Social Assistance Industry

Jobs, Salary and Education Information

Significant Points

  • Professional and service occupations each account for about 35 percent of jobs in this industry.
  • Job opportunities in social assistance should be numerous through the year 2018, because of job turnover and rapid employment growth.
  • Some of the fastest growing occupations in the Nation, such as home health aides, personal and home care aides and social and human service assistants, are concentrated in social assistance.
  • Average earnings are low, because of the large number of part-time and low-paying service jobs.

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Nature of the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

At times, people need help to live a full and productive life. They may need assistance finding a job or appropriate child care, learning skills to find employment, locating safe and adequate housing, and getting nutritious food for their family. The social assistance industry provides help to individuals and families to aid them in becoming healthy and productive members of society.

Goods and services. Social assistance establishments provide a wide array of services that include helping the homeless, counseling troubled individuals, training the unemployed or underemployed, and helping families to obtain financial assistance. In general, organizations in this industry work to improve the lives of the individuals and families they serve and to enrich their communities. The specific services provided vary greatly, depending on the population the establishment is trying to serve and its goals or mission.

Social assistance consists of four segments—individual and family services; community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services; vocational rehabilitation services; and child day care services. (The child day care services segment, including day care and preschool care centers, is covered separately.)

Establishments in the individual and family services sector work to provide the skills and resources necessary for individuals to be more self-sufficient and for families to live in a stable and safe environment. Many of the services in this sector are often aimed at a particular population, such as children, the elderly, or those with mental or physical disabilities. Services targeted at children can vary greatly based on the goal of the establishment providing the assistance. Some programs provide youth services, such as after-school programs or youth centers. Generally, these programs are aimed at giving children a safe, supportive environment to spend their time after school or on weekends. Often provided are planned activities such as field trips, tutors to assist with homework, and games and sports equipment. Foster care and adoption agencies are responsible for locating safe families and environments for children who are in the foster care system. Other services aimed at children include drug prevention and mentoring programs.

Services provided to the elderly include senior centers, which hold activities geared towards senior citizens and are often used as a place for seniors to gather to talk or play games. Some services, like adult day care and support groups, are aimed at assisting both the elderly and disabled populations. Home care agencies provide services to the elderly and disabled to allow them to continue to live in their own homes. This may include assistance with errands, cleaning, and personal hygiene.

This sector of the industry also provides other support services to individuals and families. These often include programs for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, parenting support groups, and rape or abuse crisis centers.

Community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services establishments provide various types of assistance to members of the community. This sector consists of three subsectors: community food services, community housing services, and emergency and other relief services.

Establishments in the community food services subsector collect, prepare, and deliver food for the needy. They may prepare and deliver meals to persons who by reason of age, disability, or illness are unable to prepare meals for themselves. They may also collect and distribute salvageable or donated food, or prepare and provide meals at fixed or mobile locations, and distribute clothing and blankets. Food banks, meal delivery programs, and soup kitchens are included in this industry.

Establishments in the community housing services sector provide short-term emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or child abuse. These establishments may operate their own shelter or may provide subsidized housing using existing homes. Also included in this sector are establishments that provide transitional housing for low-income individuals and families, as well as establishments that provide temporary residential shelter for the homeless, runaway youths, and patients and families caught in medical crises. Community housing establishments also perform volunteer construction or repair of homes of the elderly or disabled, or of low-cost housing—sometimes in partnership with a future homeowner, who may assist in construction or repair work.

Establishments in the emergency and other relief services sector provide assistance to those that have been directly affected by a disaster. These establishments may set up emergency shelters for those who have been evacuated from their homes. They may also provide medical assistance to those who have been injured by the disaster. In the aftermath, they may supply food and clothing, assist with resettlement, and provide counseling to victims of domestic or international disasters or conflicts.

Vocational rehabilitation services establishments provide vocational rehabilitation or life skills services. Workers in these establishments work with people who are disabled, either from birth or as a result of an illness or injury. They teach clients the skills necessary to live independently and to find employment. Often, services include assessing the abilities of their clients to determine what occupations they should pursue. These workers may also provide job counseling and assist in locating training and educational programs.

Thousands of other establishments, mainly in State and local government, provide additional social assistance. (For information about government social assistance, see the sections on Federal Government and State and local government, except education and health.)

