What are the Unique Differences Between Urban and Rural Social Work Practice?

social-work-urban-ruralAs a result of the rapid urbanization of the 20th century, the gap between urban social work and rural social work has grown considerably to reflect changes in the global, political, economic, and social forces of these two geographic cultures.

Since social work is a dynamic field that must stress the unique needs of local communities and adjust its focus to address the specific needs of a locality, many accredited social work degree programs are now incorporating concentrations in urban and rural social work for specialized training.

In order to help you decide which social work practice area meets your professional goals, the following will give an in-depth overview on the key differences between urban social work and rural social work as well as the unique social problems that are experienced in each.

Urban Social Work Context

According to recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 50% of the world’s population lives in an urban area, but this is predicted to grow to 70% by the year 2050. With such densely populated areas, urban environments are more likely to experience large disparities in socioeconomic status, higher rates of violent crimes, and increased presence of marginalized populations. Urban communities are also associated with higher prevalence of psychological stressors that are the direct result of increased density in cities.

Since there are a higher percentage of persons of lower socioeconomic status in urban areas, these populations often face barriers to receiving quality social services due to a lack of health insurance and/or undocumented citizenship. Even more worrisome, financial obstacles that prevent the basic access to quality social services, healthcare, and education often perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty from generation to generation. While there are endless opportunities available in cities, vast population disparities often lead to a two-tiered social service system where insured individuals have access while marginalized populations lack needed care.

Rural Social Work Context

Due to the fact that rural communities are often detached from other geographic areas by rolling hills, mountains, rivers, farms, and more, one of the most prominent problems in rural social work is a limited amount of resources. Since there may not be an in-patient treatment center or psychologist within 100 miles, rural dwellers have considerably less variety with regard to social services available within their reach. Furthermore, the social service professionals that do work in rural communities often have limited education and a lack of outside referral resources to provide the care that is needed to clients.

With a considerably lower population scattered across a broad region, rural areas tend to have closer communities in which everyone knows one another. Not only does this mean that tragedies can have a harmful impact on the mental health of an entire community, but there may also be confidentiality concerns since there is a high probability that people are acquaintances outside of a professional setting too. Although approximately 18% to 22% of individuals in America are residing in a rural community, the social work profession has historically focused more on urban environments despite the challenges that exist.

Although the basic skills that social workers must use are similar across different communities, it is important for practitioners to hone their specific skill sets to address the problems that are unique to urban and rural communities. In order to be successful in delivering effective mental health services, you must have a firm understanding of the differences between urban social work and rural social work to ensure you can serve as an advocate for empowering these diverse vulnerable populations towards improved well-being.

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