Can You Live Comfortably as a Social Worker?

Social workers may not make loads of money. But a social worker's salary is often enough to live comfortably.
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Matthew Arrojas
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on August 11, 2023
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Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
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  • In most cases, social workers make more — on average — than the cost of living.
  • That's not the case in every state, however.
  • The median salary for a mental health social worker is below the cost of living in nine states, for example.
  • The best path to comfortable living as a social worker is to become a healthcare social worker.

"Comfortable living" is within reach for many aspiring social workers.

The social work field often gets a bad rap for leading to comparably low incomes despite providing important and necessary services for underserved communities. However, cost of living and median earnings data show that, in most circumstances, social workers make enough to get by in most U.S. states.

That rings especially true for healthcare social workers.

A social worker's ability to live "comfortably" often depends on what state they live in and what branch of social work they are in.

On the Whole, Social Workers Can Live Comfortably

Everybody will have their own definition of what it means to "live comfortably."

To speak broadly, however, there are some agreed upon definitions for what amount of money it would take to live self-sufficiently.

Persis Yu, deputy executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, previously told BestColleges that research shows the average family of four would need to make over 300% of the federal poverty guideline to be deemed self-sufficient.

The 2023 poverty guideline for the continental U.S. is as follows:

2023 Federal Poverty Guideline, All States Except Alaska and Hawaii
Number of People in Household Poverty guideline 300% of poverty guideline
1 person $14,580 $43,740
2 people $19,720 $59,160
3 people $24,860 $74,580
4 people $30,000 $90,000
5 people $35,140 $105,140
6 people $40,280 $120,840
7 people $45,420 $136,260
8 people $50,560 $151,680

The following are the median annual salaries for the three main types of social workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2022:

  • Healthcare social workers: $60,280
  • Mental health and substance misuse social workers: $51,240
  • Child, family, and school social workers: $50,820

All three median salaries cross the 300% "self-sufficiency" standard for a household of one. Therefore, it stands to reason that a social worker living alone making the median annual salary could live comfortably.

A family of four where two of the people in the household are social workers would also make a combined income enough to live comfortably by this standard.

Comfortable living, even with two earners in the household, would be more difficult in a household of five or more.

Can You Live Comfortably as a Social Worker in Your State?

The estimated cost of living varies by state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

The bureau published a breakdown of the average per capita personal consumption expenditures (PCE) in each state in 2021. That formula includes what people spend on:

  • Housing and utilities
  • Healthcare
  • Food and beverages
  • Gasoline and other energy goods
  • All other personal consumption expenditures

The "other" category makes up more than half of the total PCE calculation in each state.

PCE by state is just an average across the entire state. While it may cost considerably more or less depending on which city within a state you live in, PCE provides a rough estimate of how much a social worker may need to make in order to make ends meet without outside assistance.

Living Comfortably as a Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers, on average, make considerably more than social workers in other specializations.

According to the BLS, the median salary for a healthcare social worker was $60,280 as of May 2022. That would be enough to put these workers above the average cost of living in all 50 states.

Living Comfortably as a Mental Health Social Worker

Mental health and substance misuse social workers don't tend to be high earners, but still pass the cost of living estimates in most states.

According to the BLS, the median salary for a mental health and substance misuse social worker was $51,240 in May 2022. That salary is lower than the average cost of living in nine states, according to BEA.

Living Comfortably as a Child, Family, and School Social Worker

Child, family, and school social workers tend to make the least annually of the three main social worker fields.

According to the BLS, the median salary for a child, family, and school social worker was $50,820 in May 2022. That salary is below the average cost of living in 10 states, according to BEA.

Delaware is the only state where the median salary for a mental health and substance misuse social worker is above the cost of living, but not the median salary for a child, family, and school social worker.