Training The Rural Relief Worker On The Job

A Presentation by Eileen Blackey, State Director of Training, Florida Emergency Relief Administration, at the Sixty-Second Annual Session

of the National Conference of Social Work, 1935 

Eileen Blackey

Eileen Blackey

WORK in the emergency-relief field has brought about a universal acknowledgment of individuals. This is so true that to speak of training the rural relief worker is to speak in a large measure of training any relief worker. Periods of stress in the past have made themselves felt only in the urban center and in the communities surrounding it. If the farmer has felt the pinch of need in previous depressions, the fact that at least there was enough to eat has kept the family off the relief rolls. The present distress has penetrated to practically every farm home and the rural family has been caught in the maelstrom of relief.

 The rural client as he comes to us is more than himself; he is the personification of all the people who have molded him-their economic and social struggles, with their resulting philosophies. The need for understanding the roots from which he grew is apparent. Each section of the country is colored by the background of its people. The rural family in the Far West, the Middle West, or New England will each reflect the early development and thinking of those areas. So, too, with the South, and the rural worker there needs to be keenly conscious of the factors contributing to the status of the southern cracker, the share-cropper, the tenant farmer, the corporation farmer, and the negro. There is no sense of ownership here, no satisfaction in possession, little incentive to reach for other goals, a year-in and-year-out struggle for a bare subsistence which has been supplemented periodically in the past by public works and now by public relief.

This brief resume of what the southern relief worker has to meet is given to emphasize the importance of understanding whence the client came economically, socially, and philosophically.

The background of an area has also been largely responsible for the attitudes which have been built up toward relief. Unless a worker understands the derivation of these attitudes she is likely to become confused in her thinking and consequently ineffective in changing them. For instance, some of the southern states made their first introduction to social work through the federal relief administration. There was no community consciousness as to social work because there were no agencies, and where it was necessary, because of this, for the federal government to take over the entire relief program of a state there have been defensiveness, misunderstanding, and lack of interpretation. At the beginning of the program in Florida there seemed to be in some sections a patriotic inclination to being on relief. One client of long standing was objecting to being removed from relief, and his sincere explanation was that he’d answered the first call and had been on ever since. Other clients look upon the relief allotment as a common family pocket-book in which they have a just share, and whether they are eligible or not they present their claims.

These comments reveal a condition which presents a hurdle for the social worker. The rural client is actually bewildered by the paternalism which has surrounded him and his family in his quest for help. The relief setup has been primarily for the urban client. Through the works program his skills have to some extent been capitalized upon; road and construction work, repair crews, and white-collar work projects have all been within the realm of his experience, but the farmer finds himself in an unfamiliar setting when taken from his land to earn his relief through a work card. It calls for an adjustment on his part, and the worker can be instrumental in helping him achieve it.

Perhaps one of the best things that has happened to social work has come through the influx of representatives from every other field of human endeavor. Though lacking the professional equipment for social work, these people have stirred us from our complacency and have brought with them in numerous instances a contribution which will be lastingly constructive. It was inevitable, with the number of relief families mounting every month, that many individuals with no training or experience in social work had to be placed on staffs all over the country. They came from the fields of business, law, nursing, teaching, engineering, and numerous other positions.

Two things have conditioned the training of relief workers on the job-the nature and extent of the relief problems and the necessity for placing effective tools as quickly as possible in the hands of untrained people. Certain objectives seem to crystallize as one plans the training of people in the field. First, what is the function of a public emergency-relief agency and what are our limitations in relation to that function. Emergency-relief workers are doing social work and might even be said to be doing social case work, but it is case work defined and limited by the function of the program, namely, relief for the unemployed. The vast majority of persons coming to us for help have met life in a way satisfactory to them and to society. Because they are being penalized through unemployment does not justify us in boring to the very core of their emotional existence in order to satisfy our thirst for “problems.” It is true that unemployment is only part of the picture in a good many instances, but we should be guided then by how much the client wishes us to know. If the worker were in a community where other specialized agencies existed, her contribution would be that of offering the service of the other agency to the client provided he wanted it. Most rural districts, however, are limited in resources, and where no specialized service is available, it has seemed advisable to warn the worker against becoming involved in an emotional problem which she is not equipped to handle and about which she can do nothing. The therapeutic value of being a good listener, however, has been a definite part of preparing the workers. They have been urged to recognize that because a client discusses his innermost problems it does not necessarily mean that he wants anything done about them. The privilege of unburdening himself to someone who he feels understands is in itself an emotional catharsis.

