By: Lee J. Zook
Spring 2002, Vol. 9, No. 2
The Smiths-A Rural Family
by Lee J. Zook, Ph.D.
The following is a combination of family situations I know as a result of living in a rural community. I have used this case in an exam for a meso-methods course that I teach. The questions that I raise at the end are questions that I have never completely answered for myself. I would learn from a discussion of the case by social worker students and others.
One thing that strikes me as students discuss the case is that their own cultural understanding of rural farm life becomes involved in the case itself. Various students have reported that this reminds them of their own families-sometimes their parents’ family of origin. Other students seem not to relate personally to the case at all. I see the case as a specific opportunity to educate students about the realities of rural life, but more broadly, the implications of understanding culture that is or is not like one' own, especially when working with families.
Imagine you are a professional working as a social worker in a family service agency. Mrs. Smith, age 63, comes to your agency because of her depression. She is self-referred. You know Mrs. Smith and the family, because they live in the same county and attend your church. Everybody in town knows this family, as they are seen as leaders in the church and the community.
In a very short period of time, you learn a great deal of information about Mrs. Smith and her family. She is very open with you and quite able to articulate her concerns.
Mrs. Smith is the mother of three adult children-Tom, who is 24, Kathy, who is 29, and Harry, who is 35. Harry, married to Mary, lives on the family farm with his two young children-Sam, 14, and Susan, 9. They live in the farmhouse where Mrs. Smith grew up and raised her family. In fact, Mrs. Smith' family has owned and lived on this farm since settlers moved to the area about 150 years ago. The farm is termed a Century Farm, so designated because the same family has owned it for over a hundred years.
The elder Smiths still own the land and buildings on the farm, though Harry has purchased some of the equipment needed to maintain and work the farm. Harry and Mary actually pay rent to the elder Smiths for the use of the farmland. Mr. Smith does a great deal of work on the farm but does not get a salary from the farm, as he now draws Social Security. Mr. and Mrs. Smith live in a house trailer about 100 yards from the farmhouse. When Mary and Harry were first married, they lived in the house trailer, but when their second child, Susan, was born, the elder and younger Smiths exchanged residences so the children could have separate bedrooms.
Tom, who is single, is attending graduate school in agribusiness at State University. He thinks he may like to come back to the Smith homestead and farm sometime.
Kathy lives in a city several hours from the Smith homestead. She works as an account executive with a fast-growing software company and is very successful. Her husband is an accountant with a well-known consulting firm. They do not have any children. Each of them individually earns more income than the farm generates.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith are members of a Lutheran church in the small town several miles away from their home. Mrs. Smith is active in a variety of church activities and Mr. Smith accompanies her to some of these activities, also taking some leadership roles in the church, but more often in the local community. He is actively involved in the Lions Club and the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars).
The younger Smiths do not attend the same church the elder Smiths do. Mary was raised Catholic, and she and Harry are marginally involved in the Catholic church in town. Neither Mary nor Harry feels that church is very important. Mrs. Smith sometimes feels that a part of the problem is that Mary is not from the same church and doesn’t seem to appreciate the same family and holiday traditions as the Smith family.
Mary grew up in a small unincorporated town about 15 miles from the Smith farm. Her mother and younger sister, who is married and has several children, still live there. They visit periodically, but Mary usually goes to visit her mother and younger sister since she can see both of them at the same time. Besides, she likes to get away from the Smith homestead some of the time. Her father died about eight years ago.
Sam, the 14-year-old, spends most of his time at home with his parents and attending the local small town school, where he is in the ninth grade. He is involved in some after-school activities. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as Mary and Harry, enjoy going to the band concerts and sports events when Sam is performing. Susan is in third grade and doing well in school. Susan is sometimes jealous of all the after-school activities Sam does and tries to draw the attention of the adults by butting into conversations others hold with Sam. Both of the children do well in school academically. Sam is quite embarrassed about being on the reduced lunch program-a result of the low income the household generates. Sam helps around the farm some of the time, but not on a regular basis, as he is too busy with school and extracurricular activities.
Mr. Smith and Harry often argue about farm practices and money matters over coffee in the trailer house. Mrs. Smith overhears these conversations but tries to stay out of them, as she thinks they are discouraging. Mary does not help with the farm work, as she is too busy with her household and children. Mrs. Smith understands that Mary is busy but also remembers that when she was Mary' age, she was working with her husband on the farm, especially during planting and harvesting time. Mary complains to Mrs. Smith that Harry works too hard and spends too much time with Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the farm.
At times, Harry talks to his mother when his father is not around and tries to convince her to agree with him about new farm practices he wants to pursue. Harry thinks there would be increased income and more money for all of them if only he and his father would farm differently. He makes the case to both his mother and father that his brother Tom knows that the things he wants to do are helpful. He also points out that the State Extension Service, an arm of State University where Tom is a student, agrees with the ideas he has. He seems to get some of his ideas from Tom, as well as from the farm papers and journals he subscribes to or that Tom sends him.
Mr. Smith grumbles to his wife that Harry is too intent on trying out newfangled ideas that he gets from his brother Tom-ideas that Mr. Smith says are not worth trying and would cost the farm operation more money, not create more income. Mrs. Smith feels caught in the middle between her husband and her eldest son. She is the bookkeeper for the farming operation. She has felt more and more depressed over the past few years, as the farm seems less and less profitable.
Kathy, the Smiths’ daughter, is not a regular part of these family issues, but when the Smiths all gather at Harry and Mary' house for holidays, she hears about how the farm is not doing very well financially and makes suggestions, trying to be helpful. She also talks to her husband about her concern that the farm, which is worth about a half million dollars, is not doing well and that if the family lost it in the future, all the adult Smith children would be negatively affected. After all, the farm has always been seen as a family treasure that symbolizes hope for a sound financial future, as well as their family heritage.
Questions to discuss
- Who is the client? Which of the Smiths would the social worker include in sessions? Would the social worker be dealing with the problem of Mrs. Smith' depression or a larger family problem?
- How do the social worker' values or ideology about family life affect the decision about who is seen?
- How does the social worker' knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of rural farm life influence the work with this family?
- In what ways might the worker' knowledge of and personal values about rural life affect the outcome of this case?
After seeing the client for some time and making some progress, the social worker learns from the client that the farm is in real financial difficulty and the bank is talking of foreclosing on the operating loan, which could mean the family would lose the farm.
- How might this change how the social worker would work with this family?
- With what new activities or resources might the social worker become involved?
Lee J. Zook, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.