An exodus of rural youth, less leisure time and less community attachment all contribute to a manpower shortage among many volunteer emergency medical services, a sociology professor says.

Rural youth frequently leave home for opportunities in bigger cities, said Deborah Smith, professor and chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“You can’t get away from the idea that young people are leaving rural areas and they’re not coming back,” Smith said.

“It used to be people either would not leave their communities, so they had a lot of ties to their communities, or you would have people who were younger who would go away, go to college, get some training, whatever, and then come back, maybe to be near family,” she said. “People just aren’t coming back, because the opportunities aren’t there any more.”

People are more mobile and thus tend to be less attached to a community than they used to be. Add to that increased fears of communicable diseases and violence, and the scales tip further against emergency medical service volunteering, Smith said.

“I get really confused and saddened when I hear what people don’t know about even just the human body…There’s so much misinformation about health concerns that people might say, ‘I don’t want to go into somebody else’s house,'” she said. “And also the aspect of violence. Maybe they’ll get shot.”

Add to that a cultural bias toward getting paid for hard work and dedication.

“In the United States, we only think that you have value when you work for pay,” Smith said.

Fewer people can ignore those considerations because many spend more time and energy struggling just to subsist, she said.

“Twenty to thirty years ago you could have one person who had a full-time job if you had two parents in the house. You could have one person have a full-time job and then maybe one person have a part-time job, and then you could make that household be solidly middle class,” she said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

“There’s people that keep having to work three and four jobs just to make ends meet,” Smith said. “People are just literally exhausted.”

Even if one has the energy, EMS volunteering may be unrealistic.

“You have people that work at Dollar General. You have people that work at McDonald’s and their shifts change every week. So you can’t (say), ‘OK, I’ll work (for the EMS) every Tuesday night’ because you don’t know if two weeks from now Tuesday night is going to be available,” she said.

“Then if there’s only one parent in the household, who’s going to take care of the kids?”

“We’re just always so ‘on’ with things that we have to get done. We have to make sure our kids are fed,” Smith said. “We have to make sure that our car has gas. And that’s a huge amount of stress on people, particularly low-income people, and those are the folks that are more likely to live in rural areas.”

“What’s happening is our unpaid social cohesion and our social volunteerism is taking a hit because everyone is working all the time,” she said.

MORE: Wanted: EMS volunteers in rural areas

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