Everything you need to know about social worker salaries
Social workers are some of the most valuable employees in the country, but they perform services that are often overlooked by many people, even those they directly help. They’re also not as well-understood as high-profile careers like doctors, lawyers, and business executives. This often leads social work students or future social work professionals to misunderstand their salary potential.
Things are made even more complicated because speaking of salary is often treated as a taboo subject, particularly in corporate America. It’s hard to know how much you can ask for when negotiating your salary if you don’t already know what other social workers in your field are making.
This guide is designed to put an end to your questions and uncertainty.
Below, you’ll find a detailed breakdown of social worker salaries separated by several factors, including job title, location, and degree. With this information, you’ll know exactly how much you should be asking for from your social work position and be able to plan out your education to maximize your earnings.
Let’s dive in!
General expected salaries
The exact occupation and experience level any given social worker might have can vary dramatically. Therefore, social worker salaries as a general range are necessarily broad. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the majority of information publicly available regarding social worker salaries.
In general, social workers in an entry-level position can expect a median annual wage of around $49,470. However, this median is bookended by the lowest 10 percent earning less than $30,750 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $81,400. As you can see, the potential earnings for a social worker position are more difficult to nail down than you might initially think.
Many factors influence how much a social worker makes. Their exact job title, experience level, any degrees are licenses they’ve earned beforehand, and even job location can influence their ending salary. As a basic example, mental health and substance abuse social workers tend to earn the lowest annual salaries out of every other category of social workers: $44,840 compared to $63,140 for other types of social workers.
In addition, social worker pay can also be influenced by the days they work, and any overtime requirements necessitated by a position. Some social workers work weekends and holidays, which often come with positions that afford overtime pay or extra bonuses in exchange for further labor.
Furthermore, independent or licensed social workers that are paid on a client by client basis will have fluctuating yearly salaries based on how many patients they treat every quarter.
While the exact specifications vary by position, social workers as a general profession are expected to grow by about 11 percent by 2028. This is significantly faster than how other occupations are growing. In other words, there should be plenty of new social worker positions over the next decade for future graduates or those looking to switch careers.
Social workers as a whole will enjoy around 81,200 new positions across the country, with the majority of those new jobs being for healthcare and child and family social work positions. Thus, social workers can expect decent to excellent lifetime earnings because of the consistency of the positions and the likelihood that they’ll be able to maintain employment throughout their career without many involuntary stopgaps.
Social worker salaries by job type
The first major category separating social worker salaries is job type. As mentioned before, general social workers, which is a catchall term to describe anyone who performs social work in a variety of clinical, community welfare, or human service contexts, have a median annual salary of $49,470 per year. The base degree required for this position is a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field.
However, those who attain a master’s degree in social work or an even higher credential can take on higher-paying positions with greater theoretical maximums.
For example, school and career counselors – a job that requires a master’s degree in either social work for counseling or a related field – can expect a median annual salary of around $56,310 per year. They’re also enjoying a rapid job growth outlook of around 8% over the next 10 years.
Furthermore, school and career counselors can earn up to $94,690 per year if they stay at a single school and gather experience or if they earn a doctoral degree and take this position afterward.
A similar occupation that pays less money is that of a rehabilitation counselor. These professionals can help people with physical or mental disabilities and enable them to live independently or overcome trauma.
Social work master’s degrees or master’s degrees in similar fields are required for this position. Rehabilitation counselors earn an average median salary of around $35,630 per year, with the top 10 percent earning around $63,820 per year. This position is growing by about 10 percent over the next 10 years, which may hopefully see an increase in salary relative to other social work and well-being healthcare positions.
Another career alternative that only requires a bachelor’s degree is a substance abuse, behavioral disorder, or mental health counselor. Most of these positions are filled by those with psychology degrees at the bachelor level, although social work degrees can often qualify individuals for these jobs. These professionals earn an average median salary of about $44,630 per year, with the highest 10 percent earning salaries around 72,009 and $90 per year. Perhaps even more valuable, though, is the fact that this position is projected to grow by about 22 percent over the next 10 years. This will result in an additional 68,500 jobs in this profession alone; there should be plenty of space for future graduates in this field.
On the other end of the spectrum, social workers without any college degree can become a social or human service assistant. This professionally requires a high school diploma or equivalent and necessarily earns a much lower than average salary of around $33,750 per year. Many social workers will start off in one of these positions before earning a bachelor’s degree and moving on to a higher paying position.