Industry organization. About 94,700 establishments in the private sector provided social assistance in 2008. Of that, 75,700 establishments were in individual an family services, about 9,500 in community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services, and 9,500 in vocational rehabilitation service organizations. Establishments within social assistance tend to be smaller than the average for all establishments. In 2008, 84,500 of social assistance establishments employed fewer than 50 workers; however, larger establishments accounted for most jobs.

Work Environment for the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Some social assistance establishments operate around the clock, and evening, weekend, and holiday work is common. Some establishments may be understaffed, resulting in large caseloads for each worker. Jobs in voluntary, nonprofit agencies often are part time.

Work environment. Some workers spend a substantial amount of time traveling within the local area. For example, home health and personal care aides routinely visit clients in their homes; social workers and social and human service assistants also may make home visits.

Employment in the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Social assistance provided 1.6 million nongovernment wage and salary jobs in 2008. About 67 percent were in individual and family services (table 1).

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment and establishments in social assistance, except child day care by detailed industry sector, 2008
Industry segment Employment Establishments
Total 100.0 100.0
Individual and family services 71.0 79.9
Vocational rehabilitation services 20.3 10.0
Emergency and other relief services 8.7 10.1

Occupations in the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Careers in social assistance appeal to people with a strong desire to make life better and easier for others. Workers in this industry are usually good communicators and enjoy interacting with people.

Professional and related occupations. More than 35 percent of all nongovernment social assistance jobs were in professional and related occupations in 2008 (table 2). Some of these workers may have direct interaction with clients, while others have limited interaction with the population they serve. These workers may spend their time on tasks like planning programs or events, organizing classes or workshops, grant writing, or creating educational material to be used by clients. Professional and related occupations within this industry include: social workers, counselors, health educators, teachers-adult literacy and remedial education, and social and human service assistants.

Social workers help clients function within the limitations of their environment, improve their relationships, and solve personal and family problems. Often, this includes counseling and assessing the needs of clients, referring them to the appropriate sources of help, and monitoring their progress. Many social workers specialize in a particular field. Child, family and school social workers aim to improve the social and psychological functioning of children and their families. This may involve work with single parents, parents seeking to adopt a child, or children in foster care. Medical and public health social workers provide support to individuals and families coping with illness or diseases; at times, this may include both terminal and chronic illnesses. These workers may help arrange for additional services to assist in caring for patients, including services such as meals-on-wheels or other home care services. Mental health and substance abuse social workers evaluate and treat individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems. They may provide treatment through group or individual therapy or work on community outreach and crisis intervention.

Counselors help people evaluate their interests and abilities, and advise and assist them with personal and social problems. Counselors often specialize, so their job duties vary greatly, based on the population they serve. Educational, vocational, and school counselors in this industry usually work in what is more commonly known as career counseling. They assist clients in determining what field of work they should enter and help them with job-seeking activities, like locating job openings for which they might apply or coaching them on proper interview conduct. Rehabilitation counselors assist people in living with the social, personal, and vocational effects of a disability. In some cases, they assist people who are adjusting to a disability caused by injury or illness, but they also counsel those who have had disabilities from birth. These counselors evaluate the abilities and limitations of the individual and arrange for vocational training, medical care, and job placement. Mental health counselors work with individuals and families to treat mental and emotional disorders. This is often done through individual or group therapy. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work with individuals who are addicted to substances, such alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, or a behavior, like gambling or an eating disorder. They often use techniques such as group and individual therapy and, in some settings they may be involved in crisis intervention and community outreach. Marriage and family therapists aim to improve an individual's or family's mental and emotional health through therapeutic techniques that focus on the family system. This is frequently done through individual, family, or group therapy.

Health educators encourage healthy lifestyles and wellness by educating individuals and communities about behaviors that promote health and prevent illness and diseases. They use many different mediums and methods to get their message to their target audience. They often teach classes and plan events or programs on health-related topics, create pamphlets and other written materials, and organize medical screenings for illnesses. In the social assistance industry, they may often be responsible for writing applications for grants.

Adult literacy and remedial education teachers instruct adults and out-of-school youths in reading, writing, speaking English, and basic math skills. These workers may work with adults who are in need of basic education or who are pursuing their General Educational Development (GED) certificate. They may also work with adults and children who are learning English as a second language.

Social and human service assistants work in a variety of social and human service delivery settings. However, in general, they provide services, both directly and indirectly, to ensure that individuals in their care can function to the best of their ability. Job titles and duties of these workers vary, but they include human service worker, case management aide, social work assistant, mental health aide, child abuse worker, community outreach worker, and gerontology aide.

