Opinion

We care about the most vulnerable. But we're not martyrs.

Megan Walter, center, is congratulated by fellow counselors Nadia Campbell, left, Rob Clark and Jill Toborowsky after Walter was named Wake County’s 2017 School Counselor of the Year during a surprise ceremony at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C., on May 24, 2017. The school system wants to hire additional school counselors and social workers to help students.
Megan Walter, center, is congratulated by fellow counselors Nadia Campbell, left, Rob Clark and Jill Toborowsky after Walter was named Wake County’s 2017 School Counselor of the Year during a surprise ceremony at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C., on May 24, 2017. The school system wants to hire additional school counselors and social workers to help students. ehyman@newsobserver.com

This month, I graduated with my master’s degrees in social work and public administration. As I celebrated, family and friends congratulated me and offered advice and luck in my endeavors; others often added something less congratulatory—commentary on my future salary.

Oh wow, what a special career. Just don’t expect to make much money!

As if I had never heard that social workers do not make the “big bucks,” and quite often live at or below the poverty line. (This also true for teachers, nurses, nonprofit professionals, and other women-dominated, emotionally taxing, vital professions in society.)

For a culture that traditionally does not support posting salary ranges, discussing the importance of salary negotiation, or sharing income levels in the work place or among friends, people seemed really interested in my future salary.

Well, people don’t go into these fields to make money. Everyone knows that!

Sure, I would argue most social workers are mission-driven. We care about mental illness, education, the environment, and equity. We want to leave this world better than we found it. But we need and appreciate money to do these important jobs in society.

Most people working in nonprofits are not just doing the job assigned to them. Nonprofits live off of grants and the generosity of individuals. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to fund overhead. Donors often love more tangible things, like backpacks with food or support groups.

But when there is no money to pay for staff, there are no programs. And no extra money to pay for maintenance or office management means folks take time from running these programs to fix broken toilets, clean buses, or move office furniture.

So, what’s the problem? Everyone has “other duties as assigned” on their job description, right?

When our time is filled with so many of these extra tasks because of a lack of resources (not to mention the high number of clients we are already serving), there is no time for creativity. There is no time for strategizing for efficiency, long-term evaluation, or collaboration.

There is also no time for self-care. After a long day of running school programs or answering crisis help lines, we must take care of ourselves physically and emotionally.

An analogy I like to use is that we are constantly overwhelmed with saving people drowning in the river, but have no time to think about how to fix the dam. It’s exhausting and we can’t do it forever.

When these jobs don’t offer the salary and benefits we need to succeed at work and at home, we burn out and often leave the field completely. This is not a sustainable practice and our society can’t afford to lose any more social workers.

Just because social workers care about the most vulnerable in our society does not mean we are martyrs for these causes. We deserve to live full lives with living wages and opportunity—the same things we work so hard to achieve for our clients.

You may find this column to be self-serving. Of course, the social worker is asking for more money now that she’s realized she entered a low-paying field. And yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing, but not because I’ve suddenly realized the expectations of the career I’ve begun.

I’m asking for a systemic and cultural value shift that rewards social workers for doing challenging, emotionally demanding, and analytical work every day.

There is a conversation happening about professionals who are fueled by a passion to help others and whose necessary work is deeply undervalued. I’m adding social workers to that list.

Community columnist Julia Da Silva lives in Carrboro.
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