Methods: The study identified three stages that social work students need to go through to obtain a license to identify a potential source of racial disparities in licensure: (1) obtaining educational eligibility, depending on license categories made available by state jurisdiction; (2) ensuring the need for licensure, depending on the choices of field and employer; and (3) taking and passing the licensing exam. It also drew a nationally representative sample of 3,990 social workers from the Current Population Survey to test how the probabilities of their licensing were explained by social workers’ educational eligibilities, employment preferences, and demographic vulnerabilities. A series of logistic regression was performed to examine racial differences in licensing rates separately for social workers with a master’s degree and a bachelor's degree.
Results: The findings suggested that, for both Hispanic-White disparity and other race-White disparity, if racial differences in education level, states of residence, the fields of practice, and demographic characteristics disappeared, so would those disparities in social workers’ licensing rates. In contrast, the African American-White disparity indicated a much more complicated reality by educational level. Among master’s degree holders, the African American-White disparity in required licensing rate was largely associated with racial disparities in the field of practice and the type of employers. For required licensing at the master’s degree level, if African Americans were employed in the same fields of practice and by the same type of employers, the disparity would become insignificant. However, the African American-White disparity in licensing rates was particularly salient and unwavering among bachelor’s degree holders regardless of license requirement. Neither equalizing the field of practice or the type of employers between the two racial groups nor reducing the age- and immigrant-related disadvantages would help reduce the racial disparity.
Conclusions: This study is the first empirical study that examined racial disparities in the licensing rates of social workers using a nationally representative sample of social workers. Although not definitive yet, findings suggested that racial disparities in educational attainment and background, as well as the field of practice and the type of employers, play important roles in creating racial disparities in social workers’ licensing rate. Lower rates of licensing among African American social workers have negative implications for future clients and the social work workforce. As licensing disparities reflect socioeconomic injustice that confronts many non-White social workers, they call for more purposeful research and interventions within the profession.