Human Services Guide

Social Worker Salaries

In the same way that a career in social work offers a thousand different options in terms of work environment and job responsibilities, there’s a huge range of salaries found in the field too.

As you might expect, none of them are likely to make you rich, but you can still do pretty well for yourself in the process of doing good things for other people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for all social workers in the U.S. as of May 2017 was $47,980, while the average among the top 10 percent was $79,740.

Around the country, the average salaries by specialty looked like this:

Child, Family and School Social Workers
  • Los Angeles, CA - $62,000
  • New York, NY - $59,410
  • Chicago, IL - $59,420
Healthcare Social Workers
  • Los Angeles, CA - $73,970
  • New York, NY - $65,590
  • Chicago, IL - $56,270
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
  • Los Angeles, CA - $51,600
  • New York, NY - $65,180
  • Chicago, IL - $54,670
If You Want To Earn More, Learn More

Level of education is probably the most important determiner of your salary potential. An advanced degree opens up job opportunities that call for greater expertise and leadership skills, and accordingly, these positions come with a higher level of compensation.

A study commissioned by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) quantifies this trend, finding that earning an MSW boosts pay on average by $15,000 annually over what you could expect with a BSW.

Of course, it should go without saying that these numbers are largely dependent on you earning a degree from a program that is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Accreditation. Degree mills are something to look out for, but CSWE accreditation takes them out of the picture and ensures you get a top quality education in social work.

Even in Social Work, Salaries Differ by Industry

When it comes to factors that influence your salary, right behind your level of education is the type of employer you work for. According to BLS, your median wage can vary a lot from industry to industry, regardless of credentials (national average by each industry as reported in 2017):

Industry Median Wage
Hospitals $58,490
Local government $52,900
Ambulatory healthcare $48,340
State government $46,120
Individual and family services $40,800

Social Work Salary with a Bachelor’s Degree

A master’s degree is widely recognized as the industry standard in the field of social work since it’s a requirement for clinical positions that require licensure in most states. However, entry level and other nonclinical jobs are available with a bachelor’s degree, and in fact, the number of new professionals coming into the field with a bachelor’s has been rising in recent years. The NASW found that BSW graduates increase by about 50 percent every five years, while the number of MSW’s awarded increase by about 25 percent over the same period.

That’s in part a reflection of the growing number of positions that don’t formally require licensure. This is basic work that takes some of the load off of more highly educated social workers, but it’s still important and offers a high degree of job satisfaction.

With a Bachelor of Social Work or similar degree in sociology, psychology or human services, you would qualify for jobs that include:

  • Behavioral management aide
  • Case management aide
  • Community outreach worker
  • Juvenile court liaison
  • Child Welfare Screener
  • Benefits Eligibility Screener
  • Probation counselor / Court Compliance Officer
  • Rehabilitation case worker

As you might expect, these positions all fall into the lower tier of social work salaries.

Exact data isn’t published by degree level, but the BLS showed an average salary for a couple positions where a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement, both offering respectable salaries (national median as reported in 2017):

  • Health educators and community health workers - $42,360
  • Social and community service managers - $64,100

Similarly, the case manager category on the salary aggregator site Payscale.com showed an average starting salary of $35,399 as of October of 2018.

Social Work Salary with a Master’s Degree

A Master of Social Work (MSW), or similar master’s in related fields like human services, psychology, counseling or sociology, gives you access to the highest tier jobs in licensed positions, and unlocks the potential for earning some of the highest salaries available in the social services sector. These include jobs in clinical social work and other highly skilled positions that involve direct interaction with clients, as well as management positions that involve developing strategy and overseeing other social workers as they perform their duties.

It also includes many high-level policy development and advocacy roles, in and outside of government. Social services policy development is an intricate and highly specialized field that combines deep compassion with an on-point command of detailed stacks of socioeconomic and epidemiological data. Those are all qualities that you only get in a master’s or doctoral level social work program.

The MSW is the most specialized degree and most likely to translate into salary gains within dedicated social work positions.

Importantly, the MSW is a vital component of becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Licensing is an important step in becoming qualified to operate in some of the most skill-oriented social work positions, including counseling and adoption work. The exact process of licensing involves more than just a master’s degree and varies somewhat from state to state.

Some of the other roles you would be qualified for with a master’s degree include (national average provided by Payscale.com in October 2018):

Position Average Salary
Executive Director $73,808
School Social Worker $59,080
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $55,683

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the top 10% of social workers earn an average of nearly $80,000, and it’s clear these higher end salaries are reserved for master’s-prepared LCSWs and others in leadership roles.

The BLS also has a salary profile for uncategorized social workers in specialized roles that don’t fall within the four defined categories (child, family and school, healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse). These uncategorized roles pay top-tier salaries that clearly point to them being reserved for skilled social workers with graduate degrees. The highest paying employers for this group of social workers are:

  • Federal Government - $75,820
  • Agencies, Brokerages and Other Insurance Activities - $72,450
  • Insurance Carriers - $67,800
  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners (private practice) - $67,520
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals -$64,900

Around the country, the average salaries for this uncategorized classification of master’s educated social workers looks like this:

  • Los Angeles, CA - $66,280
  • New York, NY - $68,200
  • Chicago, IL - $70,170

It’s important to remember that almost no one in social work is in it for the money; much of what you will take away from a job is the satisfaction of knowing that you’re literally saving lives in many cases. And the advantage of a master’s degree in terms of being able to realize that kind of job satisfaction is incalculable. The added expertise will put you in a position to tackle the hard problems that come at you everyday using scientifically developed and tested methods, alongside your innate sense of empathy.

What About Doctoral Degrees?

NASW found that a DSW or PhD can boost your earnings by around $17,000 over the baseline numbers you could expect with a bachelor’s. Doctoral degrees don’t generally put you into a whole new category of work the way an MSW will over a bachelor’s degree, however.

Instead, you’ll find DSWs more likely filling senior positions and managerial roles. Lucrative research jobs are also most likely filled by PhD holders.

But the correlation is often a matter of timing. The longer you are in the profession, the more likely you are to advance your education further with a doctorate… but it’s also more likely that you will be advancing in status and experience at the same time, which will also cause your salary to increase.

It’s also important to note the differences in the two types of doctoral degree. A DSW is very much a practice-oriented degree at most schools, one that hones your knowledge and expertise in the field. It’s intended as the next step for practicing social workers.

A PhD, on the other hand, tends to focus on research and theory. It’s designed as preparation for going into teaching or into research and conceptual work around social theory and policy.