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My Turn: How to empower social workers

March is Social Work Month and the 2024 Social Work Month theme is Empowering Social Workers.

One way to do this is to increase their salaries.

Idaho needs social workers more than ever. The United States, including Idaho and Kootenai County specifically, is grappling with an opioid addiction crisis that has cut across all facets of our community. And homelessness is on the rise, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control, deaths by suicide rose in 2021 after declining the previous two years.

Social workers are people who enter the profession because they truly want to help others. And, they are uniquely qualified to handle these societal troubles. They go through years of education, training, and supervision so they can do the delicate, but important work of meeting people where they are and helping them achieve their goals.

Social workers are trained to work in holistic ways, assisting not just individuals but their entire families, communities, and even the larger society at large — especially if laws and regulations must be changed to benefit people. You will find social workers everywhere — in hospitals, schools, local, state, and federal government, social service agencies, corporations, and veteran’s centers, too.

The demand for social workers is reflected in the statistics — the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates they field will grow exponentially. There will be more than 782,000 social workers in the United States by 2030, and according to BLS the “overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations.”

However, social workers need support to meet the high demand for their vital work. Many social workers must earn a master’s degree and go through the expensive process to gain licensure; yet some aren’t able to afford a livable wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for social workers in 2022 was $55,350. When considering the cost of becoming a social worker, this is not enough.

In a recent National Social Work Public Opinion Survey, it was found that found slightly more than half of respondents think social workers should get higher pay. Few Americans realize that social workers can work in potentially dangerous settings. However, 84% would support Congress passing legislation that would provide agencies where social workers work with grants to help improve safety, the survey states.

It is important for the public to support legislation and initiatives that empower and support the social work profession and improve their bottom line. This includes the Improving Access to Mental Health Act, student loan debt relief, and social work safety legislation.

This month, the National Association of Social Workers, the country’s largest social work association, will raise awareness of the social work profession and highlight the need for the government, regulators, and employers to work to improve pay for social workers as a way of investing in addressing challenging social issues.

In closing, as we celebrate National Social Work Month in March and embrace the theme of Empowering Social Workers, it is crucial to recognize the indispensable role social workers play in addressing pressing societal challenges. The demand for their expertise is evident, especially in the face of crises such as the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and rising suicide rates. Let us stand united in acknowledging the importance of social workers and work collaboratively to ensure they receive the recognition, support, and compensation they deserve in their unwavering commitment to making a positive impact on society.

Lastly, thank the social workers in your life. They deserve it.

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Megan Dardis-Kunz, MSW, LMSW,  is a clinical assistant professor, Boise State University School of Social Work.

Published by the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls PRESS, Monday, March 11th, 2024.