The Social Work Compact is an interstate compact, or a form of agreement between individual states. If adopted by enough states, it will allow social workers in participating states to apply for a single, multi-state license that would give them practice privileges in all other participating states. As of January 15, 2024, only Missouri has adopted the compact. Several other states will consider legislation to join the compact this year.
Unlike the Counseling Compact, the Social Work Compact creates a single, Multi-State License (MSL) that social workers in participating states can apply for. When granted, the MSL gives the social worker practice privileges in all other participating states.
Two reasons states might oppose
That MSL can initially appear to be a great benefit for social workers, who would not need to apply for practice privileges on a state-by-state basis. At the same time, it is likely to make the Social Work Compact a harder sell to state legislators and licensing boards.
State policymakers use licensure to protect the public in their individual state. They do this by ensuring that social workers allowed to practice there know that state’s unique laws. Those state-specific laws are important, addressing issues like involuntary hospitalization, child and elder abuse reporting, and more. That’s why many states have some form of jurisprudence exam or education requirement in law and ethics.
The MSL process removes participating states’ ability to ensure that a provider has state-specific legal knowledge before being allowed to practice there. While boards could still discipline MSL holders after a violation, they would not be allowed to put CE or other requirements into place that would ensure that social workers hold the necessary state-specific knowledge before being allowed to work with that state’s population.
In addition, the compact relies on the deeply problematic ASWB social work exams. By mandating that participating states use a “qualifying national exam” (only ASWB’s exams qualify), the compact will only further institutionalize racism in licensing.
The ASWB exam, like all clinical exams in mental health care, has never shown the ability to predict safety or effectiveness in practice. The only thing it has been shown to do is keep older and non-white social workers out of licensure.
Two years ago, Illinois got rid of the ASWB exam for bachelors-level social workers. The result? Thousands more social workers were able to achieve licensure, without the racial and ethnic disparities imposed by the exam. There was no corresponding increase in public safety issues, showing that the exam hadn’t actually been protecting the public in any meaningful way.
One reason states might support
Of course, the most powerful reason why states might support the compact is the critical shortage of mental health workers across the country. Social workers want the mobility and expansion opportunities that multistate licensure provides. States are understandably eager to provide those benefits.
But the mental health workforce shortage is a national issue, and allowing practitioners to practice across state lines is ultimately a zero-sum game. Suppose the compact comes into effect, and Missouri and Kentucky are two participating states. Then suppose a Missouri social worker, who had been working full-time with Missouri clients, gets an MSL. That social worker chooses to work half-time with Missouri clients and the other half of the time with Kentucky clients. In that scenario, Kentucky gains half of a social worker. But Missouri loses half of a social worker. This is reshuffling deck chairs, not solving a national work force shortage.
So is it good?
As previously established here, I’m generally a fan of interstate compacts. I’m also concerned about license exams. But I think the Social Work Compact in its present form is a bad idea. The exam requirement is an issue, but the failure of public protection is, in my opinion, far more significant. It would be better if social workers had followed the model set by the Counseling Compact. In that model, practice privileges are still awarded on a state-by-state basis, under a streamlined process that still allows each state to ensure that counselors practicing there know state-specific law. That model far better balances the efficiencies of a multistate compact with the responsibility of public protection.