Financial Social Work in California

Written by Sam Medley

financial social worker with elderly woman

According to the National Association of Social Workers, financial social work (FSW) is a growing social work specialty that uses financial therapy to address the emotional and behavioral components of handling finances.

Financial social workers play a crucial role in helping individuals and families in their communities manage their financial well-being and overcome financial challenges.

Clinical social workers don’t typically focus on money and finances, but the impact of financial stress on interpersonal relationships, physical health and mental well-being reflects a critical need for financial social workers.

From social services agencies that provide financial counseling to people experiencing poverty, homelessness, or domestic violence to employer-sponsored employee assistance programs (EAPs) offering financial counseling and support services to employees, financial social workers improve the lives of Californians through financial literacy.

Financial Literacy for Social Work Students and Professionals

According to researchers from California State University-San Bernardino, “social workers, in general, work with a clientele that consists predominantly of poor and low-income populations. The profession of social work has the unique opportunity to equip its members with tools to educate and assist clients around topics of personal finance and financial insecurity.”

In their study, which explored the need for a financial literacy course in social work curriculum, researchers Tara McHenry and Belinda Pacheco concluded that social workers with high levels of financial literacy could assist families with “accessing benefits such as cash assistance, food assistance, healthcare assistance, and housing assistance.” This, in turn, would improve the overall well-being of children and families.

What Do Financial Social Workers Do?

Financial social workers meet with clients one-on-one and in groups to educate them on the skills and behaviors related to financial literacy. They guide their clients to healthy relationships with money to ease their financial stress, which can be detrimental to their mental and physical health and interpersonal relationships.

A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Columbia University noted that poverty during childhood contributed to “disparities in health and human capital throughout the life course.” This means that low levels of financial literacy have widespread effects on people, families, and communities.

Financial social workers help clients explore their financial patterns to end negative cycles of financial health. They shed light on their clients’ views on money and the effects of these views on their life experiences.

Financial social workers focus on areas including:

California has a complex ecosystem of cultural diversity and economic conditions. Financial social workers in the state must be sensitive to the unique financial challenges that various cultural groups face and understand how economic policies and available resources affect individuals, families, and communities.

Who Do Financial Social Workers in California Assist?

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) oversees multiple programs in which financial social workers can make significant contributions.

CDSS Divisions and Programs:

Welfare to Work Division

Child Welfare Services

Adult Programs

Community Care Licensing Adult Protective Services

The CDSS is only one of many employers of financial social workers. A variety of settings exist for social workers to help individuals and families manage their financial attitudes and behaviors.

Nonprofits and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that focus on economic empowerment, health care facilities, banks and credit unions, legal aid organizations, and housing agencies all have opportunities for financial social workers to engage with people who need their services.

Low-Income Populations

Unfortunately, low-income populations are susceptible to financial exploitation and abuse. They are also likely to require interventions for mental health and substance use disorders stemming from limited economic resources and socioeconomic status.

For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison study noted the link between financial literacy and child protective services involvement, which illustrates the need for poverty relief in the United States.

The researchers found that higher rates of male employment were associated with fewer reports of physical abuse and that “even a relatively small increase in income may have a significant effect on CPS involvement.”

With the help of clinical social workers who have advanced levels of financial literacy and knowledge of resources — such as food banks, child care, free tax filing, and employer benefits — low-income families are empowered to make smart financial decisions about their money. From budgeting and saving to managing credit, funding retirement, and obtaining medical insurance, financial skills that put people in control of their lives can promote social justice that leads to lasting social change.

Young Adults in the Foster Care System

Federal law requires that social workers develop a transition plan for young people aging out of the foster care system. The plan must include:

Financial social workers can support children leaving foster care by informing them of their rights and providing them with access to their financial documents, such as credit reports.

family protection and care

Older Adults and Adults with Disabilities

Elder abuse includes financial abuse and can occur in various settings, including in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Theft, misuse of funds or property, extortion, and fraud are often aimed at people over the age of 60 and adults with disabilities. In California, the DSS Adult Protective Services (APS) program investigates reports of such abuse.

Through initiatives such as San Diego State University School of Social Work’s Academy for Professional Excellence, which offers training and continuing education opportunities on topics including estate planning and its relation to financial abuse and other types of financial victimization, financial social workers can equip themselves to protect this targeted demographic.

People and Families Experiencing Homelessness

California is one of five states that account for 55 percent of people experiencing homelessness. In 2022, there were 171,500 unhoused people in the Golden State.

Housing and homelessness programs in California include:

Financial social workers can help this vulnerable population locate assistance and housing resources.

These are just a few of the many groups that can benefit from the support and advocacy of a financial social worker.

They key issues that financial social workers address affect people from all walks of life. The correlation between financial stress and mental and physical health manifests in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and physical ailments, and many interpersonal problems — including marital instability, domestic abuse, and parental conflict — stem from financial obstacles.

As McHenry and Pacheco noted, a major tenet of the Financial Social Work model is to “help the client take control over their money and subsequently take control and improve their lives” and recognizes the influence of different personal and societal interactions on each other.

In other words, by empowering clients with financial knowledge and skills, financial social workers can change behaviors that affect the overall safety of individuals and the human and civil rights of families and communities. Furthermore, on a macro level, financial social workers contribute to shaping federal and local economic policies and California’s human services and welfare programs. 

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for child, family, and school social workers, healthcare social workers, mental health and substance abuse social workers, and social workers (all other) are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2023.

Discover more about other social work specializations in California.