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The Real Social Work Cost of Living When You’re a New Grad

In the years that I’ve worked in mental health, there has been an ever continuous complaint of pay.  The social work cost of living is too high.  I certainly would love to get paid more- who wouldn’t?  But is there real evidence to our groaning?

Before you throw away your dreams, let’s find out the entry level social work salary for you!

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A knee jerk reaction to someone’s anecdote should not deter you without hard evidence.  This is your life and aspirations after all.  If you are serious about entering the social work profession, there will be many obstacles in your way.

This profession will require that you use critical thinking and problem solving.  So let’s start down that path in really determining whether you will be able to survive living on a entry level social worker salary.

Entry Level Social Work Salary Compared in Two very Different Cities

Before we really get into comparing cost of living, let’s identify what we’re really talking about.  In a nutshell, cost of living is the expense the average person can expect to incur for essential goods.

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Let’s consider a ballpark entry level social work salary of $40,000 living in New York City.  The average two bedroom apartment in Manhattan is $3,895 per month.  Therefore, in rent alone, you would pay $46,740 for the year!

Without even considering transportation, food, and other expenses, you are well underwater.  I hope you have a great side hustle.

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Now how about a less expensive place to live?  Let’s look at my old stomping grounds- Raleigh, North Carolina.  The average two bedroom apartment in Raleigh is $1310 per month.

This annual cost will be $15,720 allowing you leftover income for transportation, food, and anything else you may need.

I will add a plug for Raleigh that it’s an amazing city and you should live there!

So, we have established that different areas of the country are more expensive to live.  I hope that point isn’t too profound.

But I think it is profound to see the incredible difference in rent between a metropolis and medium sized city.  In fact, let’s even look at two cities of similar sizes.

Does Size Matter with Cost of Living on Your Entry Level Social Work Salary? Not Necessarily!

Milwaukee, Wisconsin is considerably bigger in population than Raleigh- by about 150,000 people.  It also is considered more densely populated.

The cost for that same 2 bedroom apartment in Milwaukee, however, is $950.  So- a slightly bigger and denser city can have a significantly cheaper rent.

Let’s really evaluate some factors to determine if the social work cost of living is too high for you.

There are Three Indexes to Evaluate Your Social Work Cost of Living

Now, I’m no economist.  I also need a calculator for most math.  But, I think I’m onto something.

It would seem to me that comparing the median household income, cost of living by state, and entry level social work salaries will help us really understand this topic of affordability.

Warning! I’m about to get into some math!  Don’t fret; I will break it down for you to FULLY see how your state compares!

To best compare states, we will use my self-proclaimed “Can a Social Worker afford it Coefficient”.  This is calculated by:

 (average entry level social work salary / median household income) x (salary rank/50)

The closer to 1, the more significant your income is in that area.

As an example, presume you make $60,000 and the median salary in your state is $60,000 with the top ranking salary.

(60,000/60,000) x (50/50)= 1, which is the best possible circumstance unless you make more than the median.

The Can a Social Worker afford it Coefficient gives us a glimpse into how your potential starting salary will line up with those successfully living in any respective state.

It also is going to help us understand the effect of cost of living associated with household income and your salary.

Each of these individual analytics can now be easily compared!

Let’s pull some numbers from across the country to help you zone in.

As we discuss these numbers, please reference the interactive map below.  Numbers are courtesy of Ziprecruiter.com, U.S. Census, and Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

Real Examples of Social Work Cost of Living

Michigan has some great social work schools.  The attributed entry level social work salary is the 46th best in the country averaged at $32,852 annually.  Though that is low, the cost of living is the third lowest in the country also with a median household salary of $54,909.

Can a Social Worker Afford it? With a coefficient of .55- or a 55% chance that you will be on on the positive end!

On average, you will be able to afford living in the State of Michigan.

As a resident of Michigan, this is accurate.  I’ve met many social workers with salaries above and below this noted average- and they more or less get by.

