Where Are the Social Workers?

This post ties together several previous posts in this blog.

One such post looked at some estimates of how many social workers there are in the United States. Another post presented some concerns related to availability and desirability of social work jobs. A third post explored racial and ethnic diversity among states within the U.S.

What do these posts have in common? Consider this map:


This map juxtaposes two sets of information. First, look at the blue numbers on certain states (e.g., the 37 on New Mexico). As described in more detail in the diversity post (above), these numbers indicate how the various states were ranked by two different sources. These were general-purpose rankings of which states are best or worst to live in, according to a variety of indicators. The numbers shown on the map indicate the ten best and the ten worst states in the U.S., by rough agreement by both sets of rankings. So North Dakota was ranked 1 by both, while Alabama and Kentucky were tied, at the bottom, for 41st/42nd. (Eight states were not included in the comparison, due to significant disagreement between the two rankings.)

Now, let’s look at the rest of the map, not counting those blue numbers. This material comes from the HRSA document (2013, p. 10) cited in the post (above) on how many social workers there are. For instance, North Dakota is shaded with dark brown, indicating that it had at least 227 social workers per 100,000 residents, whereas Alabama is shaded with light yellow, indicating less than 115 social workers per 100,000 residents.

Each of these map layers is interesting in its own right. Looking at the blue numbers, it is interesting that so many of the worst-ranked states are in the South and so many of the best-ranked states are in the North. There are other points of interest. The other post explores some of those. Meanwhile, looking at the brown and yellow shading, it is also interesting to see the difference between southern and northern states, in terms of social workers per capita.

Combining the two layers, it appears that several of the top-ranked states have high concentrations of social workers, while a number of the bottom-ranked states have low concentrations. That could seem counterintuitive: it might seem that the struggling states would be the ones that would have the greatest need for the services of social workers. And in some cases, that does appear to be the situation: for instance, New York seems to have lots of social workers, and yet ranks in the bottom tier, while Utah is in just the opposite situation. So even with a more careful and scientific analysis of what counts as a good or bad state, it could be difficult to establish a solid correlation between social workers per capita and state desirability.

If one did demonstrate such a correlation, it would not necessarily mean that having more social workers tends to improve the state’s desirability. It could be that social worker employment is part of a larger package — that, for instance, states that have more social workers also have more universities or better healthcare organizations, or might be more politically liberal, or might have other characteristics that might be related to the production or hiring of social workers.

Possibly a better claim would be, not that social workers are per se good for a state, but rather that a well-run state is likely to use its social workers well. In that case, the difference between New York and Vermont could be, not that one has more social workers per capita than the other, but that Vermont and other top-ranked states are relatively able to develop a functional and relevant social work profession. The factors contributing to this ability may vary: one top-ranked state may be smaller and easier to govern; another may enjoy some advantages from relative sociocultural homogeneity; a third one may fund higher levels of social services. Such possibilities would raise questions as to whether various social work practice issues (e.g., employment, wages, ethics) are developed or handled more effectively in some states than in others.

The foregoing suggestion — that a well-run state uses its social workers effectively — need not imply that a state would have many social workers. Utah would be a counterexample. In other words, the use of social workers raises the question of what social workers are all about. Utah, with its heavy Mormon orientation, may have decided not to have much to do with the decidedly non-Mormon social work profession. Further inquiry might reveal that Utah just doesn’t have much need for social workers, but it could also indicate that Utah has decided to shunt social services onto professions or organizations with a different sort of ideology. Based on another post on state rankings and religion, it seems there may be some coincidence between state religiosity and social worker populations. In partial response to that possibility, I suggested in a published article that social workers should learn more about the diverse political philosophies underlying their profession, so as not to render themselves narrowminded or otherwise useless without good reason.

There are other possible explanations of the patterns suggested in the map. A correspondence between the poverty (and other socioeconomic difficulties) in the South, and that region’s low concentration of social workers, could raise the question of whether the largely white social work profession fails to impress poor and/or black clients, or the white or black politicians and administrators making relevant decisions in such states. Social work may seem secondary, for states that cannot afford to meet basic needs of food and shelter; or perhaps the kinds of human needs addressed by a competent social work profession do not much interest key political players.

These questions may impact the social work jobhunter’s geographical planning. If the funding is there, it seems that a struggling social work jobhunter might want to head south, to relatively virgin territory. But if the states with relatively few social workers per capita are unfamiliar or unimpressed with today’s social work profession, it might be advisable for the social work student (not to mention his/her educators) to become attuned to ways in which social work education may render students less attractive or effective in certain jurisdictions. For instance, a résumé trumpeting one’s gay/lesbian organizational experience may be celebrated in Manhattan but deplored in Mobile. Odd though it may seem, there could actually be more jobs for social workers in the places that already have plenty of them.

Again, all of these questions and speculations could be more deeply informed by further study. The goal here is just to provide a quick and dirty introduction to the topic of where social workers are located, with some initial attention to the questions of why that might be, and what it might imply.

Further reading in this area might include related information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Within the BLS Occupation Profiles, social workers fall under the general category of Community and Social Service Occupations. The Social Worker category (occupation code 21-1020) is divided into four subsets: Child, Family, and School Social Workers (21-1021), Healthcare Social Workers (21-1022), Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (21-1023), and Social Workers, All Other (21-1029). The foregoing links lead directly to maps presenting the state-by-state distribution of social workers within each such subset. (Note that the maps depict numbers of social workers, not numbers per capita. Large states may have more social workers than small states, even if they have fewer per 100,000 residents.)

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