Why the government is aggressively hiring social workers in 2023

BY Sam BeckerApril 11, 2023, 4:35 PM
Commuters in Hoboken, N.J., head from New Jersey Transit trains to PATH trains during a morning commute to Penn Station, July 2017. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The past several years have been extremely difficult to contend with for governments across the country—at the federal, state, and city levels. Resources were strained, employee burnout thinned headcounts, and traditional strategies for solving problems became ineffective. While the COVID-19 pandemic was likely the single largest factor, other recent events have created a contentious environment.

For example, the murder of George Floyd (and subsequent protests) in the summer of 2020, has had wide-ranging effects: Many people, particularly in urban, underserved, or minority-majority areas, for instance, lost faith in their local police departments, creating further problems for local governments trying to respond to contentious situations. That’s precisely what happened in Hoboken, N.J.

“After George Floyd [was killed], people started distrusting the police,” says Ken Ferrante, public safety director for the City of Hoboken. Ferrante says that the city government started looking for ways to help concerned citizens who were not necessarily facing criminal or emergency situations, but who needed someone to step in and handle contentious situations related to drug abuse or homelessness. 

“People didn’t want to call the cops,” says Nora Martinez DeBenedetto, head of constituent services for the City of Hoboken, so “we decided that moving forward with hiring social workers was the best answer.”

Social workers can ‘help build trust’

Hoboken hired two social workers to help the city’s residents on multiple fronts: Homelessness, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and mental health counseling are all under their purview, says Martinez DeBenedetto. The hope is that the social workers—who’ve only been on the job for a matter of weeks as of early 2023—will help build trust between the city’s residents and its government officials, including police officers.

“It’s not a police officer’s job to do a social worker’s job,” says Ferrante. “So we want to bring in professionally licensed social workers to help build trust.”

Hoboken’s approach isn’t unique in the U.S. Rather, government agencies and local governments across the country have been looking to hire more social workers to help with the myriad issues communities are facing. In fact, in some places, governments can’t find enough social workers to fill open roles. From Missouri to Utah to Maine, the lack of social workers is causing some government projects to be placed on hold or even canceled.

There are also federal initiatives to hire more social workers. Last year, for example, the Biden administration announced efforts through the U.S. Department of Education to increase the ranks of social workers in schools. Suffice to say, there are plenty of opportunities for social workers or prospective social workers at the government level—perhaps more so than at any time in the recent past.

Even before some of these announcements and efforts came to fruition, there already was a promising outlook for these occupations: The number of social workers nationwide is expected to increase 9% between 2021 and 2031, for a total of 64,000 additional positions on top of the 708,000-plus already in existence, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But relatively meager salaries are proving to be a difficult hurdle for many would-be social workers to overcome. The median annual pay for social workers was a little more than $50,000 in May 2021, or around $24 per hour, BLS data shows. Meanwhile, the median annual wage for all occupations in the U.S. was $22 per hour. And given just how difficult social work can be, it may not be a tremendously attractive field for those looking for a lucrative career path.

Red tape and hurdles 

Given that the life of a social worker can be tough—long hours, intense and dangerous work environments, and more—it’s likely to remain a difficult task for government bodies to bring aboard an adequate number of social workers quickly. What’s more, many state and local governments are probably facing battles regarding budgetary requirements to hire them. 

In Hoboken, for example, Martinez DeBenedetto says the city council initially approved only one new social worker position, but later added a second position. The city will also assess and reassess its needs in regard to social workers going forward, which could mean stretching or contracting the budget. Smaller cities, also in need of social workers, may not have as much budgetary flexibility, however.

“There’s definitely a demand for social workers, but salary structures are still not great,” says Nancy Smyth, professor and interim associate dean for faculty development at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. “There’s not enough policy-level funding to fit the need.” 

Though social work may not be as financially rewarding as some other career paths, it’s fulfilling in other ways—particularly for those who want to get their hands dirty and help their community. “You can help communities, help organize and identify their strengths, respond to challenges, and help people address human rights issues in their communities,” Smyth says.

And for those people interested in government work, social work could prove to be a path of sorts into other fields, including politics. “We have social workers who go into politics,” says Smyth, adding that “politicians all have someone who handles constituents, and it’s a natural fit for social work.” Currently, there are several former social workers serving in Congress, including Senators Debbie Stabenow and Kyrsten Sinema, and Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Sylvia Garcia. Karen Bass, the mayor of Los Angeles, was also a social worker.

For social workers with more immediate goals, the need is there—and government bodies nationwide are evidently willing to extend opportunities. 

“[Social workers] are not going to solve homelessness in America, but I think that the work of government should be to help the most vulnerable people in our communities—if we have the opportunity to do that, we should,” says Martinez DeBenedetto. As for Hoboken’s onboarding of social workers to help the city’s residents, and the result so far?

“I couldn’t be happier,” she says.

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