Yes, that’s vague.  But, remember this is a barometer of social work cost of living.  There will be people who fall on either side of this point.

You are likely reading this because you don’t want to just get by.  You want to live independently and pay your bills including student loans (which I have some hacks for!).

As social workers, we work with the disenfranchised.  When there is inequity and poverty, our role is more profound.  Does this translate to higher pay?  No.  But does it translate to a higher Can a Social Worker Afford it Coefficient?

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Let’s see!

Mississippi is number 1 in cost of living- meaning it is the cheapest to live there.  The average entry level social work salary is near the bottom also at $33,860 (#42).   The resulting coefficient is .65.

This tells us that despite some of the lowest pay, there is still great affordability for social workers in Mississippi!

We know in using these metrics that there is no better place for social work cost of living.

How Realistic is This for You in Coming Out of School?

Your school of social work has likely taught you to say, “it depends”.  We love that phrase.  The metrics that we’re using are not perfect.  They are based on averages across very diverse geographical areas.

As a resident of Michigan, my hometown has a housing crisis.  Rent is super expensive for anyone.  If you are living in a suburb of Detroit, you may also find very expensive rent.  And our two areas couldn’t be more different.

Many new graduates are becoming first time home-buyers, because mortgage rates and payments are much lower than local rent.  This may be a great way to improve your affordability.

If you live in an area noted above where the cost of living is fairly high, consider the possibility of this option.  There are many grants and exclusive rates available for you- VA, Rural Development, first time home buyer.

Let’s also analyze salaries for practicality.

Ziprecruiter does not identify the education of the social workers surveyed.  My best guess in reviewing them is bachelor level social workers must be included.

As they generally have lower salaries, it would seem they are bringing down the average overall since the lower end US average for a master level social worker is $56,421.

So if you’re getting your MSW, you will fare better with salary.

Speaking of which, in our analysis, your entry level social work salary is compared to the median household salary.  Why use median and not average?

A median salary will generally be higher than an average, because it is not being tugged downward if the state has many low wage workers.  Typically, there are more low wage workers than high wage workers, so the inverse isn’t necessarily true.

We are also comparing one person’s average salary to a whole household.  If you have a significant other who’s working, my affordability coefficient would be closer to 1 with the increased income.  That’s great for you!

Is The Social Work Cost of Living Keeping You Interested?

There are so many variables to really consider, there is nearly no way to certainly deduce whether you’re able to afford the social work profession.  However, these barometers have real usefulness in helping you gauge if the possibility is realistic.

In fact, the metrics used really provide a high-end worst case scenario.

If these numbers have shown you anything, it is that you can afford to be a social worker.  Whether you are getting your BSW or MSW, the social work cost of living can meet your livelihood.

It is not enough to simply look at entry level social work salaries and hope for the best.

Your critical thinking and problem solving skills will continue to evolve as you enter school and graduate.  Use these skills to your advantage.  Research the area you want to live and average entry level salaries for specific sub-fields of social work in that area.

You are equipped with the skills and ambition to do something great.  We also must survive and provide for our families.  So don’t get flustered and assume social work is not feasible.  Your ambition and skill set are important additions to the field.

Society needs more people like you.  There is real affordability in the profession for both you and your family.


Do you have more questions?  I’d love to hear from you!  Also, sign up for our newsletter for exclusive content and tips for getting scoring a career in social work!

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The Real Social Work Cost of Living When You're a New Grad
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The Real Social Work Cost of Living When You're a New Grad
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The social work cost of living is evaluated using three different metrics. We will show you the entry level salary for social workers can be better than you think!
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The How to Social Worker
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Ben Barrett

First, thank you for reading The How to Social Worker- my alter ego.  My name is Ben Barrett and am first a mental health advocate and secondly a clinical social worker. My personal experiences with mental health have shaped my professional perspective. Through my struggles both personally and professionally, I hope you can improve your own quality of life.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Amazingly informative, and well-written. Please keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and support! I’m very glad that you enjoyed the article!

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