HARRISBURG, Pa. (WENY) - Today, social workers and advocates called for an expansion to mental health services and investments in the workforce. 

Funding for mental health and behavioral services is set to be a big part of the 2023-2024 fiscal budget. Social workers hope the final investment for the upcoming fiscal year will be enough to keep pace with growing demand. 

“The need in our communities has grown. The need for social workers has grown,” said Rep. Justin Fleming (D-Dauphin). “Social workers are truly everywhere, schools, hospitals and the corrections system, public and private agencies,” Fleming added. 

Today, they were at the state Capitol. 

“I'm a proud social worker,” said Sierra McNeil, President-elect of the National Association of Social Workers Pennsylvania Chapter (NASW-PA). “Social workers are some of the most educated and highly trained professionals, and it is not easy, nor is it inexpensive to become a social worker,” she added. 

McNeil says demand for social workers is very high, but the road to becoming one is challenging. 

"With the increase in demand, you have social workers who want to do this work, but there are so many different challenges and barriers to becoming a licensed clinical social worker,” said McNeil. “For many social workers, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. We struggle being a student with unpaid internships. We struggle as early career professionals, and we keep hopes that one day things will get better if I could just get to the next phase,” McNeil added. 

Those challenges, advocates say, lead to high turnover, which means more money to train new workers. 

"We keep taking training dollars and then retraining new workers that have to replace them because of turnover in our human service workforce,” said Tim Seip, The Legislative Chair of NASW PA and a former state representative. 

Seip says if trained and qualified social workers were paid better with less barriers, there’d be less turnover. 

“If we are constantly retraining people, we're just spinning our wheels instead of actually really helping people,” said Seip. 

In addition to workforce retention, advocates are calling for an expansion and an update to TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. 

“In 1990, 87 percent of those in poverty were receiving the TANF cash grant,” said Seip, adding that many who now live in poverty are not eligible. “It’s down to about 25 percent, so 75 percent of the people in poverty are not qualifying for TANF anymore,” he added. 

Seip also encouraged lawmakers to approve House Bill 849, sponsored by Rep. Michael Schlossberg (D-Lehigh), which includes: 

  • $37 million towards workforce development;  
  • $23.5 million to improve the criminal justice system and public safety systems; 
  • $39 million to expand access and service delivery; and 
  • $500,000 to evaluate the overall impact of the appropriations. 

Another budget priority for advocates and Democratic lawmakers at today’s rally is raising the minimum wage. The House passed House Bill 1500 Tuesday evening. The bill increases the minimum wage in Pennsylvania to $11.00 per hour effective January 1, 2024; $13.00 per hour effective January 1, 2025; $15.00 per hour effective January 1, 2026.