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  • Steve Burghardt

Why the Phrase “Nobody Went Into Social Work to Get Rich” Should Never Be Used Again

My first two blogs on self-care were not simply about social workers taking care of themselves. They were about the use of self-care as a smokescreen to keep social workers from looking more deeply at the systemic and structural issues that are the real causes of burnout. There also are other, equally pernicious ways that our dominant social work culture disempowers its own members from forcefully advocating on their own behalf. One of the worst is the tried-and-not-even remotely true trope “Hey, nobody ever went into social work to get rich.”

I’ll be honest: up until about ten years ago, I used that damned saying, too. Until then, it seemed like a badge of honor: unlike those hedge funders, those greedy overlords of banking and finance or anybody else in soulless corporate America, we were the good people, the noble ones; perhaps not chosen, but at least choosing to fight the good fight even if the monthly bills piled up. [1]

It was back then that I began noticing that both students’ and agency professionals’ faces seemed to cloud over a bit when the phrase was uttered. By then, most students were working part-time while going to school; more than a few agency staff often talked about running off to their second job. Others just looked tired, early worry lines creasing around their eyes well in advance of their age. It finally dawned on me—sure, they’d come into the field not expecting to be rich, but they didn’t expect to be so financially downtrodden either. They weren’t poor, but they couldn’t afford eating out at a restaurant more than once a month; they thought being a professional meant they were middle class, but they weren’t able to put much away for their pensions, either.

More importantly, I saw the context in which the “rich” trope popped up. Like a paring knife, it was brought out and used primarily for peeling back resistance in two settings: 1. when overwork for staff might be required, as leaders remind staff of what they signed up for; 2. when client needs are greater than agency resources, thus cutting off complaints of exhaustion because, after all, clients have it far worse than they do. That their salaries don’t equate with the agency's need for overwork is adroitly sidestepped once again.

This “no one expects to be rich” phrase, just like extolling individualized self-care for burnout, is a cultural reinforcement that equates demands for financial well-being as selfishness. Workplace fatigue is because you haven’t meditated well enough; openly having financial complaints means you obviously have the wrong values and are in the wrong profession.

The idea that a person is a more noble professional because he, she or they is both more exhausted and under financial duress isn’t just wrong. It’s exploitative and inhumane.


[1] Of course, as a full professor with tenure, my actual financial condition was far more advantaged than almost all social workers. I also noticed that this phrase overwhelmingly is used by people making at least $90,000 a year and addressed to people making far less.

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