A shortage of quality housing and struggling downtowns were among the top challenges rural community members face, according to consultants who help small towns identify and solve problems.
Save Your Towns is an Oklahoma and Mississippi-based group co-founded by Becky McCray and Deb Brown. They work to educate people on low- or no-cost solutions to problems in small towns across the U.S. and elsewhere.
Since 2015, the women have been surveying residents about their towns. Survey participation is voluntary and self-selected, not based on scientific polling methods, but the online survey does offer a range of responses from people who identify as rural.
This year’s survey found that in addition to housing and downtowns, other challenges were not enough volunteers, losing young people, and a lack of childcare.
Brown said the top community assets are natural resources, outdoor recreation, tourism, committed people in a good workforce, effective leaders, and arts, culture, and events.
“Having said all of that, there are some big disconnects,” she told the Daily Yonder. “We uncovered that between what rural people want and what services and assistance are commonly offered to them.”
Brown said business owners and leaders said usable buildings are harder to find than loans, and they showed little interest in needing support with business plans or pitch competitions.
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 SmallBizSurvival.com, from media coverage and cooperating groups that publicized the survey.
Respondents self-identified themselves as rural, and 206 identified themselves as business owners. Participants included 295 from the United States, 11 from Canada, and six from Australia.
The self-selected participants were more optimistic about the economy than people who participated in the Daily Yonder’s 2022 scientific, randomized poll of rural voters.
In the Daily Yonder’s survey in October, nearly three quarters of rural respondents said the economy was not working well for them, and half said they expected their financial situation would get worse in the next year.
Poll director Celinda Lake said at the time that she was stunned by the depth of pessimism in the responses.
In the SaveYour.Town survey, nearly 40% of participants responded positively to the question, “Do you think your community will be better off in 10 years?”
“Rural people were twice as likely to say they were optimistic about their community’s future, as were negative about their community’s future,” she added. About half of respondents were neutral on the question.
“I was very happy to see how optimistic people were. And I think the thing that really surprised me, I was really pleased and surprised to see that events and arts and culture and education, and tourism were listed as one of the top community assets.”
McCray said the pair love to hear that people are using the survey results for educational purposes.
“We know it gets global attention,” McCray said. “Because what rural people say they need doesn’t always match the things that they’re offered, or the stories that we read, or the things that we hear on TV, or the reports, for example.”