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Community work: rural, regional, city divide?

ACWA Inc - Monday, December 12, 2016

Written by Sha Cordingley, Chief Executive Officer ACWA

Recently I had the pleasure of presenting at Federation University’s symposium: ‘Teaching, research and practice in the community and human services sector…’ on Community work: rural, regional, city divide? This actually wasn’t such an easy topic to address; there are some obvious differences, but do they influence practice?

Community workers in metropolitan and rural regions provide services within the national socio/economic context where unemployment is 5.6 percent, there are increased incidents and reports of family violence, child protection agencies are working to capacity, funding streams are reduced or have disappeared entirely and interest rates are at an all-time low for those organisations lucky enough to have a surplus. 2.99 million people, or 13.3% of the population, are living below the poverty line - including 731,300 children under the age of 15 (17.4% of all children). In any given night 1 in every 200 Australians is homeless, either sleeping rough, or in supported accommodation of one kind or another. Of clients accessing specialist homelessness services, 33% are escaping family violence and Aboriginal women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised by family violence than other women. Astonishingly there are over 300,000 young carers under the age of 18 in Australia.

Today’s community workers are also faced with challenges in the way services are funded and provided, for example, NDIS. Members of the largest generation of Australians ever, the baby boomers, are creating greater demand on and for quality services for both themselves and their parents. There is increased competition between private and public provision of services and with competing imperatives. In 2014 the volunteering rates declined for the first time since the ABS began national voluntary work surveys in 1995. All in all, community workers are increasingly facing challenges and issues which impact heavily on their work but are beyond their control.

So what is the actual city, rural, regional divide? The ABS Australian Standard Geographic Classification provides a geographic classification which, although recently superseded, provides a good framework for understanding where people live and the impact this has on community workers and the delivery of services.

 Major cities
 Inner regional
 Outer regional
 Very remote
 Sydney (NSW)
 Bendigo (Vic)
 Mackay (Qld)
 Alice Springs (NT)
 Tennant Creek (NT)

 Population distribution

 68%  20%
 9%  2%

Access to services
One of the defining features of geographic remoteness is that people have difficulty accessing services such as doctors, dentists, Centrelink, telecommunication services – including NBN, banks, and of course community support services. People living in rural and remote areas have many health disadvantages not experienced by their urban counterparts. Apart from shortages of health care providers and services in some areas the rural population also has a greater exposure to injury.* 

Regional impact on community work
Organisations have more difficulty in recruiting staff in regional and remote areas and the turnover in staff numbers is greater. This often results in younger, less experienced staff taking on roles that are at a higher responsibility for their level of experience than their city colleagues. There is a greater reliance on volunteers in regional and rural areas with many volunteers working for multiple agencies and organisations competing for volunteer support. Rural community services also have fewer referral options than do city services.

The personal impact for rural community workers, who often experience isolation and lack of peer support, can be quite profound. In regional areas there are fewer experienced people to provide mentoring and guidance and there are fewer opportunities for continuing professional development. The organisations for which many rural community practitioners work provide less resources for training and cannot afford the time or money for workers to attend training in metropolitan areas. This means rural workers rely more heavily on online courses or reading and self-education than do their city counterparts.

Rural and regional practitioners often work in depressed areas that have undergone a significant economic downturn through closure of industry, drought or flood, or unfavourable global markets. Particularly noticeable in rural areas is the higher prevalence of suicide: the rate of male suicide is twice as high as that in the city.

The upside is that rural practitioners live and work in close knit communities and are afforded opportunities in the workplace that may not come their way in the city. Being thrown in at the deep-end can either destroy morale or it can make a more resourceful, resilient, and innovative workforce. Do we know if there is a meaningful divide? I would say not yet: we need to conduct far more research on the area of both rural and city practice and the impact on service users before we can make that judgement.


* AIHW http://www.aihw.gov.au/rural-health-remoteness-classifications

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