know that the earning potential will be enough to support your dreams.

Keep reading to learn about the range of salaries offered in the social work field and whether it can really sustain a lifetime of fighting for human dignity and social justice.

Taking a closer look at the salary for social workers

Before getting too much further, let’s answer the burning question that brought you here. The median annual salary for all social workers was $46,890 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the field isn’t exactly known for its high earning potential, it is important to note that this number is higher than the national average for all occupations ($37,040).

You should also know that salary can fluctuate depending on your experience, employer, education level and the type of social work you choose to practice. For example, the BLS lists the following median annual salaries for these common types of social workers:

  • Healthcare social workers: $53,760
  • Child, family and school social workers: $43,250
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $42,700

It’s worth mentioning that the salary figures above are based on national, averaged earnings and represent workers from all education and experience levels. These are just a few of the factors that could affect your salary, which is why the compensation range is rather large.

The BLS reports that professionals in the 10th percentile typically earn around $33,600 per year, while those in the 90th percentile can earn as much as $85,190 annually. You likely won’t land an entry-level position earning a paycheck in the top of that range, but it is helpful to understand the future earning potential if you do choose to advance in the field.

Ways to advance your social work career

These numbers can give you an idea of where your earnings may fall, but they don’t tell the entire story.

“One great thing about social work is that there are so many different avenues within which to work,” explains Julie Fanning, LCSW, CCM, of Holding Hope Services. “If one area is too low-paying for a person, it is possible to change tracks and find a more lucrative one.”

Fanning points out that those who have earned their Master of Social Work degree and acquired a clinical license will have more job opportunities and increased earning potential. Certain industries, such as insurance and medical, typically offer higher salaries compared to others. And because social services tend to promote from within, social workers can advance their careers into supervisory or specialized positions that offer higher salaries.

“As you progress in your career and practice good work with your clients, you will find there will be positions, agencies and clients willing to pay what your work is actually worth,” says Mental Health Therapist Mallory Grimste, LCSW.“I have found that networking, even when you have a job, is really important for progressing your career and pay overall. When you value yourself, others value you as well.”

Other measures of a rewarding career

The numbers on your paycheck are only one measure of your career. A career must also be examined according to one’s values: variety, flexibility, security, collaboration, challenge or rigor may give you day-to-day satisfaction, while larger themes of social justice and the empowerment of others provide you with greater meaning. Like in any field, you need to weigh all factors before committing to a career path. It’s not always about the money.

“As the saying goes, ‘I didn’t go into this job for the money,’” Grimste says. “However, wealth is not a priority value for me. My priority values are more in line with knowing I am doing good work, helping others and taking care of my own health and needs. If these are all in check, then I am happy regardless of what my bank account says.”

Fanning says she frequently hears people joke that “people don’t go into social work for the money.” While that may be true, she insists that the profession can actually provide a solid income for people.

“I am biased because I love being a social worker,” Fanning says. “But if social work is your passion, you should embrace the field and the money will follow.”

So, is it really worth it?

Grimste admits that there are trade-offs to a career in social work. She says she’s had to make lifestyle adjustments, but that she’d still do it all over again if she could.

“I love being a social worker and wouldn’t change any of my choices that have led me to this career,” Grimste says. “If you do what makes you feel happy and you make smart choices, I believe everything works out well in the end.”

Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, who left a career as a lawyer to pursue social work, felt the switch was needed to feel satisfaction in her career.

“Being a social worker is challenging but rewarding. To me, my happiness is more important than money,” Hershenson shares. “I come home with a smile. I’m giving back to the world in a way that I have always dreamed about.”

Fanning agrees with this sentiment, adding that no matter how much or little the social work salary is, the honor and joy she feels at the end of the day makes it all worth it.

“I encourage individuals to go into the field if they want to assist others to live their best life,” Fanning says.

There’s no price on your dream

You now know the salary range for social works and why that career encapsulates so much more than the numbers in your bank account. It’s about helping others in their most vulnerable moments. It’s about leading a career of substance and meaning. It’s about being tough enough to stand up to the systems that keep people down, and providing them with the resources to rise up.

Can you really put a price on that?

Check out the Wheelock College Social Work page to learn more about how you can inspire a world of good through a career as a social worker.