By John L. Jackson Jr.

This is going to sound like hyperbole to some, but I don't think it is.

The fate of our nation - and even the world - is directly linked to how we think about and treat the people most intimately connected to all of the major cultural concerns and social dilemmas that plague society today: social workers.

Whether the issue is domestic violence (even if only because of the NFL's high-profile perpetrators) or police shootings of unarmed black youth (each new case seemingly more inexplicable than the last), the professionals who are most consistently and unflinchingly on the ground when these and other incidents occur (and who stay long after the news vans have left and the medical doctors have done all they can do) are social workers.

That is why it pained me recently to see an incoming social work student start to tear up in my office as she described having to fight with her family over the very idea of wanting to become a social worker. She's not alone. Another new student told me that a parent promised to pay all of her graduate school tuition - if she'd agree to study something else. Anything else.

I get it. Given the massive amount of debt that students are racking up and the relatively low pay that social workers receive when they start their careers (and often well into those careers), it seems like quite a sacrifice to commit one's life to this kind of social service. Who can afford it?

What kind of person would take out more loans after getting their undergraduate degree simply to prepare themselves for a lifetime of potential financial struggle and insecurity - while they try to help other people improve their own lives?

Thank goodness some students are still willing to devote themselves to social service, in spite of the pay - and even though many people won't respect them specifically because of that occupational choice. When it comes to popularly maligned professions, social workers give public school teachers and community organizers (think of the 2008 campaign jokes at President Obama's expense) a run for their money.

The fact that we don't pay social workers well isn't news. We never really have. And contemporary social work students, including the ones who are pushing back against well-meaning and skeptical family members, certainly know what they are getting themselves into.

But in a world where economic inequality is increasing, social-safety nets are stretched way passed thin, and a whole lot of people still need all kinds of protection and support in their everyday lives, it is more important than ever for our society to produce and support thoughtful and well-trained social workers - and to disabuse fellows citizens of their own outmoded and misguided notions of what social workers actually do.

I wasn't even a teenager yet when my mother went back to school at night (Touro College in New York City), received her bachelor's degree, and became a case worker for the city. She worked with poor seniors who were getting evicted from their homes. She'd sometimes find ways to stave off those evictions. Or she'd try to find them another place to live if the marshals were already placing their belongings on the curb. My mother listened to her "clients," advocated for them, and strategized with them about next steps.

That's what a lot of social workers do. But they also place individual incidents into larger contexts, trying to piece together the factors that conspire, purposefully or inadvertently, to impact the tiniest crevices of people's worlds. They draft policy and lobby politicians. They organize communities and run agencies. They publish research papers and raise funds for new policy initiatives. And they do all of these things in rural America, urban America, suburbia, exurban outposts, and war-torn countries halfway around the world.

Indeed, as bad as we might think things are right now in terms of the horrific stories we hear on the nightly news, they'd be far, far worse if social workers weren't already on the ground helping out.

Most of them aren't making seven figures a year, but they are making a difference. And what sets them apart from others is their professional requirement to think holistically about the people they work with. They are taught traditional social theories and have to think rationally about how to approach intractable social problems. But their job also demands that they exercise what psychologist Howard Gardner famously called "multiple intelligences," placing more traditional social scientific training together with "softer" skills that allow them to work nimbly and effectively with all different kinds of people, from the mentally ill and the homeless to foster children and the impoverished.

We saddle them with debt and then underpay them when they finish their schooling. But they press on. Ultimately, their goal is to help people help themselves, to create more and more citizens who can do for themselves the kinds of things social workers do for other people.

That doesn't mean what they do is easy. In fact, that is exactly what makes it so hard.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is the dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice and Richard Perry university professor at the University of Pennsylvania. jjackson@sas.upenn.edu