Magazine article Policy & Practice

Collaboration Is Key for Rural Challenges

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Collaboration Is Key for Rural Challenges

Article excerpt

Rural communities face significant challenges, and they face them with fewer and different kinds of resources. Compared with metropolitan residents, rural Americans earn less, have higher poverty rates overall and for children, have higher rates of working poverty, attain lower education levels and are older. Rural citizens are also less likely to have health insurance and have lower access to specialists of all kinds (doctors, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists). At the same time, they report poorer overall health, have higher rates of chronic illness, and higher rates of manufacture and usage of methamphetamines.

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Rural people and places are creative, resilient and build their communities upon the strength of their relationships, but sometimes those strengths cannot overcome the reality of how challenging it can be to deliver social and human services in rural communities.

The reality of a vast geographic landscape with sparse population density create a unique rural differential to service delivery. However, not all of the challenges are solely rural challenges. The rural differential is often a matter of degree from suburban and urban communities.

Rural people in need confront the question of whether a social service is even available to them in their county or even region, and if it is, worry about how many hours out of their day they will spend traveling to the service location, if they even have transportation available. The reality is that it costs more to deliver services per capita in rural areas. What this means practically is that the staff in social service offices have to wear many different hats for many different safety net programs. Specialization, therefore, is rare. However, perhaps silos do not exist in rural as they do in metropolitan areas? Due to the lack of rural-specific, human service research, this is an unanswered question that, regardless of the answer, does not make it any easier to find and deliver services in rural areas. The depth and breadth of nongovernmental, philanthropic and private-sector organizations is much less developed in rural areas, resulting in a much greater reliance on public-sector services. And with fewer philanthropic and nonprofit providers in rural areas, there are fewer advocates available to give voice to rural-specific needs. Population-driven funding formulas are never going to adequately benefit rural areas without a rural-specific carve-out in funding requirements. But rural communities don't want their needs to be considered "carve-outs." All of these rural challenges are confronted while dealing with the very significant issue of the unintended rural consequences of program rules written for urban situations.

What rural people have in spades, though, are the strong relationships that build the foundation of their communities. And they know how to utilize this network of relationships in creative ways to "get things done," a common refrain in rural areas, because often they do not have any other choice despite having fewer tools to get things done than their urban counterparts. But if local control of scarce human resources has been eroding because of the need to ensure that the most bang for the buck is being achieved, it is hard to tap into the inherent rural strengths of creative collaboration to provide services in a manner consistent with the rural reality.

Collaboration Rural Realities

When flexibility is allowed in both funding allocations and program design, however, rural relationships can be tapped for collaboration. And when rural service providers can step out of their very comfortable local relationships and think more regionally about their collaboration, new service opportunities open up and more "bang for the buck" truly can occur in rural areas. In 2006, Deep East Texas, a 12-county area in the state, was presented with the opportunity to develop a collaborative Rural East Texas Health Network through a flexible funding stream from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. …

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