Becoming a Community Social Worker

Ask someone to describe a day in the life of a social worker, and you’re likely to get a few different answers. They might imagine a children’s services worker helping a child transition into foster care. Maybe they know a case manager who finds temporary housing for homeless families, or perhaps they think of a medical social worker who helps adults navigate services at their local hospitals. 

In addition to working with children, adults, and families to improve their lives, social workers can be found improving the health of a community as a whole. These professionals take a broader focus and are known as community social workers.

What Is Community Social Work? 

Community social work is a term used to describe focused efforts that promote the health of a larger community. This community might be a neighborhood, a school system, or even a city or state. In educational programs, sometimes this broad approach is referred to as macro practice social work. It differs from the micro practice focus in social work, which examines the needs of individuals and families. 

Community health is a broad term in itself; it encompasses a variety of components. Community social workers might choose to focus on physical health disparities, economic needs, educational concerns, or family challenges. Community social workers care about social, economic, and environmental justice, and they’re eager to collaborate and create solutions on a community level. 

Community social workers might be experts in business management, public health, urban development, political science, health care administration and more. Their work might focus on the advocacy, analysis, planning, or the implementation stages of a program focused on community health.

What Do Community Social Workers Do?

Community social workers can be found around the globe, and they’re involved at every stage of planning and running organizations that promote community health.

They organize.

Community organization in social work is a specialized field in which grassroots organizations hire individuals to develop programs, raise funding, or recruit or train leaders and other participants to work toward a specific community goal. You don’t have to hold a master’s degree in social work to be a community organizer, but it does uniquely qualify an individual to perform the kind of activism, mobilization, advocacy, and development required for this type of work.

They cross borders.

In the past few years, the United Nations refugee agency has reported that the number of displaced people in the world has reached its highest total ever. This upheaval in international communities, the collapse of many community organizational structures, and increased demands placed on other support systems means social service workers are not only necessary, but they are also important to the development and implementation of new programs to help displaced populations.

They advocate.

Many community development jobs involve articulating the specific needs of a community or group within the community. Community social workers often write proposals or grants that justify allocating resources to address the health of neighborhoods, schools, or cities. They might serve as a spokesperson for a particular issue or group via a nonprofit, political, or religious organization or speak directly to community members or leaders to encourage them to become more involved in a grassroots project.

They conduct analysis.

Along with developing and running programs, community social workers are collecting the data and conducting the analyses required to make sure that policies and programs match the actual needs of the community. They can oversee or design research to assess whether current policies and programs have achieved what they set out to accomplish. If you’re interested in social work and community development and have a curious mind, too, then a research role at a nonprofit, city or state department, or other institution might be a great career fit.  

They manage teams.  

Government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations need leaders who can manage social workers and staff who develop and run programs that serve individuals and families. Community development workers are uniquely suited to serve in managerial roles because they have experience in macro-level thinking that connects the work of an individual organization to the broader needs of a community. An individual social worker might not focus how their work with a family or child connects with larger government or institutional initiatives, so it’s the job of a manager to ensure that on-the-ground services match the larger vision of a program.    

Community Social Worker Salary

Salaries for community social workers are as broad as the type of work they perform. The 2017 median salary for a community health worker in the United States was $45,360 (or $21.81 per hour), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 Job seekers will find that community health worker jobs are projected to increase by about 18 percent from 2016 to 2026,­ a rate well above the average for other jobs in the United States.2

Salaries will vary by region and in rural versus urban areas. For example, the annual mean wage for a community health worker in the District of Columbia is $66,290;3 whereas in southern Colorado, a community health worker will bring home an annual mean wage of $32,309.4 Opportunities will likewise differ based on the level of education acquired.

A Master of Social Work can help individuals stand out in the job market. Many employers may look for applicants with an advanced degree who have focused on community social work in their MSW program. MSW students who choose a macro-level focus on community social work may also find themselves more prepared to take development, advocacy, and leadership skills to an organization that matches their passions and interests.

1 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Health educators and community health workers, job outlook.” Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-19.

2 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Health educators and community health workers, job outlook.” Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-19.

3 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “May 2017 state occupational employment and wage estimates, District of Columbia.” Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-19.

4 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Annual mean wage of community health works, by area, May 2017.” Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-19.

Citation for this content: OnlineMSW@Fordham, Fordham University’s online Master of Social Work program