Rural Poverty and Social Work

Boarded up abandoned store fronts in a small town.

The official poverty rate for 2015 was 13.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty thresholds were approximately $12,000 for one person, $15,000 for two people and $24,000 for a four-person family.

Poverty impacts more of the population in rural communities. Rural poverty has consistently been higher than urban poverty, and the same holds true for rural unemployment when compared to urban unemployment. Certain factors have led to specific challenges for rural populations, including the need for rural social work services.

What Is Rural Poverty?

Rural poverty refers to the population of U.S. residents in nonmetro counties who earn below the federal poverty threshold for a particular year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses data for nonmetro or rural areas based on the metropolitan area designations established by the Office of Management and Budget and based on 2010 Census results.

The poverty threshold is adjusted each year for inflation. The threshold represents an estimate of a family’s cash income that is insufficient to meet basic needs. An individual or a family are classified as poor when total income is less than the amount needed to purchase food, shelter, clothing and other essential goods and services.

The rural poverty rate for 2015 was 17.2 percent. The rate rose throughout the Great Recession (from the end of 2007 to the middle of 2009). It fell slightly in 2014 and more markedly in 2015 (by 0.8 percentage points), but the rural poverty rate remains well above pre-recession levels. The poverty rate was substantially higher in 2014 than in 2007 for all rural county types except mining counties.

Rural Poverty vs Urban Poverty

While the poverty rate of the rural population is 17.2 percent, 14.3 percent of the urban population is in poverty. The USDA mentions that rural poverty rates have been higher than urban rates since the 1960s, when the rates were first recorded. Other statistics help illustrate the economic differences between rural and urban populations.

  • Unemployment figures are higher in rural populations. Since the Great Recession, rural unemployment has fallen to 5.7 percent in 2015 from 9.9 percent in 2010. Urban unemployment has fallen to 5.2 percent in 2015 from 9.6 percent in 2010.
  • The rural economy depends more on production of goods. These industries — farming, forestry, fishing and mining — account for more than 11 percent of rural earnings but only 2 percent of urban earnings. The manufacturing sector accounts for nearly 15 percent of earnings in rural areas and just more than 9 percent in urban areas.
  • Median earnings are generally higher in urban areas. In 2015, overall annual earnings were 15 percent lower in rural areas, and the gap was much larger in service sectors including: information; finance, insurance and real estate; and professional/related services.

“It’s easy to see why many rural Americans believe the recession never ended: For them, it hasn’t,” the PBS article says. “Rural communities still haven’t recovered the jobs they lost in the recession. … The identity of rural communities used to be rooted in work. … That’s not so clear anymore.”

The prevalence of mental illness is similar in rural and urban-based areas, according to the Rural Health Information Hub. However, from 2004 to 2013, small towns/cities and rural counties experienced a 20 percent increase in suicide rates compared to a 7 percent increase in large central metropolitan areas. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) says that “outcomes can be far worse for people when services are a great distance away or not available at all.”

Rural Social Work

More social workers are needed in rural areas. Eighty percent of social workers are employed in metropolitan areas. There are 2,157 health professional shortages in rural and frontier areas, as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Social workers in rural areas face certain challenges. Compared to social workers in metropolitan areas, rural social work practitioners are paid less, have limited access to specialty services and deal with crisis situations more often, due to the lack of prevention and early intervention services.

Keeping rural culture at the forefront of people’s minds is “a continuing battle,” Sam Hickman, secretary of the National Rural Social Work Caucus, told the NASW. One way to promote rural social work is to help practitioners become aware of certain issues. “We want people to look at rural issues in the same way as minority issues, like a specialized practice,” Hickman said.

  • Dual relationship is having more than one relationship with a client. “If you’re one of only a few practitioners in an area that people have to turn to for help, you’re bound to run into them or their children and relatives at the grocery store,” Hickman said. Dual relationships are common, can be unavoidable and may be helpful in small towns.
  • Lack of transportation is another issue 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,” Hickman said.
  • Stigma persists in small towns. People tend to know everyone, creating difficulties for health care providers trying to offer mental health services. They often face poor reimbursement and high no-show rates.

Solutions are making an impact in rural social work. Technology is breaking down geographic barriers, providing mental health care in a creative and cost-effective manner. From electronic health records to social media, apps and video conferencing, these tools are becoming integrated in rural communities. Additionally, loan forgiveness programs are helping increase the number of trained social workers in rural communities.

Advancing Your Social Work Career

Aurora University’s online BSW and online MSW programs prepare graduates for careers in direct-service positions and clinical social work. In a flexible and convenient online learning environment, students learn the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their field. Aurora University’s programs are Chicagoland’s only CSWE-accredited online programs.