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Top 5 Reasons Social Work is Failing

Airing live on CSPAN, Dr. Steve Perry gave a searing speech on the “The Role of A Social Worker” at the Clark Atlanta University Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the founder and principal of a Connecticut school which only accepts first generation, low-income, and minority students.

Dr. Perry received his Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania and has since become a leading expert in education, a motivational speaker, accomplished author, and a reality tv host.

Dr. Perry was adamant that social workers are the key to solving societal problems because we are the first responders for social issues.

However, he also pointed out that social workers are not unionized, tend to be politically inactive, and do not engage in social conversations in the public sphere.

Dr. Perry asserts that our jobs are the first to be cut because we are silent, and taxpayer dollars are being diverted to education budgets for programs social workers should be implementing.

I have listened to Dr. Perry’s speech twice already, and there were many pearls of wisdom that he dropped on the ears of those in attendance and viewing the broadcast. For the most part, I agreed with 95 percent of what Dr. Perry said which is a very high percentage for me.

Now, I am going to share with you my top 5 reasons why I believe social work is failing:

1. Title Protection

First, it made me beam with joy when Dr. Perry referred to himself as a social worker despite his celebrity status. Most individuals with social work degrees who work in social work settings often refer to themselves as researchers, professors, therapists, or psychoanalysts. The people most vocal about title protection and licensure don’t actually call themselves social workers as if the title is relegated only to frontline staff.

I feel that over time title protection has been convoluted to mean licensed social worker and not a worker with a social work degree. I go in more detail on my thoughts regarding licensure in a prior article entitled, “Licensed Social Workers Don’t Mean More Qualified“. In my opinion, current policies and advocacy by professional associations and social work organizations have fractured the social work community into its current state.

We hail Jane Addams as the founder and pioneer of social work when in fact a story like Jane Addams’ would not be possible today. Jane Addams did not have a social work degree nor did she need a license to advocate, help people organize, or connect them with community resources. As a matter of fact, in today’s society Jane Addams would probably major in gender studies, political science, public policy, business or law.

Social work degree programs have begun dissociating themselves with “casework” connecting community members to resources, and they actually steer students away from these types of jobs. If we are going to pursue title protection, we also need to create second degree and accelerated programs to pull experienced professionals and other degree holders into the social work profession instead of excluding them.

2. Macro vs Micro

For the past couple of decades, social work has slowly moved towards and is now currently skewed toward being a clinical degree while marketing itself as a mental health profession. Over time, the profession has done a poor job in recruiting and connecting with individuals who are interested in working with the poor, politics, grassroots organizing, and other social justice issues.

Individuals who once flocked to social work to do community and social justice work are now seeking out other disciplines instead. Many social workers who want to be politically active and social justice focused are forced to do so under the banner of a women’s organization or other social justice nonprofit due to lack of our own. Students who decided to seek a macro social work degree often feel alienated and unsupported both in school and later with lack of employment opportunities.

3. Professionals Associations Represent Themselves and Not Us

Social Work organizations and associations have been pushing licensing for the past couple of decades which happens to also correlate with the same time frame they tripled the amount of unpaid internship hours required to complete your social work degree.

Recently, the Australian Association of Social Workers conducted a study which found university social work students were skipping meals and could not pay for basic necessities in order to pay for educational materials. American social work students who receive no stipends or any type of assistance are being forced to quit paying jobs in order to work unpaid internships, and they have no one fighting for them. In fact, most social work leaders argue that if you can’t shoulder the hardship this is not the profession for you. Many social workers struggle with supporting the fight for $15 dollars per hour for minimum wage jobs because they have master’s degrees making less than $15 dollars per hour.

You can’t talk to a social worker about anything without hearing the word “licensing”. From the time you start orientation, licensing is being forced feed to you as the solution that will solve all of social work’s problems. You are told licensing is going lead to better pay, better professionalism, better outcomes for clients, and better recognition to name a few. Minimum education and training standards are important, but requiring a medical model for all areas of practice in social work is not the answer. Social Work Licensing advocates often compare social work licensing with that of nurses, doctor, or lawyers.

In my opinion, social work licensing gives social workers all the liability and responsibilities without any of the rights. In states where licensing is required, social work licensing advocates did not advocate for employers to assume the cost of the additional training. The cost of continuing education credits have been passed on to the employee who is already in a low paying job, and the employer may opt to pay for them if they choose.

Here are a few things that licensing actually does:

  • Who can pass the licensure exam without having to pay for test prep materials or a workshop in which your professional association happens to sell to you at a “discount” if you are a member.
  • People are taking the licensure exam sometimes at $500 each time for four to five times. Where is this money going?
  • Once you pass the licensure exam, you are going to need liability insurance in which they also happen to sell.
  • To keep your social work license, you will have to maintain a certain amount of continuing education unit (CEU) hours yearly. They just happen to own and provide the majority of these CEU online companies and workshops for you as well.
  • Then, you have to pay renewal fees yearly and fines to your state board of licensure which goes to sustain their jobs.

Licensing is currently in all 50 states and US territories, and it seems to benefit the people who created the policies more than it does the social worker and the communities we serve. Licensure makes money, and social justice issues just aren’t income generators. For social workers who are already struggling, how does all the above fees and costs affect their career mobility in one of the lowest paid professions with one of the highest student loan income/debt ratios? Without a union for social workers, who will advocate on our behalf and for our clients to get the resources we need to serve them?

4. Lack of Diversity in Social Work Leadership and Academia 

Through Social Work Helper, I have had the opportunity to be a part of conversations with various factions of social work leadership over the past couple of years. Often times, I was the only person a part of the conversation that didn’t have a doctorate or at least in the process of earning one.  Additionally, I noticed that very few were minority voices if any other than me who were a part of these conversations. At first, I was intimidated because they had more education and  higher positions than me.

However, the more I listened and paid attention, I realized they are not better than me rather they had access to more opportunities than me. The ignorance and insensitivity displayed towards communities of color and the plight of social workers who are struggling in this profession was unbelievable.

Diversity in leadership brings different perspectives and point of views to be added to the conversation. Why didn’t more social work organizations and schools of social work support last night’s speech by Dr. Perry hosted at a Historically Black College? How often is the topic of social work front and center in a televised public forum?

According Social Work Synergy,

“At times this will mean sharing power and leadership in deeper ways, and taking proactive steps to undo oppression and racism. The use of community organizing principles and skills are essential” (p.19) to this effort. Read Full Article

5. Lack of Support and Silence

Social work organizations and associations are forever holding conferences that the majority of social workers can’t afford to attend. Many social workers don’t have the luxury of having their university foot the bill for them to attend every social work conference each year. This very dynamic adds to the failures listed in 1 thru 4. In addition, it highlights another point made by Dr. Perry when he stated, “Social Workers will talk to each other, but they won’t engage in the public sphere”.

I have contacted both the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Worker (NASW) asking them to waive certain expenses, so I can cover their conferences in order to engage social workers via social media who can’t afford to attend. I can get press access to a White House event, but not to a social work conference. It’s like a country club that you can’t be apart of unless you can afford it.

Written by Deona Hooper, MSW


Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

206 posts

Social Work is not what it used to be, point, blank, period! Licensure changed the focus from helping the poor help themselves to helping NASW, and others help themselves. They’re getting richer while students are suffering to get an education. I am one, I had a fellowship which included a stipend. Barely enough to support me, but I had a small child at the time. Told I could not work or I would lose my fellowship. Could not get food stamps, because of stipend. Told if I worked 20 hours a week I could qualify. I had to quit school to provide for self and son! Where is the justice in this?

All I know is that social workers are not properly trained to deal with trauma, or hearing and witnessing really tough situations. Self care is not a class that is taught.

Is doing a critical analysis of existing problems dissing? Dissenting voices and minority voices should not be ignored nor dismissed. If professional licenses, organizations, and conferences where listening to the people they exclude, no one would be reading a word I say.

Interesting, but it seems counterproductive to dis professional licenses, professional organizations, conferences; and somehow expect to get professional recognition, opportunities, respect, political results, and Macro results.

This is just another educational PhD failing to understand his profession or is actively a supporter of their views! It is a motivated people responsible for effective social work which translates to money, education, legislation, judicial, mental, behavioral and physical health providers supporting social works most fundamental need. The need is to effectively advocate for the client, one at a time, insuring opportunity to perform at their optimum.

