FAQ: What are the highest-paying social work jobs?

Social workers help others overcome their hardships and live promising lives. Social work brings challenges, but it also can be a dream job because you know you are helping people every day. It’s a real way to make a difference. But how much can you earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay for social workers in 2020 was $51,760—but this may vary and depends on your specialty, location and employer.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers help people work through challenging situations in their lives. They work in different environments including human service agencies, schools, hospitals and mental health clinics. Social workers will often have to do what’s best for the client while working a case, including:

  • Helping people apply for food stamps.
  • Finding shelter for those experiencing homelessness.
  • Locate counseling for people affected by domestic violence.
  • Counseling hospital patients who have chronic or acute illnesses.
  • Helping students who have special challenges at school.
  • Assisting social services in applying for grants.

Social workers are often the primary connections between people with a need and the government departments or local services that offer help. Social workers should consider themselves as advocates for their clients.

A typical job description for a social worker includes:

  • Interviewing clients to assess their needs.
  • Making judgment decisions about proper options and community resources.
  • Obtaining and organizing the needed assistance.
  • Helping clients set goals.
  • Monitoring and documenting the client and situation over time.
  • Being knowledgeable about and complying with federal, state and local rules and guidelines.
  • Maintaining client confidentiality.
  • Helping the client apply for grants or other funds.
  • Compiling data into reports for analysis.

Many social workers are employed by nonprofit agencies. Some work primarily in an office, while others are out in the field. An example would be a social worker who makes home visits as a child or family services worker.

How Do I Become a Social Worker?

Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step to becoming a social worker. Typically you will need a bachelor’s degree in any subject from an accredited school, but some students pursue a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, in which the study focus has been such topics as human behavior, cultural diversity and social welfare policy. A psychology or sociology degree is helpful for many employers, too.

A bachelor’s degree is enough for some entry-level social work jobs, such as behavioral management aides, case managers and court liaisons. For clinical work, however, the BLS notes that a master’s degree (MSW) is required, along with two years of post-master’s work in a supervised clinical situation; you must also have a state license.

Social workers must pass an examination from the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which are given in five categories (though not all categories are available in every jurisdiction): associate, bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist and clinical. Some states require additional hours of supervised training in clinical practice before social workers earn their licenses.

How Much Do Different Kinds of Social Workers Earn?

That $51,790 median salary number from the BLS is a general number for workers whom the BLS describes this way: “Social workers work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and human service agencies, hospitals, settlement houses, community development corporations and private practices. They generally work full time and may need to work evenings, weekends and holidays.”

The median is the middle; it means that half of the salaries paid are higher (as much as $85,820 in this case) and half are lower (as low as $33,020).

While it seems that social workers all do the same tasks, once you get out of the general and into specifics, it’s easy to understand why there’s a wide range of salaries for social workers. According to 2020 data from the BLS:

  • Mental health and substance-abuse social workers had a median salary of $48,720.
  • Child, family and school social workers had a median salary of $48,430.
  • Health care social workers had a median salary of $57,630.
  • All other social workers (some are in private practice) had a median salary of $64,210.

Clearly, the “all other” category includes some employers who bring the median up. These higher-paying jobs are primarily in government with these respective median salaries:

  • Social workers in local government, excluding education and hospitals, earned a median salary of $57,660.
  • Social workers in state government, excluding education and hospitals, earned a median salary of 49,860.

Here are the industries that employ the most social workers, along with their median salaries:

  • Individual and family services: $43,820
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: $49,860
  • Ambulatory health care services: $52,850
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $57,660
  • Hospitals (state, local and private): $57,660

The BLS lists further breakdowns within health care, child/family/school, community/social service, mental health/substance abuse and human services workers:

Health care social workers, mean wage in 2020

  • Skilled nursing care facilities: $53,930
  • Individual and family services: $52,480
  • Grantmaking and giving services: $55,260
  • Outpatient care centers: $59,880.
  • Home health care services: $60,850
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: $64,910
  • Management of scientific and technical consulting services: $66,130
  • Professional, scientific and technical services: $66,760
  • Religious organizations: $68,960
  • Junior colleges: $70,810

Child, family and school social workers, mean wage in 2020:

  • Residential care facilities: $43,610
  • Community food/housing, emergency and other relief services: $41,740
  • Individual and family services: $45,360
  • Social advocacy organizations: $44,570
  • State government, excluding schools and hospitals: $52,000
  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals: $58,350
  • Elementary and secondary schools: $65,080

Community and social services workers, median wage in 2020:

  • Social and human services assistants: $35,960
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $37,530
  • Substance abuse/mental health: $47,660
  • Health educators and community health workers: $48,140
  • Marriage and family therapists: $51,340
  • Probation officers and corrections specialists: $55,690
  • School and career counselors: $58,120

Mental health and substance abuse social workers, mean wage in 2020:

  • Residential mental health and substance-abuse facilities: $41,300
  • Individual and family services: $48,550
  • Outpatient care centers: $54,380
  • Psychiatric and substance-abuse hospitals: $57,840
  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals: $60,790
  • Health practitioner offices: $65,040
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: $65,530
  • Specialty hospitals: $70,240
  • Universities and professional schools: $59,670
  • Insurance carriers: $71,460

Human services social workers, mean wage in 2020:

  • Community food/housing, emergency and other relief services: $39,060
  • Individual and family services: $47,380
  • Other residential care facilities: $50,970
  • State government, excluding schools and hospitals: $53,670
  • Local government, excluding schools and hospitals: $61,270
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: $64,900
  • Insurance carriers: $67,800
  • Other insurance-related industries: $72,450

What Is the Economic Outlook for Social Worker Jobs?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth (or reduction) in all occupations and classifies any growth (or reduction) in those occupations as slower than average, about average, faster than average and much faster than average when compared to all other occupations.

According to the BLS, the social work industry overall is expected to grow 12% from 2020 to 2030, which is classified as much faster than average. For social workers in the health care industry, the projected growth is 17%; for those in the mental health/substance-abuse arena, the projected growth is 18%.

Here are the projections for all social work occupations, including the number of new jobs and the average increase compared to all other occupations:

OccupationNew jobs 2020–2030Percent increase
All social workers
Child, family, school
Health care
Mental health/substance abuse

Learn More About a Career in Social Work

The career of a social worker is fulfilling, challenging and ever-changing. If you are currently a social worker and you want to earn more pay or are looking to change fields, consider the many different environments social workers get to work in and compare it with the pay you want to find a suitable job for you.

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