SOCIAL WORK IN ROMANIAN RURAL COMMUNITIES: AN INSIDE PERSPECTIVE FROM A QUALITATIVE STUDY.
1.1. Romanian rural areas and their particularities
In Romania, 46.3% of the population is living in rural areas (Romanian Statistical Yearbook, 2018). However, the rural communities are far behind the urban ones in terms of economic and social development. Constantly, the rural areas have faced multiple and interconnected challenges in the fields of education, health, social inclusion, basic infrastructure, diversification of employment, outward migration, and population ageing (European Commission [EC], 2016).
Romania has 2,861 communes including 12,957 villages. The majority of the communes and villages face the same challenges: they have a small size, have a low level of administrative authority, maintain weak cooperation across counties and are not capable of building projects to integrate rural and urban communities. Rural areas are heterogeneous, with great differences between villages located in the proximity of big urban areas and remote villages and between communes far from and close to European roads. The majority of communes rely heavily on central funding due to low levels of economic development. Only for 135 communes the local revenues represented more than 50% of the budget (EC, 2016).
Agriculture, the prevailing occupation in rural areas, represents 29% of total employment in Romania, but contributes with only 5% to the GDP. The rural workforce is predominantly involved in subsistence or semi-subsistence agriculture, involving informal or non-remunerated family work. On long term, employment in subsistence agriculture has been associated with low productivity and poverty (Chirica and Tesliuc, 1999; EC, 2016). The prevalence of seasonal farming activities is maintaining the phenomenon of underemployment (Jigau et al., 2002, p. 16). Consequently, 55% of rural residents were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to 28% of city residents (EC, 2016).
In Romania, the population employed in agriculture is ageing (1). In 2011, the skilled workforce in agriculture consisted of 54.5% people aged 55 years and older, and only 30.6% were young people aged 15-24 years.
The percentage of young people not involved in employment, education or training, and of those dropping out of school is high among the rural population. Most of the secondary and higher education institutions are situated in urban areas, hampering the access of pupils from the rural areas because of distance, time and financial costs issues. In 2013, only 5% of the rural young people aged 14-24 graduated from high school compared with 20% of their urban counterparts (EC, 2016).
Pupils from rural areas have higher enrolment rates in vocational education and training (VET) compared to those from urban areas. On the one hand, the scarcity of specialized agricultural high schools limits the level of skills in the sector (EC, 2016). On the other hand, there is a conflict between the new opportunities to get employed in industry versus the opportunity to use the vocational skills in the agricultural sector. Thus, a significant part of the young force work in rural areas do not want to return to their own farms and use their acquired skills, deciding rather on getting a job and a salary, and this mentality is unlikely to disappear in the near future (Jigau et al., 2002, p. 18). The rural areas have provided few attractive employment alternatives to agriculture so far (Chirica and Tesliuc, 1999).
In 2014, 55.3% of children from families entitled to child rearing benefit or back-to-work bonus lived in rural areas. Furthermore, over 80% of children from families which qualified to benefit from family allowance were located in rural areas (Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Protection and Elderly, 2014).
In rural areas there is limited access to healthcare due to cost, distance or waiting times. In 2014, health insurance coverage was lower in rural areas compared to urban areas (76% versus 95%, respectively). There still exist large health inequalities between rural and urban areas in terms of infant mortality rate, life expectancy and vaccination rates for children (EC, 2016).
1.2. Rural social work as described in the literature
The basic aim of social workers is to assist, support and enable those affected by poverty, disadvantages and who suffer from the negative effects of social inequalities. They work effectively in a variety of multi-disciplinary contexts and for them, the core professional values, including human rights and social justice, are more important than organizational structures. The functions of social work include social integration and dealing with failures of policy in the areas of health, education or crime (Asquith, Clark and Waterhouse, 2005).
During the last three decades, there has been an active debate in the literature about the specific characteristics of rural social work (RSW). There is still not a widely accepted definition of RSW; however, there is a consensus that RSW is not a distinct field of practice (Daley, 2010); instead, it 'encompasses a blended type of intervention', as rurality implies a blended type of community (Mellow, 2005). RSW is based on 'community-oriented practice' (Riebschleger, 2007). At the same time, when addressing problems at all levels of human systems--individuals, families and groups, organizations and the community itself--RSW implements 'a generalist model of practice', embedded in the 'person-in-environment perspective' (Daley, 2010).
In the rural settings, social workers face a severe scarcity of human and financial resources (Turbett, 2004). Rural poverty is described by social workers as 'common and extreme' (Miller and Conway, 2002 apud Riebschleger, 2007). 'Social exclusion, ill health and limited labor market opportunities' are common issues for all European countries with a large proportion of population living in rural areas. 'The activity of the rural social workers is made more difficult' by the geographical distance of the remote villages from the big cities, by the weak development of the means of access and communication in some villages (Asquith, Clark and Waterhouse, 2005), and by the lack of social services for the most vulnerable categories of inhabitants.
There are two valuable assets which supplement the scarcity of social services in rural areas. Firstly, when the social worker is a resident of the local community, he/ she is 'known, trusted by the village, contactable, and possibly the only social welfare personnel the citizens usually see' (Halloran and Calderon, 2005, p. 5). Secondly, in a village, those in need still rely on relatives or neighbors. However, the quality of help these two types of resources provide could be jeopardized by the fact that the informal providers, mostly women, are not adequately protected, resourced and supported (Pillinger, 2001), and by the fact that, as a community member, the social worker is exposed to dual relations and faces difficulties to maintain confidentiality (Daley and Hickman, 2011).
Regarding Romania, many communes have not organized yet their social work compartments, the specialized structures which are supposed to manage and provide the social work benefits and the social services to the local rural communities are under the authority of public administration (Tesliuc, Grigoras and Stanculescu, 2015). Furthermore, in a large number of communes, where a social work department exists, it is not accredited as a public provider of social services and it does not have a valid license for the social services offered. One of the criteria to receive accreditation as a social service provider is to prove the employment of at least one qualified social worker, who graduated with a Bachelor's degree in social work or an employee with graduate studies in social services management (Law no. 197/2012 regarding Quality Assurance in the Domain of Social Services). The main priority of all rural communities from Romania is to employ a professional social worker, but in many cases they employ only a civil servant with social work duties or a social caretaker, and not a qualified social worker.
1.3. Legal and organizational context of rural social work in Romania
The elimination of social work during the totalitarian regime period and the revival of this field only after the change of regime in 1989, gives social work the character of a relatively young profession in the democratic Romania (Lazar, 2015).
The framework legislation for the actual social work system in Romania is provided mainly by the Social Work Law no. 292/2011 and by the O.G. no. 68/2003 regarding Social Services, which include the framework of the activity of social workers in the rural communities and the organization and functioning of different types of social services all over the country. These regulations include a requirement for local public administration to provide social work public services (SWPS). Until now, the villages' Local Councils, which work under the authority of the local public administration, were not able to absorb the great number of professionals much needed in the field of social work. Even though there were some national programs, funded by the central government, to encourage the development of SWPS in rural areas with qualified social workers, like the Program of National Interest called 'Capacity Development of SWPS from Administrative Territorial Units', started in 2018, very few rural communities have applied for funding to use these opportunities. This program is covering the salary payment for a qualified social worker employed by the public administration in the rural communities until 2021 (as part of the minimum standard to offer community social work services). In Romania, social work is included as part of the minimum package of public services needed and it is required to be delivered at each administrative-territorial level/unit (ATU), in both urban and rural areas.
1.4. The objectives...
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