Social Work and Poverty: Rural vs. Urban Poverty

Infographic which examines the difference between rural vs urban poverty through the lens of social work.

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In the course of their careers, social workers are regularly exposed to poverty in rural settings, urban environments, or both. While social workers are, of course, aware of the negative socio-economic impact of poverty in general, there are particular aspects of rural and urban poverty that must be distinguished in order to effectively address them.

To better understand these differences, we’ve examined the cycle of poverty, how it manifests in rural and urban environments, and what social workers can do to fight its effects.

The Definition of Poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau defines poverty according to a set of income thresholds that vary by family size and composition. (1) These thresholds are established each year by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).

In 2018, the HHS’s poverty guidelines for the contiguous United States were: (2)

Persons in HouseholdIncome Threshold
For households with more than 8 people, add $4,320 for each additional person.

The Cycle of Poverty

Poverty persists because it replicates itself, and the causes of impoverishment are also its effects. This means that those who experience some aspects of poverty, such as the lack of educational opportunity, are more likely to suffer its other consequences, such as poor health, in a vicious cycle. (3)

Causes of Poverty ->Effects of Poverty ->Further Causes/Effects of Poverty
Lack of Educational Opportunity ->Unemployment ->Homelessness
Homelessness ->Poor Health & Mental Health ->Prejudice & Discrimination
Prejudice & Discrimination ->Unemployment ->Food Insecurity
Food Insecurity ->Lack of Educational Opportunity ->Income Inequality
Income Inequality ->Lack of Health Care ->Poor Health & Mental Health

Rural Poverty & Urban Poverty

While poverty replicates itself in cycles everywhere, it takes on distinct characteristics based on environment.

Rural PovertyUrban Poverty
DefinitionResidents of non-urbanized areas or non-urban clusters who earn below the income threshold (1)Residents of urbanized areas (50,000+ people) or urban clusters (2,500-50,000 people) who earn below the income threshold (1)
General SourceRecent economic downturn related to the Great Recession (4)Historical migration during the Industrial Revolution (5)
Primary CausesUnemployment, Lack of Health Care, Income Inequality (6)Lack of Educational Opportunity, Unemployment, Prejudice & Discrimination (7)
Prevalence of mental illness:18.7% (8)18.4% (8)
Poverty rate:18%17%
Unemployment rate:5.4% 4.8%
Earnings from farming, forestry, fishing and mining:11% (6)2%
Earnings from manufacturing:15% 9%


How Poverty Impacts the Work of Social Workers

Social workers use a variety of techniques to battle poverty, including: (10)

  • Educating themselves and their communities about the responsibility to address poverty
  • Helping their clients meet basic needs in hopes of curtailing the effects of poverty
  • Raising awareness about the resources available to help break the cycle of poverty
  • Advocating for their clients to ensure they can access resources to fight poverty
  • Advancing social policies that impact individuals and communities affected by poverty

The Need for Social Workers

As the characteristics of poverty change with the environment, so too must the approaches taken by social workers to address it.

For example:

  • Fifty-five percent of rural counties have no social workers (11)
  • The suicide rate is 45 percent higher in rural areas than urban ones (12)

From these statistics, we can see the need for social workers specializing in mental health in rural areas.

On the other hand, social workers in urban settings must confront unique historical forces of displacement and segregation. Many cities in the United States experienced influxes of migrants looking for work, who faced prejudice and discrimination, leading to intergenerational unemployment and poverty.

These communities remain some of the most segregated and impoverished in the nation, where social workers specializing in diverse populations are sorely needed.

CitySegregated African-American Population (13)African-American Poverty Rate (13)
Detroit, Mich.55%33%
Chicago, Ill.50%29%
Jackson, Miss.48%30%
Memphis, Tenn.46%28%
Cleveland, Ohio45%34%


Invest in Yourself to Help Your Community Battle Poverty

Regardless of where social workers practice, the key to their success is the sturdy foundation of a formal education, which also has options to specialize in meeting the needs of their communities. Enrolling in an Aurora University’s online Bachelor of Social Work or Master of Social Work program is an excellent way to earn a degree according to a schedule and curriculum that complements your lifestyle.