Chapter 9: Making a Living in Rural Communities

In Chapter 9, “Making a Living in Rural Communities,” we take an in-depth look at the restructuring of rural economic life over the last four decades. This chapter highlights the key issues and changes associated with making a living in rural spaces, including: shifts in traditional rural jobs in extractive and manufacturing jobs, rural employment in services, urban-rural pay disparities, rural worker labor market preparation, and rural economic vulnerability. However, rural economies are diverse and general trends often do not completely describe the changes occurring within particular places or regions. We then examine several trends that may represent positive developments for rural people and places. For example, technology, and especially information technology, may reduce the effects of rural isolation, incentivizing producer services to invest in rural spaces. Many rural communities benefit from amenity-based economic development, although this can also come at the cost of the creation of new social inequalities. Overall, we argue that rural economic development should consider both regional development strategies as well as localized strategies that are responsive to local needs and assets.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. What is the difference between “industry” and “occupation” as used in research on local economy? Discuss why this distinction is important for examining the changing opportunity structures of rural economies.

2. What is the main difference between “unemployment” and “under-employment”? Why is this distinction important for understanding the changing nature of rural economies, the determinants of rural poverty, and other important aspects of economic security and wellbeing?

3. What is meant by “globalization”? Identify and discuss positive and negative ways in which globalization has affected rural economies.

4. Why do many poor people remain in rural places lacking good jobs, effective institutions, and economic opportunities? Do you think many of them would be better off by moving to urban areas? In what ways?

5. As this chapter highlights, fewer than six-percent of rural workers are now employed directly in agriculture. What might be the implications in continuing to mistakenly conflate rural and agriculture? How might this play out in the sociopolitical and policy landscape?


1. Exploring Local Economy. Have the class use a variety of census and administrative data (e.g., information that could be obtained from the local chamber of commerce or planning department) and/or the local media to describe the economy of the community where your school/college is located. Then, divide the class into research teams and have each team interview local business owners to learn what they consider to be the main challenges of operating their business in the local economy.

2. Policy Brief. This chapter discusses mechanisms, both formal and informal, that continue to marginalize those who are already living in rural economically disadvantaged areas. Think of one issue surrounding the economic vitality of rural spaces and write a policy brief concisely summarizing information that can help readers understand, and make decisions about, government policies.

A policy brief must be short, persuasive, and easy to read—ideally, no more than 2 pages. This brief may give objective summaries of relevant research, suggest policy options, and/or go even further to argue for specific courses of action. It is advantageous for your brief to include graphs, charts, infographics, and/or other visual aids that make it easy to digest quickly.

An outline we suggest is as follows:

  • Title: A good title quickly communicates the contents of the brief in a memorable way.
  • Executive Summary: In 1-2 paragraphs, include an overview of the problem and the proposed policy action.
  • Scope of Problem: Communicate the importance of the problem and convince the reader of the necessity of policy action.
  • