Money and Social Work

“Money” – By Dimitris Kalogeropoylos. Flickr. Creative Commons License.

It seems to be a rite of passage that when you enter social work school, you’ll have that one (or several) professor(s) who will say, “you know you’re not going to make a lot of money, right?”

The class will usually have a mixture of reactions. Many will laugh, one or several people will vocalize social work is their vocation (“never to be ‘tainted’ by the want of profit!”), others will quietly question their matriculation, and yet another person will stand their ground, stating that they have the intention to become creative about their income in the future with private practice or consulting work (and with a five-figure tuition and loans, we can’t blame them nor dismiss them as “profit-seekers”).

One of the most significant things that I’ve learned from other therapists and social workers is that the common denominator when we speak about money, both clinically and personally, is the concept of value.

How much do our clients value themselves? How much do social workers and other therapists value their work? How much do the larger institutions surrounding them value both?

Clinical Example: Clinically, a client who won’t pay fees or no-shows, may be either de-valuing themselves (by not investing in their therapy process) or the therapist (which can also be a punishment or enactment based on the transference feelings surfacing up).

A therapist who doesn’t address this may be either unconsciously colluding with the message that the client’s treatment doesn’t matter (“They can come and go as they please”) or that their work as a therapist doesn’t matter (“They probably didn’t benefit much anyway,” or doubts about “What if I’m not skilled enough?” See: Imposter Syndrome).

Setting a boundary (such as a cancellation fee or attendance expectation) and addressing it does the opposite. It communicates that the client’s treatment has value (accountability to the person’s significance in the world, that their absence is felt) and that the therapist’s time and livelihood has value. After all, the therapist who encourages self-care should also show that she or he is able to practice what they preach.

Finally, it also communicates that the service being provided also has value, even if its gains are more intangible than those that can be more easily measured in the “harder sciences” and medicine.

Systemic Example:  The theme of value is also present on a mezzo and macro level, through the structures of agencies that hire social workers and larger society. As a freshly minted graduate back in 2012, my first rude awakening about systemic value came in the form of having to reject a job that only offered a 33k salary (which my spouse at the time, and currently, Sallie Mae/Navient, could not live off of!).

How much do governments and institutions value and invest in social services? How much do they value mental health? How can we see value as something that’s inherent (there by default) versus only something that is created after a crisis (e.g., Not waiting until national tragedy or newsworthy cases of negligence occur to implement stronger support and de-stigmatization about the value of mental health)?

It’s not until we have those deeper conversations about value, both inside and outside the consultation room, that we can start seeing the opening poverty remark as a joke on the surface, but a disempowering (and probably sabotaging) prophecy in at its core.

Let’s keep the discussion going.

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NASW NYC came up with guidelines for what they felt was fair compensation for the valuable services social workers provide. Part of these initiatives have been counter-responses to articles such as CNN’s  “Stressful Jobs that Pay Badly”.



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