Human Services Programs in Rural Contexts


Though significant evaluative work has been carried out to improve understanding of how human services programs meet their goals of improving family economic self-sufficiency, financial security, and overall wellbeing, there are gaps in knowledge of how programs can best serve rural communities. Rural contexts present unique opportunities and challenges for administering human services programs, and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) seeks to better understand these contexts through several programs, including the following:

  • Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood (HMRF)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG)
  • Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV)
  • Housing programs
  • Early childhood development programs
  • Family development programs
  • Employment programs
  • Higher education and technical training programs

The challenges human services programs experience in rural communities translate into more specific challenges for leveraging the human services programs, noted above, that are the focus of this study. While rural communities often have many assets, they can struggle with access to economic opportunity, transportation, broadband internet, and health services. Distance to services and negative cultural perceptions of public assistance also present barriers to accessing human services and other benefits for which families may be eligible. These disparities in populations’ access to services and benefits can lead to people’s basic needs going unmet. Given these key challenges, this study will focus on the following goals:

  1. Providing a rich description of human services programs in rural contexts
  2. Determining the unmet need for human services in rural communities
  3. Identifying opportunities for strengthening the capacity of human services programs to promote the economic and social wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities in rural contexts

A key aspect of this study is its mixed-methods sequential explanatory design that will leverage the respective benefits of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis separately before combining and synthesizing the findings to better address the study’s three goals. The study will first conduct an extensive literature review to synthesize the peer-reviewed literature and federal and state government reports on human services programs in rural contexts. The study will then analyze relevant secondary data to examine the distribution of human services funds, client populations and racial inequities within rural counties, and access to broadband and LTE technology. Then, the study will determine the level of unmet need for human services programs across rural counties in the United States. Subsequent geographic information system (GIS) analyses will be used to generate maps depicting the distribution of human services funds by rural location, as well as broadband internet access. The analyses will also empirically identify “hot spots” (areas with a statistically significant higher concentration) of unmet need for human services in rural communities.

In the next step, the study will use stakeholder engagement to consult with a technical working group comprising human services practice experts, experts in rural contexts and research methods, and ACF program staff to develop a priori theories and assumptions about important factors that potentially influence human services programs in rural contexts. The study will then conduct 12 site visits to rural communities to obtain insights from program administrators, program staff, and staff from local nonprofit or partner organizations that support individuals who utilize human services.

The study will employ Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to conduct a systematic interpretation and explanation of the study’s quantitative and qualitative findings. The QCA methodology will be used to facilitate the development of necessary and sufficient conditions for addressing unmet need in rural communities. In turn, the QCA methodology will provide critical insight into how rural communities have adopted innovative strategies for addressing needs and how these strategies may be replicated in other areas.

This study will be conducted by 2M Research (2M), a Small Business Administration (SBA) 8(a)-certified and HUBZone-certified, minority-owned, small disadvantaged research firm. 2M is joined by the Urban Institute. Together, the 2M-Urban Team consists of well-rounded professionals with expertise in human services programs and human services delivery in rural, tribal, and territorial contexts.


Point(s) of contact: Aleta Meyer and Lisa Zingman.

This study is registered on the Open Science Framework under the title Human Services Programs in Rural Contexts Visit disclaimer page .