Redefining rural resilience: Voices shaping a new economic narrative

Collage of different people above rural landscape

By Thea Anderson

We believe that the economy must work for everyone. But for too long, many people and communities have been overlooked and undervalued. That is why we have engaged new partners and audiences in conversations about how they see the economy and their role within it. To that end, we initiated an experimental set of grants over the past three years focused specifically on understanding how different communities across rural and small-town America think, talk, and see their role in the economy today and how these experiences can shape a new economy.

In pursuing this work, we wanted to learn how rural Americans envision an inclusive economy, one that takes into account unique histories, cultures, and sense of place. We were also eager to understand what types of issues, messages, and messengers carried the greatest resonance with different audiences. We found that different rural audiences’ views on the economy broadly reflected feelings of deep loss, neglect, and shared trauma, often touching on issues at the intersection of personal identity and broader structural, institutional, and systemic biases. At the same time, we found strong undercurrents of hope for a better future defined by resilience and a strong set of shared values.

Listen and learn

We engaged three learning partners, who facilitated dialogues and conducted surveys, balancing the need to learn directly from lived and shared experiences without being extractive:

  • The Center for Rural Strategies conducted surveys in 12 states and facilitated eight story circles in Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They sparked conversations with open-ended prompts that encouraged participants to reflect on what “the economy” meant to them and how it affected them, their families, and communities.
  • Partners for Rural Impact brought together artists and groups of young people from eastern Kentucky, southern Louisiana, and Laramie, Wyoming. They explored how to define concepts like “rural” and the importance of centering place by looking at the past and present and visioning the future for their communities. Participants collaborated across geographies to respond to these queries, demonstrating how the arts can be used to help empower and shape new narratives about young adults in rural America.
  • Convened by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Commission on Reimagining Our Economy started with the belief that the health of a democracy is inextricably linked to the health of its economy. The Commission held 31 listening sessions, including with rural and related tribal leaders in Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana South Dakota, and Tennessee, to understand how Americans are doing economically, rather than how “the economy” is doing.

Trends and themes

Across the research, we found a strong set of core beliefs and, through our own sense-making, identified common themes about attitudes, as well as learnings that may be relevant for other philanthropies seeking to engage in this space.

First, we learned that generally, rural Americans feel the economy is not working and, more personally, is not built for them.

This sentiment of “unfairness” is not surprising, given that many rural communities are experiencing severe levels of economic precarity. Across the research, respondents noted high levels of debt, especially medical, and limited assets to withstand shocks and protracted stressors. Many expressed the belief that their communities, as well as their individual and collective contributions to the country, are being ignored. This sentiment, combined with years of neglect related to public infrastructure, have taken a toll. For example, communities in eastern Kentucky impacted by historical flooding in 2023 expressed they’ve “supported the country’s growth for the past 100 years” at their own expense. And now, the country is “turning its back” on them. This is especially true of areas that have historically been associated with extractive industry, such as coal, oil, and iron ore mining.

In line with broader national trends, rural Americans that identified as Republicans in the surveys were the most pessimistic about the economy, while Democrats and Independents were more split. However, the Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Project found three economic-focused messages with a high level of resonance. Specifically, a populist message focused on corporate greed, a pitch for lowering prices, and bringing good-paying jobs to local communities all “received such broad support that they rivaled voters’ agreement on core values like family and freedom.” When it comes to rural audiences, approaching economic conversations through the lens of combatting corporate greed appears to offer particularly fertile ground.

This is likely connected to a deeper belief that we heard over and over again across our partner engagements — that the system has been “rigged to benefit wealthy corporations at the expense of rural and small-town America.” Examples of the fallout from anti-competitive policies are rife across rural America: limited competition by internet providers that drives up prices, unregulated and costly payday lending, even the closing and consolidation of local media outlets that weakened shared connections and left few trusted alternatives to offset potential misinformation and disinformation, especially with rapid advances in AI. In their report, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recommended that elected officials and government institutions work to curb concentrations of economic power, hold corporations accountable, and close loopholes to stop price gouging in order to help address these concerns.

Second, despite these external pressures, many rural Americans maintain a strong sense of identity related to community and work.

That can be a double-edged sword. As many small-town industries have faded or moved overseas, the sense that the wider world does not always value rural workers — as people, laborers, crafters, and caregivers — increased, and people’s sense of identity and connection to America as a whole has weakened. Some audiences expressed the need for stronger worker voice to advocate for better working conditions and to trust workers. Where companies like Walmart have driven out competition and pushed down salaries, there may be limited ability to mobilize and for collective action. However, there are pockets of positive movement, such as the farmer-led “right to repair” movement against disruptive technologies and monopolization in the agriculture equipment repair market and the push to organize Dollar General workers across the South.

Third, we found a schism in the beliefs of younger and older rural Americans.

As part of their work, Partners for Rural Impact sought insights from younger audiences, ages 17–23. They found a sense of isolation and struggle to find “their people,” as well as a deep desire to belong. Respondents clearly felt the weight of shared trauma and have a keener sense of wealth gaps and limitations on their upward mobility. At the same time, this younger population was also more likely to identify systemic issues as the root of their problems, rather than individual personal failures, particularly around areas like debt. They were also more open to the government creating opportunities that will have a positive impact for everyone. They were quick to call out the need to focus on climate change, the damages left by extractive industries, and privatization of what was once public land.

Moving forward

We encourage other organizations intent on engaging with the wide range of rural audiences on the economy to keep the following in mind:

  • Rural Americans are protagonists in the story of change and engines for the economy. It is critical to recognize the depth of what many have lost and honor what different communities have contributed over time and continue to give.
  • “Being rural” can be a spot on the map, a sense of place, or a shared history. It does not mean being removed from outside influence or being ruled by outdated stereotypes. Twenty percent of the US populationcannot be viewed as a monolith. Rural Americans are not a monolith. It is crucial to consider a wide range of factors that might influence their experiences and mindsets, such as age, race, income, education, tribal affiliation, and religious background.
  • It is important to both respect incumbent players and make space for new actors. Support for rural-based Black, Latine, and tribal organizations and leaders, as well as organizations led by disabled and LGBTQIA rural Americans, is needed.
  • Philanthropy has an often-disserved reputation of being extractive in rural America. What levers offer shared value? Consider both financial and non-financial levers of support. Beyond polling and research, how can we use the arts and cultural interventions to unpack complex questions and influential messengers?
  • And particularly for nationally focused funders and partners, it’s important to “think local,” as there is greater trust placed in local leaders and place-based policies to bring about change, over national and state-level leaders and institutions.

Finally, while some of the polling seems to tell a story of frustration, insights via more qualitative “story circles” showcased how people buoyed and encouraged each other. Few participants spoke from a position of despair or fatalism. Most expressed determination to work independently and together with neighbors to make things work and build a new generative economy based on values, culture, and places. We’ve embodied that same spirit as we explore, with partners and grantees, how to better understand, engage, and support rural voices on economic issues.