The rural social worker is confronted with a real dilemma in knowing how much of a family’s welfare is her responsibility. It is not unusual to find that man’y of our rural areas have been untouched by social working organizations, or, for that matter, by few if any community organizations. The rural worker is called on to provide for the health needs of the families in many instances where there is inadequate medical and nursing service. School attendance becomes her concern where the state laws are static in their effectiveness. She finds mental problems of long standing, or disturbances of an acute nature, in her families, and since she is the only representative of an agency in the area, securing treatment or institutionalization becomes part of her service to the family. Whether she is equipped for it or not, emergencies arise where the worker participates in removing children from the home, in institutional placement of delinquents, feeble-minded, or handicapped members of the family.

Some of our rural areas, and perhaps urban too, have been so lacking in the things which spell a fuller life that emergency relief organizations have initiated activities which again belong to other groups; but in the absence of those groups, relief workers find themselves called upon to give service along these lines. In some sections the relief organization has shouldered home economics, adult education, nursery schools, recreational activities, home demonstration work, agricultural service, nursing attendance, clinics, and hospitals. No one will deny that these resources logically belong to specialized fields and to the local communities benefited by them, and the task now before many relief administrations is that of returning the functions to their logical source after a period of demonstration and interpretation. In the meantime, however, the training of rural relief workers has involved careful guidance in the matter of how far they may go in any given situation, and, above all, in selling tothe community at every possible turn the need for the establishment of these services on a permanent basis.

The second objective which would seem to be an essential part of training inexperienced workers is that of giving them a keen understanding and an appreciation of the individuals to whom their job relates. This has come about by interpreting to the workers some of the underlying factors in the motivation of behavior. Whether we are clients or workers, we find ourselves dependent on basic equipments in life-physical, mental, social, and emotional. Our adjustment as adults is determined to a great extent by the degree of maturity which we have attained in each of these spheres. The worker’s exhibition of skill comes in estimating a client’s capacity so that she does not impose her level of equipment on him when he is not capable of attaining it, or underestimate his ability to work out his own difficulties by doing too much for him rather than stimulating him to a utilization of his own capabilities. The needs which individuals have are of no less importance than their equipments, and workers, if they are alert to the fulfillment or deprivation of these needs in the lives of their clients, are capable of deeper understanding. If a man’s material needs of food, clothing, and shelter are not being met, his panic and his suffering make of him a different individual. The need which every person has for the affection and the approval of those around him has certainly been threatened, if not entirely swept away, in a vast number of cases with which we work. If a worker cannot understand why a client presents a blustering, bullying attitude; if she does not sense what has made a man cling to some physical ailment as a way out; if she fails to recognize the satisfaction which comes from living in the past when the present has nothing to offer then she can in no sense help the person beyond the mere administration of the relief voucher.

The so-called “behavior” of persons applying for help has been one of the most difficult interpretations in training the workers. They feel they have attained a desirable degree of objectivity, but find their emotional equilibrium easily upset by the appearance of an unmarried mother, the prostitute, the alcoholic, the bootlegger, the former convict. For workers to realize that relief is based on eligibility and not on how people behave is in most instances a difficult thing for them to accept. A judgmental, critical, or moralistic attitude on the part of a worker intensifies any situation which she tries to alleviate. The rural worker is usually someone who has been born and reared in a rural community where she has inevitably absorbed some of the righteous (?) philosophy inherent there. For this reason it may be more difficult for her to accept deviations from the moral code. Her proximity to the rural situations has undoubtedly made for a sympathy with, and an understanding of, rural problems which an urban worker placed in a rural area would have difficulty in assimilating.

