Survey of Rural Challenges 2019 results


What small town people see as their biggest challenges

And what topics rural people most want help with

Wouldn’t it be great if the people who say they want to help rural people would actually listen to rural people’s own challenges?! That’s why we created this survey!

We use the results to create practical steps that help you shape a better future for your town. Your responses also get shared out to others who work with rural communities through articles and media stories.

Using these survey results, we developed a free video of action steps you can take to shape the future of your town or the towns you serve.

Get the Action Steps Video

Word cloud of responses: people, need, help, town, community, opportunities

2019 Survey Results

Surprise! Stereotypes didn’t hold up

The survey asks rural people what challenges they most want help with and what actions they are taking to address them. The results don’t match the common themes in media coverage and policy conversation around rural communities.

  • Are rural people focused on well-publicized crises like opioid addiction or poverty? No, other challenges were selected much more often. Crime and drug abuse ranked in the bottom five of the standard choices. In their own words, fewer than a dozen people each mentioned drug abuse or poverty. Three times as many mentioned negative or angry people as a top challenge they’d like help with. 
  • Are most rural communities devastated by lost factories, closing mines or damaging natural disasters? No, “our town has suffered a terrible blow” remains one of the least chosen options on all three rounds of the survey in 2015, 2017 and 2019. 
  • Is the lack of small business lending a big challenge in small towns? Needing a business loan did not made it into the list of top 5 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 2 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 5 in all three rounds of the survey.

Here is a graph of all the choices offered on the 2019 survey ranked in order of how often people chose them. (Click to see it larger)

Question 1 - Which of these rural challenges would you be excited if we talked more about facing them? Pick as many as you would be thrilled to learn more about. Responses: Losing our young people 48%. Downtown is dead 47%. Not enough good housing 46%. Need new residents 39%. No one shops in town 38%. Missing tourism opportunities 35%. Nothing to do here 35%. Another challenge 30%. Awful internet service 28%. No one volunteers 25%. Crime and drug abuse 23%. Everybody's fighting 21%. Local stores are outdated 20%. Town suffered a blow 10%. No one uses social media 7%.

Small-town Business Owner Challenges

Almost ½ 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 5.

“Marketing isn’t working” has been consistently in the second spot, and “Opening later hours without success” remains in the top 5 on all three surveys. Online competition moved up to 3rd this year from 6th in 2017 and 2015. Needing a business idea returned to the top 5 after dropping to 9th in 2017.

Here is a graph of all the choices offered on the 2019 survey ranked in order of how often people chose them. (Click to see it larger)

Which of these rural business challenges would you be excited if we talked about them? Choose as many as you would be thrilled to learn more about. Responses: Can't find good employees 53%. Marketing isn't working 31%. Online competitors 25%. Later hours not working 23%. Need a business idea 23%. Can't get a loan 22%. Need a usable building 22%. Need to sell business 18%. Juggling multiple businesses 16%. Hate business plans 14%. Hate doing accounting 13%.

What’s working

A new question in 2019 asked people what they or their community are trying to address their challenges. The four choices ranked in this order.

  1. Traditional economic development groups
  2. Informal idea copying
  3. Formal programs
  4. Other things

Traditional economic development was the clear top choice with over 75%, and informal copying of ideas was chosen in over 50% of the responses.

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.

Each community is different, and different people from within a single community can see the challenges and opportunities differently.

Diversity in rural people and communities

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 fifty 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 5 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.

What next? Action steps you can take

Deb Brown and Becky McCray, co-founders of Save Your dot Town

Using these survey results, Becky McCray and Deb Brown developed a special video of action steps you can take to shape the future of your town or the towns you serve. There is no charge.

Get the Action Steps Video

Press and Media Information

About the survey methodology

The survey was open for approximately 6 weeks in June and July 2019. A total of 680 responses were collected online, from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and and from media coverage and cooperating groups that chose to publicize the survey. Respondents identified themselves as rural, and 320 identified themselves as business owners by responding to the business question. Participants included 623 from the USA, 39 from Canada, 13 from Australia and 5 from other international locations.

Survey results report PDF

You can download a PDF report of the survey results here.

Previous results from the Survey of Rural Challenges

The 2017 survey results are available here and the 2015 survey results are available here.

About SaveYour.Town

SaveYour.Town believes small towns can be saved by their own people using their existing assets. 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 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, Small Biz Survival, 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 and has her own business

Talking Points

  • People told us the biggest challenges in their communities and local businesses
  • These survey results don’t match common rural stereotypes and media themes
  • For all the policy distress over small business lending, people say usable buildings are harder to find than loans in small towns.
  • Despite the media obsession with lost factories and mines, rural people are more interested in makers.
  • Defying stereotypes of poverty and drug abuse, local businesses are more concerned with effective marketing and keeping up with technology.
  • The survey also ran in 2015 and 2017
  • Rural people see diversity in their communities beyond color
  • Everyone doesn’t know everyone in small towns: Marketing isn’t working for local businesses
  • Online competition is stiff, how can local businesses survive
  • People opened up about how negativity, officials and opposition are the most complex challenge
  • Across all the responses, the three main themes were:
    • Trouble getting things going and keeping them going
    • Trouble keeping up with the rapidly changing business environment
    • Other people don’t do what you want them to
  • The rural market: 67 million in US and Canada
  • Looking at what rural people themselves say their challenges are can help companies avoid cultural mis-steps and stereotyped approaches that could sink their marketing efforts.

Photos and Logos

Survey of Rural Challenges: what small town people see as their biggest challenges and what topics rural people most want help with. See the results at
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The Survey of Rural Challenges is brought to you by Becky McCray and Deb Brown, and by and SaveYour.Town

Becky McCray and Deb Brown

Word cloud of responses: people, need, help, town, community, opportunities
Word cloud of how people worded their own challenges

Save Your dot Town logotype

Small Biz Survival: The Rural and Small Town Business Resource

Website and social media links

Survey Results Pages and News Rooms: (both are identical, can link to either)


LinkedIn: Becky McCray, Deb Brown

Twitter: @BeckyMcCray, @DebWorks, @SBSurvival@SaveYourTown

Instagram: @BeckyMcCray, @DebraInIowa, @SaveYourTown

Facebook: Small Biz SurvivalSaveYour.Town

For more info contact

Becky McCray


Deb Brown