Issues Facing Rural Social Workers

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Rural social work practice is challenging and rewarding.

Social workers who practice in rural areas face challenges rarely experienced in urban settings when trying to assist individuals living in persistent rural poverty, including geographic and social isolation and limited access to services and care.

They are often generalists, so they must be able to immerse themselves in the local culture to uncover new opportunities for clients who live in isolated conditions. They use creativity and savvy to develop and coordinate services for individuals and the communities they serve.

“While these problems are not unique to rural areas, rural communities face specific challenges in addressing them, including social and spatial isolation, the lack of resources and trained practitioners,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Community Practice.

In other words, “what works for New York City and San Francisco may not work for Pikeville, Kentucky, and Luna County, New Mexico,” federal lawmakers said in a memo to the White House Rural Council.

Rural social work practice is challenging and rewarding, and a career in social work can change lives for the better. Those who are up for the challenge often pursue online master’s in social work degrees to prepare for licensure and employment.

Challenges for the Rural Social Worker

The U.S. Census Bureau found about 60 million people, or one in five Americans, live in rural communities. The Census Bureau, which defines rural as sparsely populated areas with low housing density that are far from urban areas, said about 97% of the land mass in the United States is rural. At the same time, only about 20% of social workers are employed in rural areas. Some of the largest states have the lowest number of social workers per capita.

Experts say those who live in underserved rural communities face difficulties that make providing help more of a challenge for social workers. Those difficulties include:

Generational poverty

Generational poverty persists in rural areas where residents do not have an opportunity to move forward. Factors related to the cycle of poverty include limited job opportunities and few unemployment resources, high teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates, and a lack of essential educational resources, nutritious foods, and health care.

Limited social service resources

Limited access to local, state, and federal government services and specialty care options coupled with unreliable transportation options make getting necessary services very difficult for those living in rural areas.

Sam Hickman, secretary of the National Rural Social Work Caucus and executive director of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) West Virginia Chapter, said the limited options present major challenges in rural areas.

“I was at a meeting in Alexandria, Va., and just looking out the hotel window I could count about 13 different modes of transportation. If you look out the window in rural West Virginia you have to walk, bike or use an automobile — and nothing else,” he told the NASW.

Restrictive cultural norms

While many rural communities are close-knit and steeped in tradition, residents may also be intolerant to anything outside the mainstream and unwelcoming of newcomers. That means social workers may have a tough time connecting with local residents, and, when they do, the close-knit nature of the community may make keeping patient confidentiality difficult. Patients who need help the most, such as the mentally ill, may reject offers of help to avoid any stigma.

“We as a society have a hard time asking for help, so it’s hard enough to ask for help [without feeling] that everybody’s going to know it,” said Dennis Mohatt, vice president of the behavioral mental health program at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and director of the WICHE Center for Rural Mental Health Research. “Your neighbors don’t have a clue in a city if you’re going to go get some help. But everybody [in a small town] will know if your pickup truck is parked outside of the mental health provider’s office.”

Social workers need to be prepared to work in communities where people value self-reliance, helpfulness, local autonomy, tradition, and institutions like family, church, and community service.

Rural Social Work Overcoming Difficulties

Over the years, federal lawmakers have been working to address the challenges of rural communities. In 2018, Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett highlighted several areas of improvement already underway to help disadvantaged communities:

  • Increased e-connectivity; improved electric, water, and wastewater infrastructure; and improved roads, ports, and stormwater resources for millions of people in rural areas.
  • Partnerships to improve access to resources, employment, and housing.
  • Innovations that foster community growth, including fewer regulatory barriers to expedite infrastructure improvements and increased access to health care, education, and job training opportunities.

Social work leaders also say better preparation for practitioners who plan to work in rural communities is vital for success. At Ohio University, online Master of Social Work students learn the best practices for helping marginalized individuals living in rural communities. The program prepares graduates to work in communities where they are most needed. Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the only accrediting agency for social work education in the United States.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Program

Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program offers three start dates per year and the chance to complete the degree program in as few as 24 months. In addition to the prestigious CSWE accreditation, Ohio University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, one of the leading accreditation agencies in the United States.

Additional Reading

Social Workers Addressing Social Isolation in Older Adults
Social Workers Reducing the Impact of Poverty
Social Worker Safety: Tips and Training for Social Workers


NASW, Rural social workers face own set of challenges
White House, Rural strategies that work
Journal of Community Practice, Remembering the Other 46
Census Bureau, Rural areas
U.S. News & World Report, Missing Out on Childhood in Rural America
NAMINC, The Stigma Of Mental Illness In Small Towns
USDA, USDA Highlights Key Accomplishments in 2018 That Are Building Rural Prosperity