August 15, 2019

Resilient Economies and Economic Security in Rural Communities

Two men at Coalfield Community Development Corporation

This is the fourth post in a five-part series on challenges and opportunity in rural communities.

Other posts in this series: 

Many rural residents experience economic security challenges. Since the Great Recession, rural communities across the United States (U.S.) have struggled to recover jobs and retain residents. Median household incomes are generally lower in rural communities, compared to urban ones. Nearly a quarter of rural children lived in poverty in 2016. 

This is the fifth blog in our series about opportunity challenges experienced by rural residents and innovative solutions being developed by our partners. Here, we focus on the economic security dimension of Enterprise’s Opportunity360 framework, which highlights challenges and opportunities of accessing jobs and financial resources in rural communities. 

What is economic security?

Economic security refers to the ability of individuals or families to cover their essential needs in sustainable and dignified ways. Conditions of economic insecurity have been found to be associated with the experience of physical pain. Many displaced workers experience declines in their mental health, including higher levels of depression, anxiety, and losses of self-confidence. Low-income children experiencing poverty are also more likely to enter school behind their peers and score lower on achievement tests. 

Our Opportunity360 framework highlights the important role of economic security in residents’ lives, as measured at a census tract level through a composite index score. This score is calculated using four standardized variables: median household income, percent of people in poverty, unemployment rate and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s labor market engagement index score.

Who experiences economic insecurity in rural communities?

While economic insecurity is experienced by all types of rural residents, some may be especially vulnerable. Rural residents with disabilities experience higher poverty rates, and many have difficulties securing a job. Dairy farmers are getting about two-thirds less for their milk now, compared to five years ago; the amount they receive is sometimes less than the cost of producing the milk. Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault may find the combination of rural isolation and economic insecurity substantially impacts their ability to escape or recover from abuse. 

Individuals may also experience conditions of economic security differently in rural communities, compared with those living in cities. Rural communities often lack a robust network of social service providers who can help individuals and families more easily access emergency resources and safety net programs. Access to affordable land may limit the long-term economic security of farmers of color who do not usually inherit farmland. Employers looking to hire rural workers may not be able to find or retain them in communities lacking affordably priced homes. 

Where do rural residents face the greatest challenges to economic security?

A look at our Opportunity360 economic security index scores can help us see where rural residents may find it especially difficult to experience economic security. These scores represent nationwide percentile rankings of census tracts. A score of 50 means that a tract is in the 50th percentile—half of all tracts in the country have a higher score and half have a lower score.

A map of the country’s rural economic security index scores helps us see the location of tracts with lower scores. Looking at the map, the lightest purple tracts make up large shares of rural tracts in the Deep South and Appalachia including the states of Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana.

These light purple tracts also extended across into Oklahoma and New Mexico. In 2017, about 10-37% of rural tracts in these states had economic security scores in the lowest quartile of states which is probably an underestimate due to data limitations.

How are partners innovating to help improve the economic security of rural residents?

In response to these challenges, Enterprise’s partners are working to develop and implement creative and innovative community-based solutions. These solutions are designed to support the economic security of residents. 

In West Virginia, Enterprise’s partner Coalfield Development Corporation is pioneering a relationship-based holistic approach to on-the-job training. Their workforce development program is part social enterprise incubator and part training program.

Unemployed and underemployed residents are hired and participate in a 33-6-3 weekly work schedule that includes 33 hours of paid labor, 6 hours of higher education class time, and 3 hours of life-skills mentorship. Since 2009, Coalfield Development Corporation has trained 850 people, helped 95 alumni move into full-time careers, and supported and grown 40 new businesses in a variety of sectors including real estate development, construction, agriculture, and artisan trades. 

The Blue Sky Sustainable Living Center in New Cuyama, California is engaging in creative efforts to foster a resilient rural economy through a combination of arts, entrepreneurship, food systems, and housing initiatives. Blue Sky actively promotes the development of social-ventures by providing support to small businesses through their repurposed buildings and shop spaces.

Their Stay Cuyama initiative supports a model of conscious tourism which helps diversify the local economy and bring awareness for rural agriculturally-based communities. They are also using $30,000 in funds from Enterprise to engage arts programming to bring cross-cultural and multi-generational groups together in support of a sustainable local economy built on a foundation of safe, affordable, and efficient homes. 


Across the country, many rural residents experience difficulties accessing jobs and financial resources. With support from Enterprise, organizations working at the intersection of housing and economic security are responding to these needs by helping members of their communities access affordably-priced homes, overcome challenges to employment, and support sustainable rural economies.

For more information about how Enterprise and its partners are supporting rural and tribal residents, visit Enterprise’s Rural and Native American Initiative.

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