As you can see, the theoretical earnings based on job alone are almost as varied as the types of careers you can have with a social work degree. Generally speaking, social workers with greater experience and higher degrees earn more money even in a position that doesn’t require a higher credential. For instance, a general social worker with a master’s degree will earn more money than a social worker with a bachelor’s degree based only on the qualifications implied by that credential.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at how social worker salaries differ by degree.
Social worker salaries by degree type
Aside from one of the professions discussed above, social workers usually need a bachelor’s or master’s degree to fully really enter the industry. In fact, a master’s degree is often regarded as the true “starting point” for a career in social work, with many lucrative or long-term positions requiring this credential as a qualification. In some ways, it’s the “new bachelor’s degree” in the field.
This is largely because social worker positions often require state licensure, especially for positions like school counselors or mental health rehabilitation specialists. These licenses usually require a master’s degree; the programs for these degrees often incorporate practicum experiences and specific coursework that teach the student what they need to know in order to pass the licensure test.
The BLS has more helpful data demonstrating the importance of a master’s degree:
- 21 percent of child, family, and school social workers, 55 percent of healthcare social workers, and 30 percent of mental health and substance abuse social workers require a master’s degree as a minimum requirement for their position
- 23 percent of child, family, and school social workers and 90 percent of healthcare social workers/mental health and substance abuse social workers require licensure
- 65 percent of child, family, and school social workers, 57 percent of healthcare social workers and 67 percent of mental health and substance abuse social workers require prior work experience
Master’s degrees are further valuable on this point as many of their programs incorporate practical training or work experience as part of their curriculums. This means that any master’s graduate is assumed to have some work experience under their belt, which both makes them a qualified candidate for higher-paying positions and a more attractive candidate for all social worker jobs.
We need only look at the salary differences between the positions we already discussed to see the salary potential and value of a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
Social workers in general only require a bachelor’s degree and have an average salary of nearly $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, the highest potential paying social worker profession – school and career counselors – require a master’s degree in order to be considered for the position. They earn an average salary of almost $60,000 per year with a much higher maximum potential. This indicates that earning a master’s degree in the social work field can potentially jump up your expected salary by $10,000 for much more.
Similar social worker positions, like child or family social workers, also require master’s degrees and have similar salary expectations. Healthcare social workers always require licensure; while some of these positions pay less than others, they still have excellent earning potential.
In short, a master’s degree in social work will most likely bump up your salary by about $10,000.
What about a doctoral degree?
There are two main types of doctoral social work degrees: a Doctor of Social Work, or DSW, and a Ph.D. in Social Work. The former degree is a practical or terminal degree aimed at those who want to become social workers in clinics, working directly with patients. They tend to take positions like the ones we’ve already discussed, such as family social workers. In many cases, because of their higher education, individuals with DSWs are able to demand higher salaries and reach the upper potential of around $95,000 per year.
On the other hand, those with a social work Ph.D. degree are usually more focused on research and education. They may take positions at the university they studied at and become professors in social work. The BLS provides us data on the salaries of post-secondary teachers, who can expect an average annual salary of $78,470 per year. Even better, professors can eventually earn tenure, guaranteeing them employment for the rest of their careers. Their upper earning potential is around $175,110 per year.
As you can see, earning a doctoral degree in social work is an extremely excellent choice if you want to maximize your earning potential. One of these degrees may bump up your average salary by tens of thousands of dollars each year and your lifetime earnings by millions of dollars.
All in all, a master’s degree is likely where any aspiring social work professional will want to stop at a bare minimum because of the earning potential. However, a doctoral degree is a great idea if you can afford it and make it work with your schedule.
Social worker salaries by location
Job and degree aren’t the only factors that influence social worker salaries. Location also plays a big role in the salary you can expect for any position, although some positions do better in certain states than others.
Once again, we turn to the BLS for critical data on this point. They break up social worker earnings by general types, of which there are three categories: healthcare social workers, child, family and school social workers, and all other social work occupations.
