Rural communities were not immune to the chaos of 2020, but remained more concerned with ongoing challenges.
To find out what rural people felt were their biggest challenges, SaveYour.Town and SmallBizSurvival.com surveyed over 280 rural people in the fourth quarter of 2020. The results make up this fourth edition of the Survey of Rural Challenges.
Challenges stemming from the pandemic and economic crisis were ranked as less important than long-existing rural challenges.
Continuing challenges with losses in housing, business and population ranked as the highest rural community challenges. The ongoing lack of workers, stiff competition from online businesses, and marketing ranked as the highest challenge to rural small businesses.
Other preconception-changing results
Defying stereotyped media profiles of poverty, crime and drug abuse as the primary rural challenges, rural people ranked these lowest of all community challenges.
Although rural economic development often centers around jobs, it was one of the least-mentioned challenges in this survey.
For all the concern over small business lending, rural people say usable buildings are as hard or harder to find than loans.
Rural small business owners show little interest in business plan assistance, yet it remains a popular type of assistance offered to rural businesses.
More rural people said they needed an idea for a business to start than said they were worried their business would fail.
Rural Community Assets, Challenges
A new question for 2021 invited people to share more about their community, positive or negative. Over 100 responses were received.
Tourism, recreation, natural resources and bike trails were commonly mentioned assets (23 responses).
Caring people, volunteerism and effective local leaders were the next most common asset (20 responses).
Resistance to change, newcomers or new ideas were the most commonly cited challenges, in 20 responses.
Other challenges mentioned were widely disparate, receiving only a handful or responses or just one.
This may indicate a need for more customized support for the individual challenges of each community.
Rural Community Challenges ranked
The pandemic and economic crisis not only did not dominate the responses, but it also did not rank in the top ten challenges.
Housing, business and population losses continue to rank as the highest rural community challenges.
Top five concerns at the community-wide level this year are somewhat different from the results from 2019, 2017 and 2015.
The top five rural community challenges in 2021 were:
- Not enough good housing
- Downtown is dead
- Losing young people
- Need new residents
- Not enough volunteers
How this compares to previous survey results
“Not enough good housing” moved up from third in 2019, when it was a newly-offered choice.
“Losing young people” and “Downtown is dead” have appeared in the top five in all rounds of the survey.
“Need new residents” ranked in the top 5 in 2021, 2019 and 2017.
This is the first time that “Not enough volunteers” ranked in the top five.
Small-town Business Challenges ranked
The lack of workers and difficulties with marketing continue to challenge rural small businesses.
Online competition continued to increase pressure on rural small businesses, climbing to the second-highest ranking challenge.
Despite the pandemic and economic crisis, rural business owners ranked the likelihood of business failure and the inability to find a business loan as some of the lowest of all listed challenges.
Crisis relief loan packages may have played a role in supporting small businesses in late 2020 as this survey was being conducted. On previous surveys, inability to find a business loan scored from the middle to low: ranging from sixth to ninth of the eleven listed challenges, before dropping to eleventh this time.
The top five challenges ranked by rural small businesses were:
- Can’t find good employees
- Online competition
- Tried later hours without success
- Marketing isn’t working
- Need to sell my business
More than ⅓ of respondents identified themselves as current or prospective small business owners or having an interest in business challenges by answering this question.
How this compares to previous survey results
“Can’t find good employees” was the number one challenge in 2021 and 2019. Previously worded as “Need help but cannot hire,” it was in the top five in 2017 and 2015.
Online competition continues to move up, ranking sixth in 2017 and 2015, third in 2019, and second this year.
“Marketing isn’t working” and “Tried later hours without success” remain in the top five on all three surveys.
“Need to sell my business” ranked in the top five for the first time, and may reflect an increasing pressure on aging business owners.
Diversity in rural people and communities
An open-ended question invited participants to tell more about the diversity of their communities, including people of different ages, colors, languages, disabilities, genders or incomes.
Fewer than half of people (132 of 289) entered an answer. Approximately the same number of responses mentioned increasing diversity (33), no change or “is diverse” (29), and a lack of diversity (35).
Race, color or ethnicity were the most commonly mentioned types of diversity, appearing in 14 answers. Challenges with inclusivity, resistance, tension or factions were mentioned by 17 people. Aging population and losing young people were mentioned as a diversity challenge by 21 people.
Download the survey report
About the survey methodology
The survey was open from October 19, 2020 to January 1, 2021. A total of 289 responses were collected online from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and SmallBizSurvival.com, from media coverage and cooperating groups that publicized the survey.