Service occupations. About 37 percent of the jobs in the social assistance industry were in service occupations, in 2008. These workers generally provide direct services to their clients. Many do work that requires hands-on interaction with clients. These workers include personal and home care aides and home health aides who help elderly, disabled, and ill persons live in their own homes, instead of in an institution. Personal and home care aides provide routine personal care services. They perform non-medical tasks, such as cooking meals, basic cleaning, assisting the client to bathe or dress and, in some cases, accompanying the client to appointments. Home health aides provide health-related services, like administering oral medication, or checking the client's pulse rate or temperature. They may assist the client in performing exercises and help them bathe, dress, and groom.

Other occupations. Social and community service managers plan, organize, and coordinate the activities of a social service program or community outreach program. This includes overseeing the budget and the execution of programs, events, and services. They often may direct and supervise those who are providing both direct and indirect services to the population they serve. In some situations, they may be responsible for fundraising activities or speaking to donors.

As in most industries, office and administrative support workers—secretaries and bookkeepers, for example—help with recordkeeping and other administrative tasks.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in social assistance, except child day care by occupation, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
Number Percent
All Occupations 1,649.5 100.0 40.1
Management, business, and financial occupations 144.7 8.8 23.4
Professional and related occupations 578.7 35.1 30.2
  Counselors 134.3 8.1 25.8
  Social workers 131.8 8.0 25.9
  Social and human service assistants 121.5 7.4 44.6
Service occupations 615.1 37.3 62.5
  Home health aides 142.3 8.6 76.1
  Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants 18.1 1.1 31.2
  Cooks and food preparation workers 18.6 1.1 25.3
  Personal and home care aides 279.7 17.0 82.8
  Recreation and fitness workers 26.1 1.6 25.3
Office and administrative support occupations 188.5 11.4 19.8
  Financial clerks 28.7 1.7 21.3
  Information and record clerks 34.3 2.1 19.6
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 50.2 3.0 20.6
  Office clerks, general 40.2 2.4 22.3
NOTE: Columns may not add to the total due to omission of occupations that have small employment.

Training and Advancement in the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Training requirements within this industry vary greatly based on occupation, state licensure requirements, and the setting in which the work is done. Many workers begin in this industry by working as a volunteer. Volunteering with a student, religious, or charitable organization is a good way for jobseekers to test their interest in social assistance, and may provide an advantage when applying for jobs in this industry. However, for many occupations, a bachelor's or master's degree is required for entrance into the industry.

Professional and related occupations. Entry requirements vary based on occupational specialty and State licensure and certification requirements. A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for entry-level positions as social workers, health educators, and counselors. However, some specialties and employers may require additional education, like a master's degree, or some previous experience. In some settings and specialties, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and counselors may be required to obtain a State-issued license. Licensure requirements vary from State to State, but most States require a master's degree and 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

Educational requirements are less stringent for social and human service assistants. Some employers do not require any education beyond high school, but they may prefer some related work experience. Other employers favor workers who have completed some coursework in human services, social work, or another social or behavioral science. Other employers prefer an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in human services or social work. A number of employers also provide in-service training, such as seminars and workshops.

Professional workers in this industry often advance to a supervisory position, such as supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director. Often, advancing to this level requires a master's degree and the appropriate licenses. Some workers opt to move away from positions that provide services directly to clients and become involved in policymaking, grant writing, or research. Others enter private practice and provide psychotherapeutic counseling and other services on a contract basis.

Service occupations. Service occupations within this industry require little to no education beyond a high school diploma. Personal and home care aides receive some basic on-the-job training. The Federal Government has guidelines for home health aides whose employers receive reimbursement from Medicare. These workers must complete both a training program consisting of a minimum of 75 hours and a competency or state licensure program. Training includes information regarding personal hygiene, safe transfer techniques, reading and recording vital signs, infection control, and basic nutrition. However, aides may take a competency exam to become certified without taking this training. At a minimum, 16 hours of supervised practical training are required before an aide has direct contact with a resident. These licensure requirements represent the minimum, as outlined by the Federal Government. Some States require additional hours of training to become certified.

Workers in service occupations may opt to get some additional training and may advance to, for example, licensed practical nurse. Some personal and home care aides may opt to open their own businesses.

