Social Work in Rural Areas


Social work has its roots in urban American Opportunities for casework, group work, and community organization practice came as a result of increased industrialization and urbanization and in response to social reformers who abhorred the effort of the city on people.  Early social work educational programs were located in institutions and major population centers.  Rural areas were considered “pristine” and “folksy.”

The stereotype of rural areas was predominant until the Great Depression, when workers in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration/Works Progress Administration and the Agricultural Assistance Administration helped dispel many of the myths about rural “bliss.”  In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty issued The People Left Behind.    The Great Society and the War on Poverty programs of the 1960’s further developed an awareness of the needs of rural people.

Despite the orientation of new governmental programs toward minority and low-income people in urban areas, few human service jobs were included for rural areas.  The community Mental Health Act of 1964 and the upgrading of the social service section of the Public Welfare Law also increased opportunities for social services practitioners in rural areas, although the involvement of professional social work continued to be limited.

Thus, the underlying social problems or rural America were ignored in favor of the move visible problems of the cities.  As a consequence, small towns and nonmetroplitan areas continue to have hard-core social problems, some of which (poverty, poor health care, and lack of adequate housing) are more prevalent in rural than metropolitan areas.

Although federal concern over rural areas increased in the late 1970’s, policies more frequently addressed the “rediscovered country-side” and have not been substantially more effective in resolving rural problems.  The Agricultural Extension Service often has been considered the “helping hand” and “watchful eye” of rural areas, but the literature documents that the Agricultural Extension Service has benefited wealthy groups in rural areas and the big corporate sector involved in agricultural at the expense of the small farmer, poor people, and rural minorities.

Rural America is just as diverse in its racial and ethnic composition as is metropolitan America.  Rural areas contain a significant number of African Americans, primarily in the rural South; many Hispanics, primarily Chicanos, outside metropolitan areas in the Southwest and West, and Puerto Ricans, in rural areas of the East; and Native Americans, who have always been a predominately rural minority.  Furthermore, Asian Americans are beginning to settle in rural areas.  Migrant farm workers constitute what might be called another rural minority group as well.  Naturally, rural American has always counted a large number of white ethnic groups who also differ form each other in their history, culture, religion, and characteristics.

In the 1970’s, social work decried the lack of federal attention to rural issues on various legislative fronts.  Since then, the situation has improved significantly as a result of a variety of indigenous rural groups working vigorously for new and better legislation.  The 1980 amendments to the rural Development Act of 1972 established the position of undersecretary of agricultural for small community and rural development.  Rurally oriented groups at the national and local levels should be able to continue to exert influence and improve conditions for rural people through these newly created avenues.  Social workers must become alert to these developments and work, preferably through coalitions with other groups, on behalf of their rural constituencies.

In addition, national events, particularly those related to energy and natural recourses, are making rural development a key area of interest and concern.  Social work has the potential for looking at such development, not just from an economic perspective but from a cultural and social perspective, as well.

Rural America is rapidly changing, and new population migration from urban to rural areas will soon transform rural life.  Social work can no longer limit itself to addressing the neglect of rural issues, but must become involved in questions of conservation and responsible development of the rural areas of this country.


Services and Education

An increasing number of social service jobs are becoming available in small towns and non-metropolitan areas.  Yet, the design of these programs and their administrative regulations often are based either on an urban bias or on a misrepresentation of the reality of rural life.  Furthermore, in rural employment, social work is often an unknown profession.  Many rural areas are still unaware of the roles played by social workers that have master of social work (MSW) and bachelor of social work (BSW) degrees or are unable to compete for qualified personnel.  Thus, social services personnel in rural areas often are not profession social workers.  Social work has a responsibility to identify for public and private employers the skills those well-trained social workers at all levels can being to jobs.

Social workers who find positions in rural areas usually come from urban areas; sometimes they are unable to offer their reluctant employers significant expertise in rural issues.  These social workers require continue education and retraining to make significant contributions to the rural milieu.  The rural practice setting is markedly different from urban settings in areas of tasks, clients’ characteristics, social and physical environments, and the roles of social workers.  Experience has shown that urban-trained social workers have difficulty applying their knowledge to rural practice and must adapt their practice model significantly to do a credible job in rural areas.  Conversely, urban social workers are often no prepared to deal with problems of people from rural areas that move to cities.  Although rural out-migration is now abating, there will continue to be pockets of rural people in the large cities for years to come.

Health Care

The rural and urban health care delivery systems require great modifications.   Although urban health care is often inadequate, rural systems frequently do not exist.  Medical, nutritional, home care, and other health services are less accessible to rural residents.  Dental care is a major problem for rural poor because only large dental schools run dental clinics and many counties in rural states provide no dental care for rural poor.


Federal and state transportation policies always have shown a marked bias for urban areas.  Attention and funding have been focused primarily on urban mass transit systems; a paucity of attention has been given to the unique transportation needs of rural areas.  Gasoline shortages and costs limit the access to services and facilities even for the rural car owner.  Those who for reason of poverty, physical or mental impairment, age, or other reasons, do not have immediate access to an automobile or other forms of transportation suffer serious deprivations.  The elderly population continues to grow in rural areas; hence, innovative ways must be found for transporting senior citizens.  For example, other counties have been successful in using government-owned or subsidized transportation to remedy the mobility problems of the rural poor.  Ways must be found to gather national resources of this country on behalf of the rural dweller without transportation.

Housing and Land Ownership

Rural residents always have had housing problems because of the unavailability of and ill repair of housing.  The new flood of migrants from urban areas has caused the price of land and property to rise, to the further disadvantage of the rural poor.  The ability of the poor, especially minorities, to purchase and retain ownership of land is an ever-increasing dilemma, severely aggravated by the introduction of new tax structures and the rising influence of agribusiness.

