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Social Work’s Visibility Problem

By Rachel L. West, MSW, LMSW
The Political Social Worker

It is March, which means it is Social Work Month.  To celebrate I will be writing a series of post celebrating the occasion.  This is the second of such articles. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Social Work Helper Magazine on New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to make licensure exemptions permanent for state agencies or programs that receive funding from state agencies.

New York State has only had social work licensing since 2004.  At that time state agencies such as the Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) became concerned about their staff that was performing job functions that now fell under the practice scope of the newly formed LMSW and LCSW.  To prevent mass layoffs the state created a short-term exemption for these agencies.  They would have until July 2013 to make sure that all their staff where appropriately licensed in accordance with their job duties and the state licensing laws.

The agencies in question now claim that the cost of appropriately licensing their service providers is too high and that there is a shortage of qualified social workers to replace the staff that is currently performing those tasks.  As a result Governor Cuomo included a plan to make the exemptions permanent in his 2013 executive budget proposal.

As you can imagine this has caused an uproar among New York social workers.  The thing is, the only people talking about it are the providers.  Not a single newspaper or local news station has covered this topic, which is astonishing considering the implications this proposal has for the general public.

Over the past few weeks I have followed discussions on Linked In about the proposal.  The NASW and a handful of other associations such as the New York Art Therapy Association have issued public statements against the Governors proposal.  The NASW New York State chapter has sent out action alerts to members encouraging them to contact their state representatives and advocate against passing permanent licensure exemptions.  Not a single news outlet picked up their press releases on the matter.

For the longest time I have been having a discussion with Deona Hooper at socialworkhelper.com about the social work voice missing from important national conversations.  Think about it.  How often do you see a social worker on news programs providing analysis? How often have you read an article in the paper in which a social worker was quoted as an expert?  How often does the mainstream media cover issues related to professional social work?

A few weeks ago The Social Work Podcast had an interview with journalist Maiken Scott in which they discussed social works invisibility in media and entertainment. Scott also gave tips to social workers on how to get journalist to cover issues important to the profession and how to deal with social work being misrepresented in new stories.

Scott mentions in the interview that she never hears from social workers.  She says that journalist really don’t know what social work is because social workers are not reaching out to the media.

This is a huge problem.  We spend a lot of time complaining about problems in the profession, how we are misrepresented by the media, how issues important to us such as poverty are being ignored.  But what are we doing as a profession to draw attention to these issues?

March is social work month.  You will see a lot of posts from social workers asking how you are celebrating.  Instead of doing that, I am going to challenge you to do one or all of the following:

  • Reach out to a journalist.  Introduce yourself as a social worker and offer your services as an expert.
  • Send a letter to the editor on a social work issue.
  • If you read a story in your local newspaper, magazine or blog that misrepresents social work write to the author and explain why it is inaccurate.

Further Reading:

7 Must Follow Social Workers On Twitter

Social Work Must Be Political

Giving Social Work A Voice

photo credit: Eric Demarcq via photopin cc

Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.


  1. Thank you for this post, Rachel. I’m not yet a professional social worker but I will definitely remember these tips once I am out in the world working as a social worker.
    I had heard about the situation in NY and I am skeptical of a shortage of social workers. I think it would be better to extend the deadline and try to support agencies in getting their workers licensed.

    • Politicalsocialworker March 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Socialist:

      I have mixed feeling about the licensure exemption issue. I agree with you that the best approach would be to extend the deadline. I am also skeptical at the notion that there is a shortage of qualified social workers for positions that require licensure.

      I applaud the agencies for not wanting to unnecessarily lay off staff. Just because someone is unlicensed does not mean they are incompetent. What needs to happen is a discussion on barriers that prevent someone from taking the licensing exam or passing it.

      New York has one of the toughest standards for qualifying for the LCSW. They narrowly define what is an appropriate setting for clinical experience and who can act as a supervisor Unlike other states you can only count client contact hours and supervision that come from your place of employment. In other words you can not count hours from volunteering and you can not pay for supervision if your employer can not provide appropriate clinical supervision

      I agree with not allowing someone to pay for supervision because that creates a conflict. But I think they need to allow LMSWs working towards clinical licensure to get client count hours and supervision as volunteers. I also think the should expand the definition of what is an appropriate clinical setting.

      I also would like them to seriously consider creating two addition licensure tiers one for macro social workers and another for BSWs.

      What has happened is that BSWs are now having a hard time finding employment. Jobs that once went to BSWs are now going to MSW or even LMSWs. But that could also be impacted by the current job market. There also seems to be a lot of confusion among employers about what licensing means in terms of scope of practice. I have seen job posts for LCSW but the duties described in the posting can be easily done by an LMSW even an MSW.

      In terms of macro practice, I believe part of the problem macro social work is having has to do with social work licensing focusing too much on clinical practice. It is all about getting licensed and licensing in New York is predominately about micro and clinical practice. The health of macro social work might be improved if there was licensing for it.

      • Thank you for educating me about this. I briefly looked at the LCSW requirements for New York, as I was primarily interested in how reciprocal licensing works (or didn’t work) in New York.
        I wasn’t even aware one could volunteer and have those hours count for supervision.