In an evaluation of training programs the first question which arises is: Can we insist uniformly on professional standards of training as we have thought of them in the past? Has not the situation forced us to modify our thinking? Can we afford to send students in large numbers to schools of social work for the necessary training, particularly when those centers do not exist within the state? The nucleus of workers sent to schools under the federal scholarship arrangement provides leadership of great value, but the percentage touched by this form of training has been infinitesimal in comparison to the many unprepared people who have been called into the relief field. It seemed of paramount importance that these workers be given instruction in the fundamentals of their job. For that reason the emphasis in Florida has been placed at the point of training on the job. Recognition among those who have entered the relief field of any potential candidates for full-time training at schools of social work is to be highly recommended. Contact with the worker through institute work is revealing in respect to her suitability for the profession and her capacity for development and growth. It might seem advisable to insist on rather widespread attendance at training schools as a prerequisite to work in the field, but some serious obstacles have been encountered in this respect, especially in the rural areas. Last fall, when the present training program was started in Florida, a fair percentage of the workers were people taken from the relief rolls, chosen carefully in some instances, but in only too many cases they were people not qualified for the job. Sifting the staffs, setting up of minimum standards, and replacements on the basis of preparation were all things which have been accomplished, but it has been a gradual procedure and there is still much to be achieved. Such a situation, one feels, would have precluded any general persuasion in the matter of formal training.

Another difficulty would have arisen in the lack of educational qualifications of workers, since no small number in the field are not college graduates and would not be accepted in graduate schools of social work. Some of those who have finished college have not attended accredited institutions, and would be equally unacceptable for graduate work in social service.

A point mentioned earlier in this paper also makes general intensive training a questionable goal-and that is the fact that a group of people now doing relief work are transient in their interest and will leave the field as soon as they find reinstatement in their original profession. We may bemoan the fact that there are people like this on our staffs, but the dearth of eligible workers has necessitated it in many communities. These people would neither wish nor warrant the investment necessary for permanent training.

Another dilemma becomes apparent when we realize how difficult it is to secure workers for rural areas where life is more or less stagnant and lonely. One cannot insist on too rigid professional standards here or there would be no workers. The trained worker is reluctant to go into an isolated county not so much because the job itself is undesirable but because the rural community does not offer her as an individual sufficient social and cultural stimulation. Previous to training, she is more willing to accept a rural job. This appears to be an argument against training people for rural placement. It is not that, but rather a plea for the utilization of capable, if untrained, workers who are willing to adjust to the rural areas until such time as the importance of skilled social workers in rural districts can be more generally recognized.

Would it be unorthodox to question if at the present time the schools of social work through their curriculum and field training are actually meeting the problems of the rural worker? It is fundamentally true, of course, that working with individuals and families involves the same understanding of techniques no matter where we find them, but it is equally true that rural workers need more help in the analysis of their immediate problems, and in utilization and development of the resources at hand. This is suggested as another recommendation for training the rural worker in the situation with which she has to grapple.

As a basis for the discussion of various approaches to the field of training, let me outline the experiment with which I am most familiar. Each state, of course, has local conditions which determine to a great degree how a training plan is to be worked out. Florida has, first of all, some geographical complications. The state covers a wide area-in fact, it is practically one thousand miles from one end to the other, and is so varied in interests and resources that the question of dividing it into two states has at times actually been under discussion. The state is divided into nine relief districts, with an average of eight counties to each district. This spread of territory presents difficulty in bringing workers to convenient points for training.

Whether or not the workers are given field experience in connection with their institute work will depend on the social agency facilities within the state. Previous to the initiation of the E.R.A., Florida had very few public or private agencies, and those which did exist were in the urban centers. There were no agencies equipped with adequate organization or staffs to take over the supervision of students. The E.R.A. units were equally handicapped in that supervisors and directors were in only a minority of instances trained people, and even if trained were under too much pressure to take on added responsibility. The value of field training was not belittled, but merely postponed to a time when it could be given on a more acceptable basis. Preparatory to giving institutes for the workers, the state was divided into three geographical divisions, and three towns were selected in each area as congregating points for the workers. Since the state department of training has no staff but consists only of the director, considerable traveling was involved, and consequently classes could not be held as frequently as desired. They were planned for groups of not more than thirty workers for a two-hour session each week for four weeks with an additional meeting each week for the case supervisors and directors of relief. The discussions with this latter group, few of whom were people with training or experience other than E.R.A., meant an attempt to interpret their workers to them as individuals-what a supervisory relationship could convey even in its simplest form and how vital it was to give to the workers the security and understanding which we were asking the workers to give to the clients.

