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Social Work Dean Argues Profession is Worth More

John Jackson Jr. Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

John Jackson Jr. Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

In these days with social safety nets severely strained and the public grappling with racially charged incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. social workers are needed more than ever, according to the this column in

John Jackson Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that social workers are at the scenes of tragic events long after the news vans have left, helping clients cope. Yet social work pay is still low despite the fact students have to incur heavy debt loads to finance and education.

“That is why it pained me recently to see an incoming social work student start to tear up in my office as she described having to fight with her family over the very idea of wanting to become a social worker,” Jackson wrote. “She’s not alone. Another new student told me that a parent promised to pay all of her graduate school tuition – if she’d agree to study something else. Anything else.”

Despite the challenges social workers soldier on, Jackson said.

“Ultimately, their goal is to help people help themselves, to create more and more citizens who can do for themselves the kinds of things social workers do for other people,” he said.

Cheers to Jackson for trying to educate the public about the services social workers provide and why they need to be valued more.

To learn about the invaluable services social workers provide society visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” Consumer website.


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  1. Perhaps she was crying because Penn charges an exorbitant amount of money for an MSW. Yes, social workers provide services that are on particular with higher paid doctors, nurses, and psychologists and should be compensated accordingly. But when most social workers work in agencies that serve clients who do not pay for services, the question becomes, “why do schools of social work charge so much for the degree?” The answer is because MSW programs are cash cows for universities. Dean Jackson, an anthropologist by training, must understand better than most, that the economics of supply and demand capitalism is not necessarily ethical or justified when it comes to training a professional work force that serves the poor and disenfranchised. You want to make a radical statement about the economic well-being of social workers? Cut Penn’s tuition in half without sacrificing quality or cutting staff.

  2. OK, I agree with the premise that the profession, and more significantly the work of individuals in the profession, is worth more. But I don’t know that the dean here, really makes that point with any measure of reliability. I appreciate the effort but see, I’ve heard similar stories from students, about parents reluctant to support their career choice. Heck, my own mother was disappointed that I wasn’t doing something more glamorous or financially rewarding.

    Athen I’ve actually had some of those same, once reluctant parents, approach me at graduation with sincere handshakes, hugs even, and expressions of thanks for having mentored their sons and daughters into this invaluable career. Part of the issue is that what most people know about social work are the stereo-types, political hyperbole, and one dimensional TV caricatures. And frankly, we don’t improve those visions with vague and non-specific claims of having “been there.”

    And done what specificaly? That’s the point.

    I also appreciate the previous commentary. Again, whether we talk about individual lives or social policy attention to detail is essential.

  3. I can relate to this article a little bit too much. Sadly, the reality is that social workers really aren’t that respected (and the low pay is a reflection of that). If I had gone into any other medical field, I’m sure I would have been considered a success to those around me.

    I appreciate the sentiments expressed by Professor Jackson, but what I would like is some guidance from the NASW as to how we as a collective profession can improve our image, garner more respect, and ultimately increase our wages.

  4. People know very little about how much social workers actually do. Knowing some social workers and what they go through to help people really opens your eyes to how little they are compensated for what they do. They get payed very little for doing a lot of work for people. They clearly don’t do it for the money but instead for the satisfaction of helping people get back on their feet when they are in bad situations. More awareness about what social workers do should be brought to people so they can see how difficult the things they do are. There would be more respect for the field if people knew how much work is put in and how many issues social workers actually deal with.
    I feel that there should be some type of loan forgiveness for those that have been in the profession for quite sometime but still haven’t been able to pay off their student loans. This would definitely help with the small amount of pay they receive.

    Taylor Shinkle, Miami University.

  5. I agree with Ms. Taylor Shinkle. I’ve enjoyed a nearly 28-year career as a social worker. I knew that this was a low paying profession when I entered the field, but I believe it would be beneficial if the government provided “loan forgiveness” especially at the bachelors level for social workers. They get paid less than teachers and even teachers get loan forgiveness if they work for public agencies sometimes. So help the low-paying social workers out, especially since they are not getting paid.