        What is your reasoning for licensing requirements for macro social workers? What would licensing macro social workers achieve or what would you like it to achieve? I’m genuinely interested.
        I know what you mean in terms of seeing jobs for LCSWs that could be done by an LMSW or an MSW. I would think part of that is because the organization wants to train/supervise the LMSW or MSW to be an LCSW; maybe they don’t want to discourage people who are not licensed.

        • Politicalsocialworker March 9, 2013 at 9:40 pm

          In New York You CAN”T count volunteer hours towards the LCSW. If you get your LCSW in another state you can get it in NY through endorsement.

          My hope is that macro licensing would validate community practice. Because licensing in NY is so heavenly geared towards micro practice SW, schools tend to focus primarily on clinical studies and discourage students from pursuing macro practice. From day one they drill into students that the LCSW is the be all and end all for social workers. It essentially forces social workers onto a clinical track.

          The job issue is that employers are advertising jobs asking for an LCSW for a position that does not involve clinical work. There are also job ads requiring an LMSW but the job, according to the description, can be done by an MSW. I think it comes down to a misunderstanding of what duties a MSW, LMSW, or LCSW are allowed to carry out. I also think the bad job market plays a role in this. There are many unemployed workers who are willing to take a job they are overqualified for and employers will take advantage of that.

          We are seeing many LMSWs who want the LCSW but find themselves having to take a case management position (which is not acceptable for client contact hours) because there are so few entry level clinical positions. One of the requirements towards the LCSW is that you do clinical work (evaluating, diagnosing and treating) under an LCSW, licensed clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. So positions like case management, advocacy, etc are not acceptable and in all likelihood you would not be supervised by any of the aforementioned professionals.

          You also see situations where an LMSW finds a clinical position but the agency or the supervisor does not provide the appropriate supervision in regards to the LCSW requirments. The agency or the supervisor may not want the added responsibility that comes with supervising someone for the LCSW, which is time consuming (added paperwork and weekly hour long meetings for three years).

          To be honest with you some employers may not see a benefit to encouraging an LMSW to get the LCSW. For one thing an LMSW can do pretty much all the functions of an LCSW as along and an LCSW is supervising. So what some agencies do is they hire one LCSW as a supervisor and then hire two or three LMSW to work under them. Some may also fear that once someone becomes an LCSW they will quit to go into private practice.

          • Right. I understood in NY you can’t count volunteers but I wasn’t aware in other states you CAN count volunteer hours.

            I now see how licensing macro social work would gear more schools towards investing more in macro work. To be fair though, I think a lot of students are choosing clinical work because that’s where the jobs are. So one could have a license in macro social work but if there are no jobs, what good would that do?
            When I think of macro social work, I think of running a social service agency, running a program in a government agency, program evaluation, etc. and I think a lot of those things can be done by someone who doesn’t have an MSW-say for instance someone with a graduate degree or certificate in Nonprofit Management or someone with a masters in Public Administration.

          • Politicalsocialworker March 10, 2013 at 8:31 pm

            Yes, some states allow you to gain clients contact hours by volunteering.

            Macro (community practice) is diverse. It is more then just managing a social service agency or an NPO. It includes community organizing, advocacy, public policy, lobbying, etc. Part of the problem I see with SW schools is that they are not fully informing the students about their career options or where or how to look for jobs. I have seen many new SW who when doing an online job search only use search terms like “social work” or “therapist.” Considering the poor job market now more then ever they should be discussing non-tradition social work and how to market your SW skills to employers who do not typically hire SW.

            I struggled for a long time with whether macro SW should or should not be licensed. But I really believe that professional licensing has contributed to damaging macro SW and I believe licensing might be one way to ameliorate that. Yes, macro SW are competing with non SW because those jobs can be done with MPP, MPA, or poli Sci degrees, and when it comes to being an ED at an agency we are increasingly seeing MBAs and lawyers in those positions.

            ACOSA released a report on issues hindering macro SW that included a list of interventions and they are working to expand upon the study that was done by Jack Rothman. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this because I don’t think anyone has actually done a study on what is happening to macro SW. There is a lot of theories & opinions (Read Unfaithful Angles) but research on this is lacking.

            I am also questioning if clinical is really where the jobs are? I am hearing too many clinical SW who can’t find a job or who are struggling to get clients for their private practice. I think what jobs are out there are case management positions. And some SW may want do CM forever, but you really do not need an MSW or licensing to do that job yet this is quickly becoming the standard. It use to be that most CM where BSWs now they are competing with MSW. Although this could be a trend that is happening in all professions.

            There have been several articles recently on how a bachelors degree is the new high school diploma. The belief is that because so many people are now graduating college the worth of a 4 year degree has been devalued. We now have jobs that for decades where filled by workers with a high school diploma going to workers with a BA.

  2. Darn good article……Rachel, your voice is getting louder and clearer! One person can inspire others to action, and I am glad to be a part of it.

  3. I enjoyed the article as well, agree we need clear guidelines as to who is doing what in the social work field…looking forward to more research on this topic. Thank you, Social Worker in CA


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