Survey Finds Behavioral Health Professionals Earn Less than Fast Food Workers

NASW Data Show Behavioral Health Social Workers Earn $50,000

According to the 2011 Behavioral Health Salary Survey just released by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (National Council), a licensed social worker with a master’s degree earns less than a manager of a fast food restaurant.   Naturally, this finding is alarming to social workers, and should be equally alarming to those who need behavioral health services for themselves or family members.   However, the National Council acknowledges that these findings may not be representative of the entire behavioral healthcare workforce.  And, while the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) vehemently agrees that social work salaries need to be raised, NASW’s recent compensation study found that the median annual salary for masters’ level social workers in mental health clinics was $50,000, rather than the $23,000 median salary the National Council used to compare social work salaries to those of fast food restaurant managers.

NASW agrees with the National Council that workforce challenges such as salary inequities significantly hinder efforts to recruit and retain a high quality workforce to deliver mental health and substance use treatment services.  Their research highlights how much, we, as a society, undervalue people with mental health and substance use disorders, as well as their providers of service and care.

What did the survey find specifically?

  • A direct care worker in a 24-hour residential treatment center earns a lower median salary ($23,000 a year) than an assistant manager at Burger King ($25,589).
  • The annual salary range for a chief medical officer at a behavioral health organization is $101,000–$150,000, compared to the national average of $183,947–$292,395 for the same position in any other type of healthcare organization.
  • A social worker with a master’s degree in a mental health-addictions treatment organization earns less ($45,344) than a social worker in a general healthcare agency ($50,470).
  • A registered nurse working in a behavioral health organization earns $52,987 compared to the national average for nurses of $66,530.

If you want to stand up for your profession and support salary improvements for social workers, please email your Representative and Senators or call them in support of the Dorothy I .Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (HR1106/S. 584) today. For more information on the NASW Center for Workforce Studies click here or the National Council study, click here.

Don’t forget to sign up for the NASW Advocacy listserv.


  1. I seriously question the reported median salary of $50K for mental health clinic MSWs. I suspect the NASW survey is probably biased to NASW members, who can afford to pay for membership. Most direct line mental health social workers I have known are not members of NASW due to the cost and the perceived lack of ROI for membership for direct service providers. Agency admins tend to be in NASW, I think, because it advocates for funding for agencies (what they seek in their grant-writing jobs), and because they have the discretionary income to pay for membership. I’m open to evidence to the contrary, as these are my observations.

  2. You have a good blog James McGahan. I’ll be revisiting again in the near future.

  3. There seems to be no professional value for BSW’s. I graduated in 1988 with a BSW and have worked in the field since then. My longest employment has been with a non-profit agendy for 21 years. I had high hopes that NASW was going to be able to elevate the BSW degree at one point. However, I have not seen any evidence of this. There are rarely any ads even in the NASW newspaper for BSW’s or in other arenas. Employers who hire BSW’s are only looking for a person who has a degree in thw human services, Psychology, Human Services, Social Work. Years of service can make a difference, but that is rare. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disapointed in teh profession, only that we are not appreciated as “Social Workers” in the work arena. I believe the years of acquiring a BSW are the hardest years of study and many folks can attest to that. I am paid ok, but I had to work years with the same agency to get to that level. I am salaried, but started out being paid under 13 dollars per hour and now my hourly rate has just about doubled. Each state has a different “worth” rate for BSW’s and when I look at other states pay scale for BSW’s, I automatically know I would not go to that state to work as it would be like going back to an earlier time in my career. I have never felt the need to get a Master’s Degree, as all it would get me is a job with the state and working in a state job is definately not for me because their employment system and benefits have really fell. I would bet that that may even get worse in today’s economy. The only benefit to me taking a job with the state would be to get vested because the state at least has a better retirement plan than I do. I wonder how other BSW’s feel about this.

  4. That is so funny, we go through all of that education and expense and then we are paid less then someone who may not have completed high school. I just moved from one state to another, I worked in my home state during the grandfathering process so I did not have to sit for an exam. Now I am being told that I cannot practice in the state I am currently living in until I take the exam. I am 50 yrs old, have practiced without any sanctions, and was on the faculty of two schools, completed all my CEU yearly, in good standing with the board from the state I was grandfathered in, but in this state I am nothing. And they want me to sit for an exam and then get paid less then a fast food manager. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? The ironic thing about this of course is that the state I am living in is begging for new Social Workers and seems to be having a problem with locating new hires. This country has set up so many rules and regulations, I wonder if this profession will survive it. I guess I go and become a manager trainee at McDonalds. Has any one ever surveyed how many older social workers in good standing give up their profession due to this situation?

  5. Janice A Biggers, LMSW

    I agree and would like to be actively involved in this process. We have undervalued our services for years, because we love our work and have a passion for it. However, this does not pay the bills. I participate in all of the advocates programs. Let me know if I can do more.

  6. I agree with the strength in numbers idea; there’s so much advocacy to be done both on the worth of the kind of work we do as social workers and for the populations we work with. One trend I’ve noticed is that everyone I know is so overwhelmed with their caseload that the idea of taking the time to organize or network about this kind of thing is always on the back burner. If we’re going to be advocating about salaries, we should really throw workload in there too- it’s gotten pretty ridiculous in some places, in my opinion.

  7. It’s wonderful that NASW is advocating for jobs and higher salaries for professional social workers. However, NASW also needs to advocate for diversity in funding for behavioral health and other social programs. Charitable voluntary giving goes up with involuntary giving (aka taxes) go down.

  8. I have been concerned about this as well and have an example that is closer to home.

    up until very recently, I worked as a direct care staff. I have noticed in multiple cases that the agencies that employ such staff pay the direct care staff less than their receptionist and other clerical workers! I noticed one agency that paid DSPs just over minimum wage, but was willing to pay the administrative assistant for the department $13 an hour to push the paperwork around.

    I don’t mean to insult administrative workers. But the idea of their being worth more than the employees that are the nuts and bolts of the agency is ridiculous.

  9. If we take an active role in supporting NASW in its’ efforts to inform the public about the work Professional Social Workers and the need for equity in Social Work salaries, our success in accomplishing this goal will dramatically increase. United, we can have far more power and influence than what can be done as individuals.

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