The rental and ownership of mobile homes, which have been viewed as an answer to the rural housing shortage since World War II, continue to be plagued by difficulties.  Often, there are no regulations regarding conditions in trailer parks.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development and state housing authorities should be encouraged to develop regulations that set minimum standards for mobile homes.

Schools and Post Offices

It has been amply documented that rural schools, shops, and post offices are not only services but also social centers that are crucial to the life of communities.  The closing and consolidating of rural schools, shops, and post offices for financial and technical reasons is eroding the quality of life in and capacity to survive of many communities.  Social workers must recognize publicly the complementarily of social institutions.  Bigger is not always better, and development does not always mean progress.


Rural women often have been overlooked when social work has formulated goals and policies regarding women.  In addition to the different class and cultural concerns of urban and rural women, rural women are faced with a variety of other environmental problems.  Geographic isolation, a lack of resources, and expensive and frequently inadequate transportation, to name a few, combine to make the needs and desires of rural women different.  Social work must be finely tuned to the cultural and local mores of women in a variety of geographic settings.

Economic Policy

Public policy continues to spur industrial development in rural areas to improve economic opportunities and meet the demands of market forces for material resources.  Still, rural populations have not obtained the expected advantages because of large-scale non-indigenous industries do necessarily draw from local labor pools.  The problems are compounded by the fragmented policies and programs of the federal government that often hinder local capacity-building efforts because they represent excessive administrative burdens and costs at the local level, a lack of flexibility to respond to local needs and opportunities, and a limited ability to involve private individuals and groups in developmental efforts.  (The goals of economic policy in rural communities should include a flexible regulatory approach by the government, recognition of the contribution of traditional local economies, and support for community-based organizations.


Rural communities in every region bear a special burden as energy resources (such as coal, shale old, and water) are developed.   Boom towns are of special concern because they are ill prepared to manage rapid growth.  Moreover, they are not receiving adequate assistance from state and federal governments, energy companies, universities, and professional organizations and are bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden created by the energy crisis.  Therefore, fiscal and professional aid in planning for and coping with such growth should be provided by federal and state governments.

In addition to the rising cost of transportation, the rural poor are paying a disproportionate share of their income for fuel, particularly in those climates where fuel for heat can be an issue of survival.  The poor, the aged, and hard-to-reach groups in rural areas are often uninformed about energy-saving devices.  Although federal programs have addressed the energy crisis in areas such as “weatherization,” the funding for technical assistance and education and outreach services has been grossly inadequate.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment in farm areas continues to decline sharply, whereas employment in rural nonfarm areas is rising, but more slowly than for the nation as a whole.  In most rural America, industrial development and demographic trends have not increased the prospects for rural employment.  Moreover, federal policy still emphasizes income transfer strategies, rather than job creation for low-income rural people.  Public policy should support local job creation strategies in rural communities and attendant job training.  Steady long-term economic development, a priority for rural populations, should capitalize on local small-scale industry, crafts, home-based employment, tourism, and whatever other resources can be tapped at the local level.

Mental Health

Most of rural America is unserved and undeserved by mental health programs.  Because values are an integral part of a culture, the emotional experience of illness in a rural area requires a different type of intervention from what is needed in urban communities.  Low population density, combined with a shortage of trained health, mental health, and human service personnel, hinders the effective delivery of services.  It is important for the social work profession to identify natural helping networks, to consider them an important resource, and to work with them in the delivery of services.  Mental health legislation should foster sensitivity to the rural environment, rural people, and rural needs.  The focus of the Mental Health Systems Act on giving priority to the unserved and undeserved is an important step toward promoting the organization of mental health programs in rural areas.

Rural Minorities

Rural America is as diverse in its racial and ethnic composition as is metropolitan America.  Racial and ethnic minorities and lesbian and gay people in rural areas have particular difficulty in obtaining full access to the goods and services that exist in their communities.  In addition, specialized services focusing on the unique needs of these groups in rural areas are extremely limited.


NASW continues to lobby for recognition of and the delivery of services to racial and ethnic minorities, migrant workers, women, people with disabilities, lesbian and gay people, older people, and other people at risk who have been lift out of the mainstream of existing service delivery systems or funding patterns.  In the 21st century, social work should play an important role as advocate for the empowerment of people in rural areas.

The profession must influence the public policies of the federal, state, and local governments that affect the development and reorientation of the service delivery system in rural areas.  Social work must stress the unique needs of local communities and work for legislation and regulations whose administration is flexible and can be adjusted to the specific needs of a locality.  The profession also must continue to work for the development of legislation on licensing in rural states and for the implementation of the requirements for continuing education in licensing.

NASW supports rural social work educators’ efforts to incorporate rural content into the curricula of schools of social work, within the context of the present or future accreditation requirements of the Council on Social Work Education.  The content of this curricula should additionally address the unique needs of physically and mentally impaired, ethnic and cultural minorities, women, lesbian and gay people, older people, religious minorities, people who are unmarried, children, those who live alone, and those with language barriers in the rural environment.

Social work should continue to work for appropriate and broadly based legislation and regulations on health care, transportation, employment, and housing for rural American.  Social work must develop further expertise in and become more involved in issues related to the ownership and retention of land.   It must advocate for the needs of disadvantaged rural populations on these issues.  Moreover, the profession must refine its position vis-à-vis rural development, taking into account social issues and the survival of rural lifestyles, as well as those of economic growth.  Thus, it is incumbent on the profession to have appropriate knowledge of the diverse needs, norms, and values of rural men, women, and children.