The University of Puerto Rico, in cooperation with the Puerto Rico Department of the Family, has announced plans to use a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for $2.5 million in annual scholarships for students preparing to become social workers.
Social workers can earn more in the 50 states than in Puerto Rico. Social workers in the states can also expect more comprehensive resources for their work than in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. They have therefore been part of the exodus of healthcare professionals from the Island to the states – essentially, as the saying goes, voting for statehood with their feet – and leaving their former patients without the assistance that they formerly provided.
Social workers in Puerto Rico
There are about 6,000 social workers in Puerto Rico, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. This is a larger number than in states with similar populations, such as Idaho and Utah. However, Puerto Rico has greater needs at present than similar states.
“There’s been far too much to do since 2017: Hurricane Irma followed by Maria, earthquakes and then the coronavirus, all hitting communities gouged by a decade-long recession and sharp budget cuts,” said a report from The Center for Public Integrity. Social workers responding to their survey described high levels of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and PTSD. More than half of respondents said their community’s resources for coping with these issues were “poor.”
Efforts have been made to define social workers as emergency responders, but the legislation leading to this change has not been successful so far.
One of the HHS deliverables from the Economic Dialogue at the White House on December 6, 2022, was “to outline a plan to maintain a pool of social workers, prioritize retention strategies, and mitigate high caseloads while increasing salary rates.” This agreement is a step in that direction.
The scholarships will support 214 students — 107 undergraduates and 107 graduate students — with stipends, tuition payments, and the cost of books and supplies. Eligible students must have an intention of working in child social services.
The goal of the new program is to provide a pipeline of social workers for the future. The program is also intended to encourage retention. A larger number of qualified candidates will help to reduce the excessive caseloads which have been challenging social workers in Puerto Rico.