  6. The central question is: what do social workers do that differentiates them, and is unique to the field? Helping people? Lots of people do that. Volunteers without much education do that. Junior high students can do that. Provide emergency relief? Ah social workers are eligibility workers. But Eligibility Workers can do that with a High School diploma. So why pay social workers more than min. wage?
    Other occupations can be summed up with one sentence. Psychologists test/evaluate and provide therapy. Their technology is and market position is clear. Nurses “save lives” with injections and machines that go “beep.” Their technology is and market position is clear. MDs. The same. Attorney’s? Ditto. Teachers? Pedagogic techniques. Their technology is and market position is clear. You know their services they provide, value added potentials and clear market position/value.

    Social workers? Well, ehhh…. Help people?? Clean floors?? General office tech?
    Yeah…Their technology is and market position is totally not clear. Pay, or lack thereof, underwrites that.

  7. David Bell (above) makes a good point when it comes to explaining to other professionals what we do as social service workers.

    “Other occupations can be summed up with one sentence. Psychologists test/evaluate and provide therapy. Their technology is and market position is clear. Nurses “save lives” with injections and machines that go “beep.”

    Most often when I tell someone I work in social services they say “Ohhh, you help people, that must be so rewarding!” And that someone is 100% right!

    Social Service workers utilize two sets of skills which help us to balance both macro and micro job duties simultaneously. It’s these two sets of skills which make me enjoy my job as much as I do! The social service professional works side by side with the client (a client who we’ve met during the most vulnerable and confusing times of their lives) to identify what issues take priority, and how the client’s values will shape the game plan. This could look like lots of different things: helping a family find safe stable and affordable housing, discussing a client’s options when it comes to counsel or therapy,referring a client to a program which will make sure he and his kids will eat dinner tonight, discussing how addiction or other unhealthy behaviors will shape their future, or helping a mother find a school in her family’s new neighborhood.

    The second set of skills (macro skills) fire up as we now transition to advocacy. They fire up as we set the bar for change. We continue to craft, edit and manage the networks and resources us and our peers utilize, and as we strive, we collectively edit, renew and reinvent how we provide services. And we brainstorm and share experiences with our peers and seek to discover how we have gotten stuck in something that doesn’t work anymore. We take the time to talk a little philosophy even. But most importantly we continue to ask ourselves- if he/she/they were ME… what would help, and what wouldn’t?

  8. As a quick follow up to respond a bit more to David Bell’s post-

    I read it as …you know, In the Grand scheme of things, or just in the grand scheme of business, where do social workers fall, and what do these “helping” professionals do big picture-wise?

    On a case by case basis- yeah some of what we do is clean floors, or take a kid to get some lunch, or make sure that Mrs. Stein has her medicine for the weekend, or talk Joe down when he wants to stop taking his medcation again, and we know that by Saturday Joe is going to be a completely different person if he doesn’t take those pills.

    But it’s in those small interactions where human basic needs are met that the big picture gets even more clear. For every step we take in the direction of security and in the direction of human wellbeing and integrity, we’re patching a piece of brick wall. That wall crumbles in spots every day- a lot of times big gigantic pieces bulldozed. We come out in the morning to keep working on that wall and find there’s been another major breech. But we use some gum, and tissue paper- and sometimes the county will send us some nice heavy bricks and mortar. And the people who own the wall have pride in it and they want it reliable and strong as much as you do.

    So I guess unless you know our wall, or know someone who works on it you might not see the need to help out with it or you might vote to stop spending so much hard earned tax money on bricks for the shitty wall which looks like it’s going to fall down anyways.

    But I trust that on the inside, most of us are sharing the same anxieties. And that the last 10 years in this country has scared the living shit out of us. In my home town of Milwaukee our homicide rate has doubled since this time last year. We have the 4th highest homicide rate in the nation. So, I will let you draw your own conclusions about what I’m trying to get accross here. The wall wasn’t an object chosen to represent something that would keep someone or something “out”. I’m hoping this still makes sense. Thanks for reading friends

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