This series of meetings was called an institute, and was in no sense dignified by the terminology of case-work training. The material presented was an elaboration of that mentioned earlier in this paper. It was of necessity elementary and simply arranged. It meant not only a discussion of the whole field of human relationships but also called for practical guides in interviewing, home visiting, and office organization such as intake procedures, case records, and the use of social service forms. No little importance was attached to the need for understanding the emergency-relief program in the country at large-how and why it originated; how its local application has created certain problems and attitudes; and what our part is in explaining and interpreting to others. It was amazing how few people on the staffs actually knew about the gigantic undertaking in which they had been working for a year, or two, or three.

After a month of classes in one area, the groups there were encouraged to carry on their own meetings. In a few scattered instances the county offices had some meager reading material along social-work lines. It was possible through state funds to set up a minimum library in each local office. Most of the purchases consisted of pamphlets and reprints since they represented a smaller investment. With this small library as a basis, the groups were given suggested reading assignments on the material previously presented, together with a rather detailed mimeographed summary of it. Case studies illustrating the various points brought out were also left for study. It was recognized that with caseloads of two or three hundred the workers could not possibly follow through many of the suggestions that had been made. As a way of keeping their interest and helping them to see the value of certain principles, they were urged, but not compelled, to select anywhere from two to five cases from their caseload, these cases to be carried on a more intensive scale than the usual superficial contacts which so heavy a load necessitated. The workers were asked to do as good an unemployment-relief job as possible on the cases selected-in giving the family more time, in trying to understand their situation, in following through reference calls, and in better and frequent recording. This has stimulated interest and has encouraged the workers in the belief that equally satisfactory work might be done on all cases when time permits. Since the fall months, when this particular scheme was worked out, caseloads have dropped to a fairly reasonable number and workers are really feeling a sense of satisfaction in being able to do a thorough job.

After a month in one area the same schedule was repeated in each of the other two. There was an approximate attendance throughout the state of eight hundred staff members. There seemed to be a distinct advantage in allowing a passage of time between meetings and between institute series. It gave the workers an opportunity to think through the material on the job and to relate it more gradually. It is true that the schedule as arranged, namely, permitting a two months’ lapse between institutes, was too long-several weeks or a month should have been the maximum under conditions which would permit it.

It was felt that the whole question of educating people to an understanding of what we have been going through was of utmost importance. This need was apparent within our own organization as well as in the communities. In order to bring about a better relationship among all groups concerned with the same client-as, for instance, the nursing staff, the directors of works’ divisions, the auditors, administrators, recreational and rural rehabilitation directors, and the social service departments –a series of meetings were held by the director of training with the administrative staffs in each district. The material presented was somewhat the same as that given the workers, but it was rearranged so as to show the need for close relationship among all departments within the organization and to give a clear interpretation of why social service is an integral part of the relief program.

When the work with the administrative group had been completed, a second series of meetings was planned for the workers. The state was divided into smaller geographical units, and a longer period of time was spent in each area. The workers were divided into groups of four or six, and a two-hour conference on cases was held with each group. It would have been more desirable, of course, to hold individual conferences, but this was a physical impossibility in view of the numbers to be met. At least one case of each worker was discussed from the standpoint of problems presented, how best to meet them, suggesting untried possibilities, mechanics of record writing, etc. These conferences revealed local conditions with which the rural worker had to contend and also distinguished some workers as people with considerable resourcefulness and imagination even in the face of obstacles, while others gave up if resources for helping the family were not immediately visible. Since few counties have case supervisors and relief directors have found it difficult to combine much supervision with their administrative duties, these conferences seemed to offer considerable stimulation and help to the workers. During the time spent in the district, in addition to the meetings of these smaller groups, the workers were brought together at convenient points for another series of training material. These classes were arranged one day each week for four hours and continued over a three weeks’ period. Briefly, the material discussed at this time covered such topics as “Problems of Mental Health,” “Problems of Physical Health,” “Community Organization”–with the stress on rural needs-and “The Proposed Public Welfare Program for the State.”

