Survey of Rural Challenges 2023 results

To find out what rural people felt were their biggest challenges, SaveYour.Town and surveyed 315 rural people from the US, Canada and Australia between November 2022 and January 2023. The results make up this fifth edition of the Survey of Rural Challenges

Survey of Rural Challenges 2023 by debworks

Top conclusions from the survey

Rural people were twice as likely to say they were optimistic about their communities’ future as negative.

Continuing lack of housing, inactive downtowns and population losses ranked the highest as rural community challenges, joined by lack of child care.

The ongoing lack of workers, support services and usable buildings, stiff competition from online businesses, and marketing ranked the highest as challenges 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 continually ranked these near the bottom as community challenges. 

Rural businesses innovate. Far from stuck in their ways and out of date, the most common business assets listed in 2023 were innovative ideas and up-to-date marketing techniques. 

Although rural economic development often centers around jobs, it was one of the least-mentioned challenges in this survey. Rural people mentioned available jobs or good jobs as often as mentioning a lack of jobs or low paying jobs. 

For all the reports of a lack of small business lending, rural people said usable buildings are harder to find than loans, a continuing trend from previous surveys. 

Rural small business owners showed little or no interest in business plan assistance and pitch competitions, yet these types of assistance continue to be commonly offered to rural businesses.

Rural business people were more likely to mention that they needed help with marketing, starting a business, or receiving economic development incentives on par with those offered to recruit out-of-town firms. 

Awesome – such valuable info that should be shared far and wide!

Headshot of Leslie McLellan

Leslie McLellan

Tourism Currents

Rural community optimism

A new question in 2023 asked respondents “Do you think your community will be better off in 10 years?” 

Answers of 1 or 2 were considered negative, and answers of 4 or 5 were considered positive. More than twice as many people gave a positive response (119) than were negative (50) about their communities’ future. Almost as many were positive (119) as were neutral (136).

Nearly all of the survey participants responded to this question, 305 out of 315. 

Rural Community Challenges & Assets

Lack of housing, inactive downtowns and population losses continue to rank the highest as rural community challenges. Lack of childcare also ranks in the top 5.

The top five rural community challenges in 2023 were: 

  1. Shortage of good housing
  2. Downtown is dead
  3. Not enough volunteers 
  4. Losing young people
  5. Lack of childcare

More about rural community challenges

Through open-ended responses, participants could enter more detailed answers about their challenges. Out of 177 comments, the most common topics mentioned broke down into these rough categories. 

  • Attitudes: Poor leadership, sticking with outdated methods and infighting were mentioned by 39% of responses. 
  • Infrastructure: Empty buildings, a lack of housing or usable commercial buildings, broadband, water, wastewater, transportation featured in 26% of responses.
  • Economic opportunity: Lack of funding, lack of services and support for small businesses, and a need for a specific business in the community were mentioned in 26% of answers. 
Our newspaper The Estherville News used the Survey of Rural Challenges as a starting point to do some interviews with local people about their challenges. Our series earned second place as Best Series in the Iowa Newspaper Association awards. I love the Survey of Rural Challenges as a journalist, and we’ll have to find a new way to use the numbers to take the pulse of our community.
Screenshot of a newspaper front page.

Amy H. Peterson

Estherville News (Iowa),

Rural Community Assets

On the open-ended questions, people mentioned their community’s assets in 233 responses.  

Natural resources, land, outdoor recreation, location and tourism were the most common assets, mentioned in 64% of responses. 

Committed people, volunteers, an engaged community, workforce and effective local leaders were mentioned in 48% of the answers. 

Events, arts, education and culture came up in 32% of the comments. 

Local businesses, a thriving downtown, the variety of local businesses, business development and agriculture featured in 28% of responses. 

Infrastructure, buildings, housing, broadband and technology were considered an asset in 9% of answers. 

Healthcare was listed as an asset in 7% of responses. 

I enjoyed looking these over and will plan on using them for next year’s class. Very cool!

Headshot of Brian Whitacre

Brian Whitacre, Ph.D.

Professor and Jean & Patsy Neustadt Chair in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University

Small-town Business Challenges & Assets

The lack of workers and difficulties with marketing continue to challenge rural small businesses. Lack of support from government or agencies ranked second. Lack of usable buildings continues to climb in importance, breaking into the top five. 

The top five challenges ranked by rural small businesses were: 

  1. Lack of good workers
  2. Lack of support from agencies, government or organizations
  3. Need a usable building
  4. Online competition
  5. Marketing isn’t working

More about rural business challenges

Across the open-ended questions, people mentioned rural business challenges in 43 responses. 

The most common topics mentioned broke down into the following rough categories.

  • Small business assistance: 30% mentioned needing business assistance including a lack of competent service providers, support programs, training and technical assistance. 
  • Customer service challenges were mentioned by 26%. 
  • Competition: Big box stores and other competition were mentioned in 17% responses. 
  • Over 20 other issues were mentioned in the 43 responses, indicating a diversity of challenges facing rural small businesses.

Small-town Business Assets

Across the open-ended questions, people shared more about their business’s assets in 112 responses. More than twice as many of these responses listed assets as listed business challenges. 

People were the top small business asset. Caring people, loyalty, relationships and engagement came up in 22% of answers. Although the lack of workforce was the most commonly chosen challenge, nine people specifically mentioned their workforce as an asset.

Trying new ideas and new marketing was common. Almost 20% of answers included new ideas the business had tried successfully. Up-to-date marketing techniques were mentioned as assets in 12% of the answers. 

Customer service was mentioned positively in 13% of answers. More people mentioned it as an asset (16) than listed it as a challenge (11). 

The community was called an asset to their small business in 9% of answers. 

Thank you for preparing this survey and sharing the results.  As we work to listen and then tackle these important issues, data like this is extremely helpful.  Keep up the great work and thank you for all that you do.

Headshot of Jason Duff

Jason Duff

Small Nation

The makeup of rural communities 

An open-ended question invited participants to tell more about the makeup of their communities. 

Race, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds including White, Black, Hispanic or Latino, Native American or Indigenous, Francophone and general diversity were mentioned in 95% of answers. 

Age was included in 69% of responses. Two-thirds of those answers mentioned elderly or aging populations specifically.

Income or education levels were mentioned in 35% of responses. 

All other groups were mentioned in few answers. People mentioned openness to different groups, challenges or lack of acceptance, and lack of opportunities for differing people. Less than 6% brought up politics. 

Charts and more detail in the report

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About the survey methods

The survey was open from November 11, 2022 to January 31, 2023. A total of 315 responses were collected online from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and, from media coverage and cooperating groups that publicized the survey. 

Respondents identified themselves as rural by completing the survey, and 206 identified themselves as business owners by responding to the business question. Participants included 295 from the USA, eleven from Canada and six from Australia.

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, work in a community-oriented business or volunteer informally in their community. 

Previous surveys and more

Find the previous surveys back through 2015, and more information at

Keywords and classification:

  • Survey of Rural Challenges
  • Rural surveys and polls 
  • What rural people need and want
  • What a small town needs 
  • Rural people needs and wants 
  • Rural challenges
  • Small town issues
  • Urban-rural divide
  • Rural policy 
  • Diversity in rural communities
  • Diverse small towns
  • Rural assistance programs

For more info contact

Becky McCray

Deb Brown