Respondents identified themselves as rural, and 101 identified themselves as business owners by responding to the business question. Participants included 276 from the USA, four from Canada, four from Australia and one from Mexico.
Based on SaveYour.Town customer data, most respondents likely serve as community leaders and officials, work in community and economic development, own their own businesses or work in a community-oriented business.
Presented at these conferences
- Oklahoma State University Rural Renewal Symposium
- National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association five Regional Meetings nationwide
Cited by these publications
Radio, TV, podcasts:
- Small town greatness, AARP Live, RFD-TV
- Today’s Interview: Becky McCray, of Save Your Town on leadership in flood stricken eastern Kentucky, with Tom Martin, WEKU
- Midwest Farm Report, “Save Your Small Town,” Wisconsin
- WOSU, All Sides with Ann Fisher, Changing landscape of rural America and small towns
- Insight on Business the News Hour with Michael Libbie podcast, radio 1540 KXEL
- Rural Route podcast with Trent Loos, May 2021, video and audio
- A Cleave within the Piney Woods: Nacogdoches, Stephen F. Austin State University and How Racial Integration Divided the Town and Gown, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas, thesis by Caitlin R. Hornback, 2022
Community planning reports and publications:
- Comprehensive Land Use Plan Update, Jones County Iowa, 2022
- Strategic Management Planning Program and Five-Year Financial Management Plan, Greene County, Pennsylvania, 2022
- Village of Hinckley, Illinois, Planning Commission Meeting minutes
- North Central Kansas Pandemic Recovery and Resiliency Plan, North Central Regional Planning Commission, 2021
- Public Policy in Contentious Times by Peter K. Kresl, 2021, published by Edward Elgar Publishing
- Cooperative Living Magazine, New Ways to Boost Rural Areas, October 2021
- High Plains Journal, Speaker shares tips on tackling rural housing challenges: SaveYour.Town co-founder taps into sever years of surveys with small communities
- Midwest Farm Report, “Rural Towns Recover From Pandemic,” Wisconsin
- LaJunta (Colorado) Tribune-Democrat – SaveYour.Town Survey of Rural Challenges pinpoints small town needs
- Rural Messenger, First Friday speaker shares tips on tackling rural housing challenges
- Idaho Business Review, National rural challenges survey on par with Idaho’s
- Kansas Ag Connection, First Friday speaker shares tips on tackling rural housing challenges
- The Paper, Dwight, Illinois, The Corner by Tom Tock, July 2021
- Miltonvale (Kansas) Record, June 2021
- Atchison County (Missouri) Development Corporation newsletter, June 2021 sent via Atchison County Mail newspaper saturation issue to all county residents
SaveYour.Town believes small towns can be saved by their own people using their own resources. Rural experts Deb Brown and Becky McCray joined forces in May 2015 to help small towns and rural communities thrive. They deliver speeches and presentations internationally, lead site visits and community brainstorming sessions, and create online videos and short courses of practical steps that can be put into action right away.
About Small Biz Survival
SmallBizSurvival.com publishes practical articles for rural small businesses. It was founded in January 2006 by Becky McCray from Oklahoma. It achieved top ranking among small business blogs on sites like Technorati, Invesp BlogRank and BizHumm, and it continues to appear on lists of top small business blogs. For her work as publisher, McCray has been named one of the Power Players in Technology Business Media and a Small Business Influencer Journalist four times.
Becky McCray is a lifelong small-town entrepreneur. As co-founder of Save Your.Town, she shares insights from her real-world experience as a business owner and cattle rancher. Throughout her career, rural has been the focus. She managed a retail store, served as city administrator and nonprofit executive, bought and sold antiques and taught classes in business and technology. Her practical perspective is featured at her highly-ranked website, SmallBizSurvival.com, and in her award-winning book, Small Town Rules. She’s been featured and quoted in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, podcasts and university publications. She makes her home base in Hopeton, Oklahoma, a community of 30 people.
Deb Brown is a small town enthusiast and expert for small towns. Her practical approach for getting communities into action right away has been shared at national conferences, local visits, service organizations and everything in between. Her wealth of experience includes foreign casualty insurance underwriting, bartending, retail management, selling knives around the US, leading a chamber and working with small towns. Deb has lived in tiny towns, small towns, small cities and a major metro city. Yet, she’s come home to a small town and travels to many other rural communities to help. She collaborates with Becky McCray at www.saveyour.town and has her own business www.BuildingPossibility.com.
Survey Results and News Room:
See analysis of all four rounds of the survey from 2015 to 2021
For more info contact
Becky McCray firstname.lastname@example.org
Deb Brown email@example.com