This series is still in process, but upon its completion the possibility of providing a period of field training for those now on the job will be reconsidered. During the past year it has been possible to develop several county offices in the state as potential training centers. The plan as proposed would mean selecting one worker from each of the sixty-seven counties to spend six weeks in the center chosen for training. The setup there would call for six trained supervisors who could devote full time to the eleven students assigned to each of them. In connection with the field experience, classes would be held each day to give a foundation in the principles of social work. This plan might be repeated each six weeks, depending on its feasibility. The same precaution would hold here as in the general training program, namely, that it is to be considered as preparatory material only, not as intensive training in case work.

Work with the rural family in this present catastrophe has made us more aware of the dignity of small things. One feels we were becoming rather stereotyped or mechanized in our social-work thinking, and unless something quite remarkable could be done for a family we were not satisfied. The rural worker has been forced to keep simplicity in her technique because of the inaccessibility of other individuals or organizations to whom she could release responsibility or at least with whom she could share it. What she accomplishes with her farm family is perhaps the more remarkable because of the initiative and imagination it represents.

While the urban family offers ample opportunity for constructive work with its various members, their lives do not present the barrenness of the rural family. It is this utter lack of everything which connotes a happier existence that offers the rural worker such a challenge. She often finds herself amazed and upset at the squalor, the lethargy, and the emptiness of the lives into which she steps, and in her eagerness to improve conditions she may urge the family beyond their willingness and their capacity to change. She needs to rely more on the strengths within the family group and on her ability to capitalize on them. Time and again parents who have brought children to a story hour sponsored by the recreational division have asked to stay and listen-the stories are as new and enchanting to them as to the children. A worker was attracted one evening by a huge bonfire in one of the fields. She found negro mothers and fathers gathered there playing the games which were being taught the children in their day-school playground groups. When rural children in their eagerness for play make jumping ropes out of grapevines, baseballs out of inner tubes, and whittle bats from old lumber, it gives some indication of the numerous starting-points a rural worker has. There is romance in her job if she can but see it.

A national conference of farm women considering the question “What Do Farm Women Want?” answered among other things: “Beautification of farm homes, more leisure, a chance for following hobbies, good music, good pictures.” Helping the rural family to create interests outside the home is not an easy thing. Many are stolid and disinterested-stimulation needs to come from a neighbor or friend, in some instances, rather than the worker. Transportation needs to be arranged and school buses are now carrying more traffic in adults than they ever carried in children. The worker must be very familar with every possible opportunity for her family. Adult-education classes may mean giving the man and woman the thrill of learning to read and write; it may mean the blossoming of a talent or a hobby; or it may mean real vocational rehabilitation in some instances. The limitless possibilities for service to families through home demonstration workers, fostering of school activities and parent participation, agricultural extension service, nursery schools, and churches would of themselves command a volume, but unless the rural worker is aware of them and can use them effectively she is neglecting to cultivate fertile soil. The emphasis in all these extra-curricular relief activities has been that of divorcing them from relief and thinking and acting in terms of community sponsorship. It takes skill on the part of the worker to present it to the family in this light, for many clients are extremely sensitive to participation in activities which savor of “relief.”

The whole field of social-work training has expanded during the emergency period to unbelievable proportions. In Miss Brown’s words: “In the administration of unemployment relief we are creating a new type of social work and of public welfare. We are adopting whatever is applicable from the rest of social work and adding the results of our own experience in standards, methods, training, and terminology.”

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work for the Sixty-Second Annual Session Held In Montreal, Canada June 9- 5, 1935 , pp. 636-648. The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:




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