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What do rural people say are their biggest challenges?


December 22, 2019

The Survey of Rural Challenges asked rural and small town people what challenges they most want help with and what actions they are taking to address them. Stereotyped answers like drug abuse, poverty or a lack of business lending didn’t rank in the top results.

Along with my colleague Deb Brown of SaveYour.Town, we asked 680 rural people what their challenges were and what they most wanted help with. The results don’t match the common themes in media coverage and policy conversation around rural communities.

Much national media coverage focuses on rural crises like opioid addiction or poverty, but rural people ranked crime and drug abuse in the bottom five from the list of choices on the survey. In their own words, three times as many mentioned negative or angry people as a top challenge they’d like help with.

Often national media will rush to cover a town devastated by the loss of a factory, closing mine or damaging natural disaster. That’s not reflected in rural people’s own words in this survey. The option “Our town has suffered a terrible blow” remains one of the least chosen on all three rounds of the survey in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Policy discussion often focuses on the lack of small business lending as a major barrier for small town businesses. On the survey, needing a business loan did not make it onto the list of top five challenges chosen. More than twice as many people selected the lack of good employees as a challenge.

Rural Community Challenges

Top five concerns at the community-wide level this year are very similar to the results from 2017 and 2015.

1. Losing young people

2. Downtown is dead

3. Not enough good housing

4. Need new residents

5. No one shops in town

“Losing young people” and “Downtown is dead” have dominated the top two spots in 2015, 2017 and 2019. “Not enough good housing” is a new entry that wasn’t included as a choice in the 2017 or 2015 surveys. “No one shops in town” also appears in the top five in all three rounds of the survey.

Small-town Business Owner Challenges

Almost half of those surveyed identified themselves as current or prospective small business owners. Here are the top five challenges they chose.

1. Can’t find good employees

2. Marketing isn’t working

3. People buy from online competitors

4. Tried opening later hours without success

5. Need a business idea

A new choice, “Can’t find good employees” was chosen by over 50% of respondents making it the number one challenge. It replaced a previous choice, “Need help but cannot hire,” in the top five. “Marketing isn’t working” has been consistently in the second spot, and “Opening later hours without success” remains in the top five on all three surveys. Online competition moved up to third this year from sixth in 2017 and 2015. Needing a business idea returned to the top five after dropping to ninth in 2017.

In their own words

When offered the opportunity to share more in their own words about challenges, what is working, or anything else, 389 people shared more. Their responses can be grouped into these general categories with both positive and negative themed responses.

1. Government, leadership or officials

2. Business and economy issues

3. Community teamwork, volunteers and engagement

4. Non-government programs such as Main Street, Chamber of Commerce and many others

5. Workforce, employees or jobs

Here are some of the individual responses.

• Team work is what is working and working best. What isn’t working is thinking that the money pool is the [economic development group] or Chamber [of Commerce]

• There is a group of us that are willing to try new things and looking for ideas. There are some in town who are stuck in the old way of doing things. We are starting small and I think the big will come. With each idea, it seems like more ideas are starting to happen.

• The empty building tour worked well. We will be planning another one for the fall. Getting everyone working together is not working well.

• After losing some major employers, some people have opened businesses, also some spin-offs related to remaining businesses. Landing the “big one,” outside employer, has not been successful.

• A group of progressive minded “young” (30 to 55) leaders have joined together to celebrate what is right about our community and to make some fun things happen.

Naturally, some of these answers contradict each other. Each community is different, and different people from within a single community can see the challenges and opportunities differently.


How diverse were survey respondents? An open-ended question invited people to say if there were ways they considered themselves diverse, and 278 people chose to answer. Some answered with their own personal diversity, but most answered about their community at large.

More rated their communities as diverse than not.

Over 50 percent more people said their communities were diverse than the number of people who said their communities were not diverse. Over 70 people said their community was diverse now or increasingly diverse. Another 43 responded with average or not sure; and 42 said no, not diverse or not applicable.

The top five most common descriptive answers were grouped into these rough categories.

1. Color, race, ethnicity or cultural origin

2. Age

3. Education, skills or technology use

4. Businesses, professions or commerce

5. Cultures, ideas and ways of thinking

The grouping of cultures and ways of thinking includes common perspective divides such as new vs. longtime residents, farm vs. town, city/urban vs. rural/small town, and full time vs. part time residents.

Gender spectrum and LGBTQIA diversity featured in over 50 of the responses. Diversity in income or class, disability, family makeup, religion, political views and military service were also mentioned.

For more information

You’ll find more information on the methodology and links to prior survey results at


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