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How Much Will You Make as a Community Social Worker?

How Much Will You Make as a Community Social Worker?
Not everyone who enters the field of social work envisions themselves as a psychotherapist or wants to provide mental health services. Some want to work at the organizational level and have a societal impact. Image from Unsplash
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Tom Meltzer February 6, 2023

If you hope to effect change in policy and service program-level practice, community social work could be a good fit. You'll buck the system to help community groups pursue social justice and equality.

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The field of social work encompasses a broad range of functions sharing the common goals of assisting those in need and pursuing social justice. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 700,000 social workers deliver services ranging from private counseling to case management, from assisting children in need to helping the dying and their families manage hospice care and other medical challenges.

While much of social work concerns service with individuals—a form of social work professionals describe as micro social work—the field also includes work with larger communities and interest groups. Among these forms of mezzo and macro social work is community social work. Just as micro social workers assist individuals to address challenges and remediate injustices, community social workers help neighborhoods, organizations, and other groups redress all forms of inequity, whether it be a lack of sufficient services, a business polluting the environment, or unequal treatment by law enforcement.

If you’re the sort of person who wants to roll up their sleeves and take on the big boys to effect big societal challenges, a career as a community social worker could be for you. Of course, if you’re considering a career in this field, you might naturally wonder how much do community social workers make? This article addresses that question. It also discusses:

  • What does a community social worker do?
  • Community social worker work environment
  • Being a community social worker: pros and cons
  • Community social worker average salary
  • Community social worker job outlook
  • How to become a community social worker

What does a community social worker do?

Community social workers—their job titles sometimes describe them as community organizers, community coordinators, or community advocates—work with community groups to improve local conditions. They use their expertise to “counterbalance wealthy and powerful groups” in the pursuit of social justice, according to the National Association of Social Workers

While anyone in the community (or from outside it, for that matter) could lead and advocate for community groups, community social workers can be more effective because they bring a battery of skills and techniques accumulated through training and years of experience. They are experts in negotiation, persuasion, and navigating government and organizational bureaucracies. Their skill sets enable them to:

  • Organize: Community social workers are trained to coordinate action, recognize special talents within a group and assign members roles in which they can be most effective, and motivate members to promote group goals.
  • Advocate: Community social workers are well-versed in the law, public policy, regulations, and the most effective practices to prompt responses from government agencies and other service providers.
  • Mediate: Subject expertise and negotiating skills make community social workers especially effective mediators in conflicts among community group members and between community groups and power brokers.
  • Research: Social work degree programs train community social workers to become rigorous researchers capable of unearthing information necessary to successfully make a case.
  • Fundraise: Community advocacy can be costly, requiring the services of public relations professionals and lawyers. Many community social workers are also skilled at identifying potential sources of funding and soliciting donations.

Community social workers educate the community on issues, recruit volunteers, coordinate public communication, organize events and rallies, and provide expertise on the government, law, and relevant regulations. In an unbalanced fight, community social workers help tip the scales back toward disenfranchised and underrepresented actors.

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

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Community social worker work environment

Community social workers spend a lot of time interacting with the community in venues that include agency offices, churches, schools, prisons, healthcare clinics, mental health facilities, senior centers, military bases, workplaces, local government offices, and homes. Those employed by organizations or foundations may work occasionally from an office, but since so much of their work involves engaging with the community, even these social workers spend most of their time on the streets and in the home environments of their clients.

Being a community social worker: pros and cons

Community social work offers numerous rewards but also several potential drawbacks. Some significant pros and cons are listed below.

Pros

  • Making connections: Community social workers are constantly out among clients, service providers, and fellow social workers. If you’re a people person who loves to meet and interact with others, you should find this aspect of the job extremely satisfying.
  • Making a difference: While others are home complaining about everything wrong with the world (or worse, simply ignoring it), you will be out there doing something about it. It won’t be easy and you won’t always succeed, but you will know that you are making the effort to drive positive outcomes.
  • Constant learning: No two days are the same for a community social worker. Every day presents new individuals, new challenges, new problems to solve. It’s a great job for someone with a curious mind.

Cons

  • Difficult: As you advocate for clients and groups, you will run up against indifference and downright hostility. You will frequently find yourself clashing with a system that seems designed to make every process as challenging as possible. This is not a job you can phone in.
  • Frustrating: In many instances, progress will be slow or nonexistent. Resistance will be great. There will be days when you feel you accomplished nothing. You will need to practice self-care to maintain your psychological well-being.
  • Can be dangerous: Social workers often work in high-crime environments. The communities they serve include dangerous criminals, some of whom may become their clients. This is not a job for the fainthearted.

Community social worker average salary

Community social worker income varies by location, employer, state, professional experience, level of education, licensure and certifications. Annual salaries span from the $30,000s all the way up to six figures. Job titles range from caseworker to licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), from community organizer to policy advocate to project manager.

Community social worker salary with a BSW

According to Salary.com, a community social worker with a BSW earns a median salary of $62,300. The top 10 percent of earners make over $76,000, while the bottom 10 percent earn less than $50,000.

Community social worker salary with an MSW

A community social worker with an MSW earns, on average, a little over $69,000 per year, according to Salary.com. Those in the top 10 percent earn nearly $83,000, while those in the bottom 10 percent make less than $56,000.

Based on Salary.com data, an MSW delivers an income approximately 10 percent higher than that earned by community social workers with a BSW only. Fewer than 10 percent of MSWs pursue careers in community organizing and advocacy; the vast majority (over 80 percent) seek employment in direct or clinical practice, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 2018 report From Social Work Education to Social Work Practice.

Community social worker job outlook

In 2018, the National Association of Social Workers asked new social workers to identify fields in which social work-related jobs were more available than others. The same survey asked respondents to identify jobs that were less available than others.

More social workers reflected positively on the availability of community and residential social work than reflected negatively, by a 6 percent to 4 percent margin. In contrast, only 4 percent characterized government and nonprofit jobs as “more available,” compared to 15 percent who described them as “less available.”

How to become a community social worker

Community social workers come from all different educational backgrounds. According to the NASW 2017 report Profile of the Social Work Workforce, the civic, social, advocacy organizations, and grant-making and giving services social work workforce includes those with non-social work bachelor’s degrees, BSWs, and MSWs. Unlike social workers who engage in one-on-one counseling, community social workers do not need licensure or certification to practice.

Advanced education, coupled with professional experience, can qualify community social workers for higher-responsibility, more-impactful roles at nonprofits and other service and advocacy organizations. A Master of Social Work is a valuable credential qualifying social workers for a broad range of services, including private practice. If you’re looking to add versatility to your professional arsenal, an MSW can help. Fortunately, many MSW programs are available online on a part-time basis, making them easier for working professionals to complete without forgoing work.

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Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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