5 Most Pressing Issues for Rural Social Workers

Rural communities present social workers with a range of unique challenges that are not present in cities. Less money is available in most rural areas, and physical separation exasperates the difficulty of providing social services. Social workers in rural areas, therefore, must be prepared for the unique environment that they will face on a daily basis.

1. Limited Access to Specialists

Both people and businesses are separated by vast distances in rural areas. People often have to travel for more than an hour to get to the nearest hospital, grocery store, or school. Specialists, therefore, are often impossible to find in rural communities because there is limited demand for their services in less populated areas. When specialists are available, they often have to charge more due to the increased cost of traveling and more downtime between jobs. Since one of the most important responsibilities of social work is referring struggling individuals to specialists who can help with a unique problem, the limited availability of specialists can strain a social worker's ability to make a difference.

2. Less Pay

The harsh reality of life is that the availability of financial resources ultimately determines how much employees can be paid. With many rural governments short on cash, social workers in these areas seldom make as much as they would in the city. Unfortunately, limited financial resources drive the most talented social workers into urban areas, and rural communities are left with only a small pool of qualified staff members. Less financial compensation also drives up employee turnover rates while decreasing the number of qualified individuals who apply for vacant positions. Reduced compensation, therefore, is a significant challenge for social workers in rural areas.

3. Fewer Social Workers per Patient

Limited human resources compel social workers in rural areas to pack more cases into their busy schedules. Individuals suffering domestic abuse outside cities, therefore, often receive a lower quality of care because social workers have less time to dedicate to an individual case. While social workers try their best to make optimal use of their limited resources, the reality is that staff shortages leave more individuals without the help they need.

4. Fewer Capital Resources

Financial shortfalls in rural communities pressure social workers to get by with fewer capital resources. Unfortunately, some of the most important tools for social workers are often cut due to monetary constraints. Critical resources, such advanced software and specialized training, are often purged from budgets to make room for basic essentials. While capital spending cuts are often a rational decision in an environment of limited resources, social workers lacking the latest tools have a harder time achieving high performance.

5. Accessibility Issues

In the city, neighbors are an important source of tips about individuals who are physically and mentally abused. The rural countryside, however, can sometimes prevent neighbors from getting close enough to witness abuse. Furthermore, the most sinister abusers often choose to live in a secluded rural area to decrease their chances of getting caught. Social workers and law enforcement can also find it more difficult to monitor a potential abuse situation when a residence is nearly a mile from the nearest public road. Unfortunately, accessibility issues in rural communities can facilitate a higher potential for abuse, and stopping abusive individuals in these situations can be a tremendous challenge.

Overcoming the Obstacles

Limited resources present severe challenges to social workers in rural areas, but many communities have found solutions to mitigate these problems. Some social service agencies successfully engage the public to advocate for more funding, and local nonprofits often partner with social workers to fill outstanding gaps. Rural social workers who are willing to act as leaders in their organizations, therefore, can improve the lives of thousands of individuals in their service area.
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