Voices from the Third Sector

Do We Get What We Pay For in the Social Services?

soup being ladled out

Hard Work for Little Reward ­

The Republican National Committee recently reacted to efforts by the Obama Administration to take action on continued gender pay inequality. Their statement included the following:

“There’s a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience,” the memo says.

“The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer — just as a female engineer would out-earn a male social worker. The difference isn’t because of their genders; it’s because of their jobs.”

Though not often revered as the party for social workers, our friends at the RNC raise an interesting point, though not necessarily about the administration’s efforts to tackle unfair pay standards. Social workers, and others in the health and human services, are paid poorly not because they are women, but because they are social workers.

How do we, as a society, determine who has value?

If money or salary is the determinant, we value men more than women, White employees over African Americans, engineers over builders, NBA players more than paramedics. Currently, many teachers, healthcare and social service workers don’t seem to fit the bill. Home health aides, for example, tasked with the tremendous responsibility of caring for those who are too sick or disabled to leave their homes, are paid, on average, $10 an hour. Many fast food employees and Wal-Mart employees are compensated at comparable rates, though our society’s expectations for these workers are considerably less. Likewise, while many of us have relied on mental health and addiction professionals to support ourselves or our family members through challenging times, their compensation pales in comparison to say, advertising executives, corporate lawyers, or cosmetic surgeons, who arguably offer less value to our society.

Obviously, these comparisons aren’t new. But it begs an important question. What is the result of paying our helping professionals so little, and does it impact their ability to help? In the health and human services, the value we create as a result of our work is contingent on an effective workforce. It doesn’t seem a stretch to question the effectiveness of a workforce that is forced to run on so little capital. Some argue that we face a workforce quality problem in the field, resulting largely from widespread low pay and high stress, which in turn has an impact on every area of social service provision. Most importantly, it impacts our ability to make positive change.

In short, has paying helping professionals badly resulted in bad helpers? And if so, why? Some have argued that helping professions attract less competent employees, while others assert that low pay, high caseloads, and stress turn well-meaning and motivated crusaders into burnt out, less productive and disorganized workers.

There is, not surprisingly, evidence to suggest that paying higher wages results in higher productivity and happier employees. Conversely, research suggests that low pay leads to higher turnover and less productivity. Surely, this applies to health and social workers as well, the majority of who start off as engaged, motivated employees, but may struggle to remain so as they complete challenging work for poor pay. Additionally, many helping professionals who are smart, focused, and motivated, but working in unpleasant environments, quickly leave direct services for academia or administrative roles.And while salary often drives our perception of others’ worth or value, it also impacts how we view ourselves. This, in turn, impacts self-confidence, how we interact with the world, and our ability to strive to be great.

Further, offering higher wages helps to attract the best possible candidates to the field. Henry Ford’s “$5 dollar a day” approach is a great example (when $5 per day was well above the going rate for car manufacturing). Ford (correctly) wagered that if you pay people well, you will appeal to the best in the field - motivated workers who will stick around and work harder, reducing costs in the long run. Therefore, it is conceivable that as a result of the historically low salaries on offer, these professions may not attract the best candidates to begin with. Whether for-profit dynamics can be compared to nonprofit industries is a moot point. Those working in helping professions will report similarly challenging expectations related to productivity and reporting, and nonprofit organizations are equally reliant on an industrious and healthy workforce to stay afloat.

Examination of the field of education may offer additional insights. In the teaching profession, there has long been speculation that challenges in the education workforce may result from the fact that education degrees are not challenging enough to obtain, have lax entrance requirements, and therefore don’t attract the strongest students. These students may struggle to be successful when they enter the classroom. While many would argue with this assertion, closer scrutiny of other degree programs related to the human services (such as social work) may help to examine their strengths and challenges, and how this impacts the workforce or the intended outcomes for consumers. Additionally, the greater extent to which we can strengthen training and degree programs like social work, the better case we can make that the work is really difficult, requires extensive training and preparation and is worthy of reasonable compensation.

We must acknowledge that the future of these professions is dependent on attracting highly qualified people to the field at higher rates. The demand for qualified social service professionals is sure to rise as we face an aging population and continued economic hardship. So we need social service workers and healthcare professionals, but in order to make real change, we need good ones. And once we get them in the door, we need to keep them. One simple way to do this, and increase our return on investment, is to find ways to offer higher pay. Helping professionals must also be offered adequate training and support to best serve their clients while also caring for themselves, and be as recognized as valued members of an organization’s team.
Parting words from Henry Ford are illustrative of the problem: “No one loses anything by raising wages as soon as he is able. It has always paid us. Low wages are the most costly any employer can pay. It is like using low-grade material-the waste makes it very expensive in the end.”


Further reading:

What about income inequality at organizations trying to end income inequality? 

Can Technology fix the Social Services?

Rose Frech, Community Solutions

Image: CommunitySolutions.com

About the Author:  Rose Frech is a Research Associate at The Center for Community Solutions