Healthcare social workers
For healthcare social workers – which are social workers that exclusively operate within clinics or hospitals and other medical practices – the highest-earning locations or states with large metropolitan areas, which is to be expected given the availability of clinical locations. The highest-earning states were:
- Nevada: $78,940
- California: $76,450
- Connecticut: $72,640
- District of Columbia: $72,090
- Oregon: $70,830
On the flip side, the states that paid the least for healthcare social workers included the most rural states like Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The best cities for healthcare social workers are:
- Las Vegas, NV: $90,030
- Salinas, CA: $85,440
- San Jose, CA: $84,930
- Lake Havasu, AZ: $84,710
- San Luis Obispo, CA: $83,660
Child, family, and school social workers
Child, family, and school social workers have similar but slightly different salary statistics. Most of their higher-paying states are also fairly metropolitan or which have economies focused around big population centers. The top-paying states for these types of social workers were:
- District of Columbia: $70,270
- Connecticut: $69,520
- New Jersey: $67,700
- Rhode Island: $61,440
- California: $59,500
The lowest paying states for these types of social workers included the same rural states as before, including Montana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
The best cities for child, family, and school social workers are:
- Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT: $74,010
- Waterbury, CT: $71,580
- Hartford, CT: $70,460
- Danbury, CT: $68,210
- Salinas, CA: $67,540
Other social workers
Finally, all other social worker occupations have a much more interesting salary spread based on state location. The highest paying states were both Metropolitan and rural, likely due to the variety within this category of social worker. The highest paying states for all other social workers included:
- the District of Columbia: $82,900
- Hawaii: $81,790
- Rhode Island: $75,710
- Massachusetts: $75,340
- Nevada: $75,020
The lowest paying states for all of their social workers included states like Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Montana.
The top cities for all other social workers are:
- San Jose, CA: $97,520
- Springfield, MA: $85,860
- Santa Rosa, CA: $83,170
- Honolulu, HI: $81,480
- San Francisco, CA: $81,000
In general, it seems clear that social workers benefit in terms of salary more from working in states that have a variety of population centers and big clinical locations. Even if you don’t plan on being a healthcare social worker, you’ll still benefit from a wider variety of employment positions thanks to population concentrations inherent in big city locations and, likely, from the greater number of impoverished people or people in need of your services.
Cities are better for employment opportunities and salary potential then rural areas. Coastal states seem to have better salary potential than interior states, as well.
Social worker salaries by industry
The aforementioned category or industry of social work or position you choose can also heavily influence your salary.
Healthcare social workers have a mean annual wage of around $56,800. The majority of social workers within this industry work at general medical or surgical hospitals, individual and family services centers, nursing care facilities and outpatient care centers. The highest paying places for these types of social workers include insurance and employee benefit funds, professional, scientific and technical services and general medical and surgical hospitals.
Meanwhile, child, family, and school social workers have a mean annual wage of around $48,430. Most of their positions are in industries like individual and family services, state government positions, and elementary and secondary schools. The highest paying industries for this type of social worker include elementary and secondary schools, technical and trade schools, and business, professional, labor, political, and similar organizations.
All other social worker positions are grouped together into a final category. Other social workers can expect a mean annual wage of $62,660. Most other social workers operating industries like local government excluding schools and hospitals, individual and family services, state government excluding schools and hospitals, and community food and housing/emergency and other relief services. The highest paying industries for other types of social workers include agencies, brokerages, federal executive branch positions, ambulatory healthcare services, and insurance carriers.
All in all, it seems that social workers outside of healthcare and child, family, and school social working categories earn the highest salaries on average, although there is plenty of variation between different positions.
Other factors that can influence social worker salary
Beyond job title, experience level, and position, there are some other factors that can influence your salary as a social worker.
For instance, earning your licensure as an official social worker grants you the ability to both diagnose and treat mental disorders. Many top-paying social work positions, like school or family counselors, require that you have state licensure in order to even apply for the position.
A clinical social work license essentially qualifies you to practice medicine on patients and often requires that you have some practical experience before receiving said licensure. A licensed social worker (LSW) is not equal between states, as some states have lesser or greater requirements before you can obtain licensure. You can visit websites to determine the social work license requirements by your state.
In addition, most master’s programs in social work include opportunities for licensure and several practical classes to ensure you meet the requirements for licensure regardless of state specifications. In the end, not obtaining licensure as a social worker effectively handicaps your salary potential and limits your ability to progress in the industry. It’s recommended that all social workers eventually become licensed if they are serious about continuing up the professional ladder.
Finally, the Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE, is a national organization that represents social work educational guidelines in the United States. They regularly examine the academic curriculums of social work programs at universities and will accredit various universities if they meet certain requirements.
Universities that have a CSWE-accredited social work program will, in turn, award you with a more valuable degree that may allow you to demand a higher salary from a social worker position or organization. This isn’t to say that non-CSWE-accredited social work degrees aren’t workable, but they may be looked at more closely by hiring organizations.
Ultimately, social worker salaries are both nebulous and relatively predictable thanks to economic trends and the data gathered by the BLS. There are tons of factors that can influence your starting and ending salaries, including less measurable aspects like your interviewing skills and your experience level. Still, this guide should give you the information you need to “ballpark” your salary and allow you to negotiate for a reasonable pay rate when seeking a social work position.