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Social Work in Rural America

Child in Rural SettingRural America is in a steep decline. Over the next 10 years, the remaining population outside of America’s major urban centers will become increasingly isolated. Social issues will only become entrenched in the social fabric. Fellow Americans will continue to go without basic services.

Providing social services in rural areas of the United States is difficult, but the online Master of Social Work at The Catholic University of America is working with social service providers to develop policy and plans to increase service levels, and destroy the negative stigma associated with assistance.

A plethora of issues face rural communities across United States. Vital to understanding rural communities, their sustainability, their trials, and their resilience is knowledge about the dynamics of the influential social, environmental, political, and economic systems that motivate them. Rural communities face complex challenges due to scant population settlements, inaccessibility due to lack of public and private transportation, and often terse relationships with urban centers within the current economic system. The challenges faced by rural communities can be aggravated by globalization and technological change, as well as the conditions that prevail among residents, like the local economy.

A major barrier in providing social services in a rural community is overcoming social stigma that stem from political and sociological belief systems. For many rural Americans, the overarching sentiments are that as an individual, you don’t ask for assistance from the government (or any social organization) – rather, you look for help from your community, despite many not being able to provide an adequate level of assistance for at-risk populations.

Of the major barriers to providing adequate social services, a consistent need has plagued this at-risk population for well over three decades. As more Americans gravitate toward urban centers, this population has been left to build a solid social foundation, without the necessary tools for the job.

Rural America’s most pressing issues:


Numerous Americans residing in rural areas find themselves living at or below the poverty level. They are not always able to provide the necessary basics for living, often leading to a decline in overall health and quality of life. There are several factors that contribute to poverty in rural areas; one of the reasons includes situational poverty, which is described as poverty lasting a short amount of time and caused by circumstances such as death, illness or divorce. Situational poverty may be out of the client's control. Another common form of poverty is generational poverty, which is defined as being in poverty for two or more generations. Generational poverty is becoming problematic as well as the norm in rural areas.

There are cultural norms relating to poverty in almost all rural areas in America. One of the norms is relationships take priority over educational achievements. Family and relationships are the motivation behind all decisions. One of the fears of people in rural areas is a family member leaving, pursuing higher education, employment and not returning to the family, developing a life outside of the community. Rural Americans do not want to be called pushy or egoistical and having that label may cause them to be shunned.

Students in the online MSW program can explore this in-depth topic with the course, Physchodynamic Theory and Social Functioning.


The quality and quantity of the transportation systems that serve rural America have been steadily eroding for many decades.  Economic and demographic shifts, deregulation, and underinvestment have all had detrimental impacts on the economic opportunities in rural America and the quality of life for rural residents.

And, as is the case in other public sectors, rural transportation decision-making has suffered from the more limited resources and technical capacities which rural county and municipal jurisdictions have at their disposal, compared to their urban counterparts. Consequently, rural interests are less able to participate in transportation planning and priority setting.

Transportation is an essential component of rural economic development and quality of life. However, in the past, federal transportation priorities and investments have not always been sufficiently associated with local and regional needs and priorities.

This has resulted in economic development, cost of living, accessibility, safety, health, and overall quality of life outcomes that have not blossomed to their full potential in certain areas of the country.


From an economic perspective, within a mobile labor force, people searching for employment would move to the concentrated areas with available jobs. But – just as nearly 60 percent of Americans are from within 100 miles of their current residence - people aren't always willing to pack up and move for employment opportunities. This means that the type of job realistically available to a worker is conditioned to a large extent by the opportunity structure around them. The opportunity structure surrounding people includes the availability of any job as well as the occupational and industrial mix of jobs, market wage, and the recent trends in all these areas.

Nowhere does this matter more than in rural areas. In general, in an urban area, a reasonable commuting distance can get a potential worker to a much greater diversity of jobs than a similar length commute in a rural area. There also may be more support for workers in urban areas: public transportation and available child care are often noted as work support structures harder to come by in rural areas.

Health Insurance

The rural economy is unique in its composition, making issues of residents who are either uninsured or under-insured. In 2014, out of 41 million uninsured Americans, twenty percent lived in rural areas.

Since the late 1990s, rural areas have experienced a significant decline in middle-class manufacturing jobs and a rise in low-paying service sector employment or self-employment, losing jobs with higher rates of health insurance while gaining jobs with much lower rates of employer-sponsored coverage. The lack of employer-sponsored health insurance is particularly dire for low-skilled jobs, which are common in rural areas.

Health Care System

The health care infrastructure in much of rural America is a cluster of small hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, often experiencing significant financial stress. Many rural hospitals have financial margins too narrow to support investments in critical technological upgrades, leaving area residents with sub-standard care.


Individuals living in rural communities find themselves with a lack of community resources. Social workers in such settings often find themselves assisting clients with locating adequate housing, financial planning, despite the lack of abundance of assets.

A lack of resources in rural areas does not only leave individuals in the community struggling, it also presents challenges for the service provider.

Social workers also find themselves facing the dilemma of working with clients beyond their level of expertise due to a lack of licensed professionals in rural areas.

Do You Have the Desire to Assist in Rural America?

The Catholic University of America’s online MSW program is committed to service for all mankind. The school’s mission focuses on developing leaders with the heart and mission to help provide professional social services to people of all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious affiliations around the globe.

As a student of the online Master of Social Work program from the Catholic University, you will be prepared to empower the families and at-risk populations of America’s forgotten areas, delivering your life’s calling.

To learn more about the online MSW program, call 855-295-5711 or click here for more information.