Five Things People Say To Social Workers

Today is World Social Work Day.

I received my MSW after blood, sweat and tears in April of 2000. And since that day when someone asks me what I do, I have typically responded “I’m a social worker” rather than using my actual job title. I do this because I am proud to be part of a profession and I worked very hard to earn the degree. I learned specific modalities, focusing on systemic change.

In honor of this day, here are  things people often say when they learn I’m a social worker.

1. It must be so hard working with abused children. I couldn’t do it. – This is when they assume I work for Children, Youth and Family Services (CYF) which is not the case. I usually explain this and mention that I did work for a private foster care agency for 3 years. It was hard work, but we need more people to do it and you would probably surprise yourself by what you can do with the right amount of support and training.  Social workers aren’t saints. We are professionals (by degree, not by job title) who have been trained to engage difficult situations and still be effective.

2. My nephew is thinking about an MSW because he wants to earn more money and can’t get a promotion with a bachelor’s degree. My first job in 2000 paid $20k/year + benefits. Five years later, a starting salary for a clinical job at a much larger agency was $28K + fewer benefits. It is true that you can move up the ranks more quickly with a master’s degree, but it is important to do a careful study of the costs of the education against potential earnings. There are not many jobs paying more than $40K in this region and most of those are way up the food chain.  Directors earn $40-50K, even some running multimillion dollar divisions with 20 years experience. And while you might not do it for the money, you have to think about the debt you might accrue. It isn’t a bad decision, but it should be an informed decision.

3. My cousin/aunt/sister/best friend needs help with <insert social service program>. Can you talk with them? You know the jokes about doctors and veterinarians and lawyers being asked for free advice at cocktail parties? Yes, that happens to social workers A LOT and no one ever thinks to pay you a consulting fee to help them navigate a complex system. That’s heresy because you are on-call 24/7 (I have been and it sucks) both professionally and personally. I’ve received hysterical calls in the middle of the night from people whom I barely know. I’ve been called while I’m on vacation, in the middle of dinner, cornered at events. Social service systems can be very tricky to navigate and I understand why people ask. A piece of advice – considering that the person you are asking to help you cope with a traumatic situation is probably underpaid and overworked, it is a nice idea to say “thank you,” to let them know how it turned out and to maybe buy them lunch or a little gift card. Considering our hourly rate probably rarely tops $25/hour unless we are a clinician in private practice, it isn’t a bad idea to be gracious for the free advice/information.

4. Why didn’t you become a psychologist? Not all social workers are therapists. Those who are opted for social work because they find the model of training and intervention a better fit. My field of study was Community Organizing (sometimes combined with Administration.) We do a lot of the program work and sometimes take on administrative roles. I have been everything from a “Special Projects Coordinator” to a “Foster Parent Recruiter” as well as a coordinator, liaison, manager, director, specialist, etc. The titles are really only useful within the organization. But we do all sorts of jobs.

5. So you are a do-gooder, huh? Well, not exactly. I made a decision to pursue this degree after working “in the field” a few years and realizing that individual actions were not sufficient to change systems designed to hold people down. Doing good isn’t always as fussy and neat as the term suggests – this week alone, I’ve engaged in two serious discussions with other white folks about racism and neither one really ended on a constructive note. I think that it is my lack of knowledge so I’m going to try to learn how to have those conversations in a more productive manner. So if by all of that, you mean do-gooder, yes. If you mean, nice lady who is always helpful and cheerful, ha ha ha. Being smart, having good instincts and thinking strategically are valuable skills. Being nice is optional. Being kind and compassionate are not optional (or they shouldn’t be) but there certainly are people who enter the field with agendas and lacking in moral accountability.

One thing that drew me to this field was connecting the dots – I find satisfaction in solving problems and figuring out how to improve access. We have a lot of broken systems in our nation and it is important that people in crisis have allies to help them navigate the systems to the best of their ability AND to agitate for improvements and changes. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, especially because it doesn’t cover transitional procedures for my trans* friends – but it does offer them access to affordable basic healthcare they might not otherwise have. The important key here is that we all continue to push for the ACA to become more trans health inclusive, not say “okay, great let’s talk marriage … again.”