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Social workers get less respect than Chris Brown in a battered women’s shelter. In all likelihood, you know a social worker or two; my fiancé is a social worker. They have hearts so large the Grinch went quadruple XL. Social workers willingly deal with the members of society that society would rather not acknowledge: vagrants and the mentally ill, the poor and sexually abused. There are roughly 310,000 licensed social workers in this country, 79% of which hold a graduate degree. The average salary is about $42,000 per year, making social work the inverse of being a Wall Street trader: as a trader you are defined by your paycheck, and as a social worker you are defined by your lack of one. In exchange for this pitiable salary, social workers work long, stressful hours and literally have the lives of others in their hands. The above salary is roughly $20.42/hour, but I would estimate it is more like $15/hour after factoring in unpaid overtime. They could as much money at Starbucks, and probably get better health care. Seriously, social workers are paid so little they watch television by candlelight.
Worse Than Being a Teacher
Being a social worker is sort of like attending a self-service massage parlor, the job gets done but you can’t help but feel you got screwed somehow. As compared to teachers (another maligned profession) social workers have it far worse. There is no national union to make politicians pee their pants, no tenure, no lesson plans, and no summers off. Oftentimes, a social worker’s clients are the very students teachers just said “fuck it” over. To any teacher reading this, gauging for a comeback I ask you: when is the last time one of your students tried to push you down a staircase?
An Oblong Deal
Social workers are under-appreciated by a society that expects them to be highly educated, academically minded licensed individuals. For the average social worker holding a master’s degree, they will have spent about $132,000 on tuition for their bachelor’s, and an additional $36,000 for their master’s, totaling $168,000 not including debt interest or living expenses of any sort, such as room and board. Adding in room and board ($9,000/year, the national average), basic living expenses ($10,000/year) and debt interest ($20,000, based off $60,000 in total debt at a 5% APR, paid over 10 years) we have a grand total expense of $207,000 for the privilege of being a licensed social worker. After all this, there are still license exam fees and fees to hold licenses. Social workers have to jump through so many hoops to practice their profession you would think they were not accomplished academics but rather abused circus animals.
The Opportunity Cost of Becoming a Social Worker
In a crude analysis, I sought to find out how many years it would take a MSW holding social worker to not only recoup the cost of her education, but to surpass a high school educated worker in lifetime earnings. Using the difference between the average MSW salary and the average high school educated workers salary ($42,000 less $25,000, so my “salary differential” is $17,000 per year); I established that it will take the social worker 12 years to recoup the cost of their education. The opportunity cost, here defined as the amount of income forgone by attending first undergrad, and then graduate school, is $150,000 ($25,000 X 6 years) for an MSW. That would take nine years to recoup. So in total, it will take a MSW holding social worker 21 years to “move ahead” of a high school educated worker from a lifetime earnings perspective. Financially, becoming a social worker is as good an idea as signing your kid up to be a towel boy at Penn State.
None of this is meant to disparage people from choosing such a righteous profession as social work. It is a rewarding, intellectually intense and valuable profession that is criminally undervalued in our society. I write this article to point out the extreme sacrifice in financial terms that social workers undergo to serve those member of society that the rest of us don’t want to deal with; members that often times vilify them, or are not mentally fit to thank them. In pointing out how raw a deal social workers are subject to, it is my hope that you will recognize the invaluable work they perform and thusly value them more yourself. I firmly believe that social workers need to take the reins of their own destiny in society—unionize, demand subsidies for their education—as teachers have, but when that time comes they will need our support. Perhaps after reading this you will lend them yours.
 This happened to my fiancé. Even if you do have a student operating on this Ted Bundy-esc level of craziness, imagine an entire classroom of them. Thought so.
 All this is based upon national averages. State schools are less expensive, private schools the opposite.
 $207,000 divided by $17,000 is 12 rounded down… I’m not using complex math here.
 In actuality it would be higher, as the average college graduate earns $46,000, which is the salary forgone for the two years of graduate school. I am simplifying here.