Most social work students graduating with a BSW today have between $20,000 and $50,000 worth of debt; an MSW has between $40,000 and $120,000 and those with DSW or PhD even more. These loans effectively saddle social work students with a lifetime of debt. The ability of students to settle that debt and begin the next stages of their lives, however, is not offset by starting salaries within the profession. They can be as low as $17.96 an hour for an MSW in Oregon or $35,000 for an MSW in New York. Presently, the national average salary is below $48,000 annually. In comparison, nurses with their BSN, with whom social workers once had income parity, have starting salaries between $72,000 and $93,000. Furthermore, social workers on average work over 47 hours per week while paid for 35—35% of their contracted workweek is uncompensated “free labor.” Adding to the present crisis in wages of social workers, is language in the NASW Code of Ethics, which reinforces the obligation to work part time for free with a “pro bono” clause expecting “uncompensated service.” This language is but part of a larger pattern of exploitation too long overlooked by our leadership. For example, MSW students must complete up to 1,200 unpaid internships hours. In turn, this sets a pattern that pro-bono work is an obligation —which is quite different from “volunteerism.”

Furthermore, too many overworked and underpaid social work professionals also toil under hazardous working conditions. As an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, first responders in many agencies were denied PPE equipment and expected to pay for their own masks! As our professional membership is comprised primarily of women, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and first-generation immigrants, ignoring such conditions gives legitimacy to the systemic isms and inequities that our profession decries elsewhere. It is now time to address and act on such racial and gender inequities within our profession as much as we direct efforts toward the social injustices within our nation.


Addressing such inequality will require unity from all levels of the profession, including BSW, MSW, DSW, PhD students as well as pre-BSW human service workers. The 21st century social service workplace involves almost 24 hour, seven days a week demands: work brought home to be finished after hours and on weekends, midnight emails and endless expectation of availability (further reinforced by NASW’s “pro bono” principles). The pandemic has been a reminder of the complexity of needs in service agencies, the low levels of funding impacting workers and communities and thus the alarming degradation of quality services. These conditions are intolerable for both community residents and workers alike.

We need to build a campaign for social workers now. We are therefore organizing an action campaign directed at all major social work professional organizations. Through these efforts we expect our national leadership to organize its members and use its resources to develop long-term, collectively focused campaigns directed at all funders, both private and public, that would demand an end to the gross inequities suffered by professional social workers and the communities they serve.


We have an obligation to our current and future workforce to be informed and sufficiently supported. We are demanding that NASW and its other leadership bodies form work group action clusters to immediately address and act on the following inequities:

  • Replace NASW’s refusal to set a “mandatory minimum income” for BSWs and MSWs with a demand for a starting salary that is set at least 10% above the median income levels of each region of the country, and congruent with other Masters- and Bachelors-level health and mental health professionals.

  • Revise the Code of Ethics to be aligned with the language and collective spirit of nurses’ and teachers’ associations and unions that boldly states that professional service requires working conditions that support dignity and well-being for the social worker as well as the client and community member.

We also call on national and local leadership to:

  • Initiate and actively support national and local campaigns such as the “3 for 5” campaign in New York State that is demanding a 3% yearly raise over 5 years so that all people working in social services can have a living wage allowing them to enter and stay within the middle class.

These small steps are meant to jump start a shift in our profession that emphasizes the value in collective action for systemic problems. Such actions replace an unfair over-use of personal self-care as an answer to burnout or expecting policy papers as a substitute for a mobilized membership. This kind of action approach would be similar to those used by far better paid nurses’ and teachers’ associations and unions.

By signing, you are taking an important step in signaling that our profession needs a new direction for the problems confronted by clients, community members and fellow professionals alike!