Job Outlook for the Social Assistance Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Job opportunities in social assistance should be plentiful, because employment is expected to grow rapidly, and many workers leave the industry and need to be replaced.

Employment change. Employment within this industry is expected to grow rapidly relative to all other industries through 2018. The number of nongovernment wage and salary jobs is expected to increase 40 percent, compared with 11 percent for all industries combined. However, growth will not be evenly distributed amongst the industry's subsectors (table 3). The individual and family services industry is expected to grow by 48 percent, making it one of the fastest growing industries in the economy. The community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services industry is expected to grow by 22 percent and vocational rehabilitation services is expected to grow 25 percent over the 2008–2018 projection period.

Table 3. Employment in social assistance, except child day care by industry segment, 2008 and projected change, 2008-18 (Employment in thousands)
Industry segment 2008
Percent change
Social assistance, except child day care, total 1649.5 40.1
  Individual and family services 1108.6 47.8
  Vocational and rehabilitation services 402.8 25.1
  Community food and housing, and emergency and oither relief services 138.1 21.7

Growth of employment in the social assistance industry may depend, in large part, on the amount of funding made available by government and managed-care organizations. Employment in private social service agencies may grow if State and local governments contract out some of their social services functions in an effort to cut costs.

Projected job growth in individual and family services will be due mostly to an increase in the population that will demand additional services from this sector. As baby boomers age, there is expected to be a substantial increase in the elderly population, one of the primary segments of the population that requires services from this industry. As a result, there should be an expansion in programs that serve the elderly, such as adult day care or services that provide home care, allowing the elderly to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Furthermore, the demand will increase for drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs, as those with drug and alcohol addictions are increasingly required to attend treatment programs—rather than being sent to jail.

Growth in the community food and housing, and emergency and other services industry will result from an increase in urbanization. As the population becomes more densely populated and if natural disasters hit these populous areas, more people will be affected by natural disasters, increasing the demand for disaster relief. Furthermore, demand for housing and food assistance will remain steady.

Employment growth in vocational rehabilitation services is expected, due to a steady demand for services for individuals with some form of physical or mental disability. Workers in this sector will continue to serve people who are injured on the job and need assistance moving back into the work environment. But the main source of growing demand for this sector is the expected increase in the elderly population, which frequently uses services provided by this industry to recover from illnesses or injuries.

Some of the fastest growing occupations in the Nation are concentrated in social assistance, like home health aides and personal and home care aides. Employment growth for these two occupations is driven predominantly by the need to provide services to the elderly and ill in their homes and to avoid expensive hospital or nursing home care.

Job prospects. Besides job openings arising from employment growth, many additional openings will stem from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or stop working. Workers leave jobs in this industry at a higher rate than the rest of the economy, making job prospects excellent.

Social Assistance Industry Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Average earnings in the social assistance industry are lower than the average for all industries, as shown in table 4.

Table 4. Average earnings of nonsupervisory workers in social assistance, 2008
Industry segment Hourly Weekly
Total, private industry $18.08 $608
Social assistance 12.47 375
  Community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services 14.72 466
  Individual and family services 13.13 394
  Vocational rehabilitation services 12.45 360

Wages in selected occupations in the social assistance, except child day care industry appear in table 5. As in most industries, professionals and managers commonly earn more than other workers, reflecting higher education levels, broader experience, and greater responsibility.

Table 5. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in social assistance, except child day care, May 2008
Occupation Individual and family services Community food and housing and emergency and other relief services Vocational rehabilitation services All industries
Social and community service managers $25.01 $24.23 $24.40 $26.92
Mental health and substance abuse social workers 17.26 16.02 15.64 17.89
Child, family, and school social workers 16.56 15.80 16.22 19.01
Community and social service specialists, all other 15.67 15.09 14.58 18.11
Rehabilitation counselors 13.60 14.85 13.97 14.87
Social and human service assistants 12.62 11.94 11.50 13.12
Office clerks, general 11.31 10.72 11.08 12.17
Personal and home care aides 9.77 10.50 9.58 9.22
Home health aides 9.48 9.43 9.71 9.84
Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners 9.41 10.34 9.45 10.31

Benefits and union membership. Professional workers in this industry typically receive benefits, such as medical insurance and paid time off. However, those working in service occupations may receive no benefits. About 8 percent of workers in the social assistance industry were union members or were covered by union contracts in 2008, as opposed to 14 percent throughout all industries.

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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