Great article and great food for thought. I went into SW as a political activist. My masters concentrations were communities and social systems and community organizing. I wanted no part of clinical work. Upon exiting school and applying for jobs (I am 10 years in the field now), I realized the organizing jobs paid about $30k per year and was able to get a clinical job which paid more. From there on out Ive been doing clinical jobs…therapy and now i work at a large medical center. So yes i agree…hard to make a living doing activist work. Licensing is expensive but so well worth it. I make an awesome salary and finally worked my way into a position as health educator which i really like. Also…i did case management too and started to get burnt out.

Here in CT in order to be a school social worker a certification is required such as a MSW and the special education class (something I do not mind), But, it is required to take the Praxis 1 exam. The exam does not have anything to do with Social Work: it’s content is reading, science & math. And the un avoided exam fee & certification fee.

Great post. In regards to licensure, I agree with your statements. In MN, there are 3 levels of Masters level licensure, each requiring a large application fee, a large testing fee, renewal fees every 2 years, 42 CEUs every 2 years and a large amount of supervision hours (400+) that often have to be paid for though an outside source due to many employers either being unable or unwilling to provide any support; this is after paying graduate school tuition to obtain the degree and jumping through all of the hoops as a licensed bachelor level social worker. Unfortunately, in order to work in higher paying jobs, this is generally the path you need to take. Just the costs alone deter so many outstanding workers from obtaining advanced degrees and/or licensure and better paying positions…it is simply disappointing. There is a lot more to say about this, but ultimately it is time for change before we become extinct.

It would be great if more people outside of CPS identified themselves as social workers like the professors, therapists etc. People only associate social workers with CPS, and I think that is our fault.

Agree with #1 to an extent. In some settings, I CANT identify as a social worker (working with kids) because most people equate “Social Worker” with “Child Snatcher”. Our son even lost a friend once because his friends mother was going through a contentious divorce, and she found out my wife and I were social workers. She was worried we would report her for something and cause her to lose custody!

As far as #6, I agree. I was shocked at the cost and location of this years NASW convention, and when I look at the guest speakers and agendas I always thing “Who the hell is the target audience, and what GOOD is going to come out of this?!” Seems like a colossal waste to me.

Food for heavy thought and action-by colleges NASW and all social workers. When I chaired Ohio NASW PACE I reminded social workers that failure to engage in advocacy is unethical.

Exactly, I am in no way trying to undermine or demean the work that we do. But, by not addressing macro issues, we are hurting ourselves and not getting the resources we need for clients and ourselves.

I agree with SWH but that does not dismiss the good work that is done by SWs like you with meeting clients where they are at & making a difference where you can. The criticism I have is not in the good work that we do but in the necessary work that we cannot or will not do.

I think you are right. Schools of SW need to be active and a part of the communities in which they are located. It starts there! Let me know what you guys are up to, and I will be happy to promote your activism.

Loved the article. As a final year MSW student I have often wondered why social workers are not in the public sphere more often and why, when social justice issues arise, am I not seeing people front and center who can declare they are social workers? I think it can start from our time in school! I joined our social work graduate student association because I was tired of never seeing the social work department as a whole organized and involved in issues affecting students on campus and persons in our surrounding communities. This year it will be different and I am hoping the rest of our university community see us social work students as leaders in social justice instead of silent bystanders. I also hope this will push students to get involved in policy and advocacy real-time that will become a part of their social worker identity post-grad as well and carried off into our communities.

My husband is student nurse and in his internship the female staff told him “we like men, they make our pay go up”. Quite like the point you made, Karen. sigh.

The sad part is that if there were more men in the profession we might get paid a little better. I quite like my male colleagues but should not be able to figure out who my next boss is anytime I meet one. SWH, the lust could be extensive couldn’t it.

If you haven’t watched the video, I would give it a look. One client at time, provides services, but it does not solve systematic issues and injustices. For one client you serve, there are many more who are being denied access. They need us too. You have given the homeless 20 years of services, is it getting better?

You proved my list should be a Top 6. It started out as a 10 top, but it was getting a little long. But, recruitment of men was on the list. Maybe a separate article on how to recruit men into the profession?

As a social worker for over 20 years on the micro level serving the chronically homeless persons with disability, everyday I get to see the fruits of my labor one client at a time. Although I agree with most of the points, social work is not FAILING. We are still the pulse of every community.

Great article. Don’t forget to include men in with the glaring overrepresentation of caucasians in academic & Social Work management positions. It is astounding in a largely female dominated profession how many white male supervisors we have.