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Jobs You Can’t Afford – Social Worker

Social workers play extremely important roles in many sectors of society from working with abused children to counselling drug and alcohol abusers.  The pay isn’t great – over 20% of social workers make less than $30,000 a year – but social workers aren’t in it for the money; they’re in it to help people and to change lives. 

Unfortunately, the cost of the education necessary to become a social worker is rising even as salaries stagnate, making it increasingly difficult for caring people to choose this line of work.  In order to become a licensed social worker, most people must earn both an undergraduate degree and a two-to-three year graduate degree (MSW), which means significant debt.  Consider these statistics from the National Association of Social Workers:

  • Bachelor’s level social workers have an average loan debt of $18,609.
  • Master’s level social workers have an average loan debt of $26,777.
  • Doctoral level social workers have an average loan debt of $32,841.

In the words of a social worker from that same site:

After 4 years of undergraduate studies and 2 years of graduate studies, I entered the social work workforce with over $40,000 in loans and a starting salary of $22,000. With interest over 10 years I would pay double that amount back. I lived in Philadelphia at the time. My monthly $600 loan payments ate up half of my take home salary. It was difficult to find adequate housing and to cover my basic needs on the remaining $600 per month. Within 6 months I moved back to Chicago to live with my parents and restart the job search process. My first job in Chicago paid slightly more at $25,000. I lived at home for several months before I was able to afford a studio apartment. I am one of the fortunate ones because my parents were able to help support me during my early career, but for too many social workers this is not possible.

And from a reader’s comment on another site:

Welcome to the world of social work. I too have huge loans and will never pay it off with a social work job. There was talk of a ‘student loan forgiveness program’ at least in NY and NJ but that too is not easy to get and most agencies don’t even participate. With a social work salary, paying off your monthly expenses and loans is not an easy thing to do unless you have another job to supplement your income; even two extra jobs as some people I know have. It’s a shame that people who are out there working to help the needy are so underpaid that they themselves, regardless of how hard they work, cannot meet their own needs.  

While there are some loan forgiveness programs out their for selected social workers, the fact remains that for many people, low salary expectations combined with high education costs make going into this line of work prohibitive.  Since salary levels are unlikely to rise drastically any time soon – advocating for abused children, for example, is something that simply doesn’t fit well into the market – something more needs to be done to lower education costs so that student loan debt isn’t so prohibitive that people are forced to follow other career paths. 

Until then, add social worker to the list of Jobs You Can’t Afford.  And while we’re at it, let’s offer an apology to the abused children, mentally ill, elderly, disabled, addicted, and others who benefit from their services.

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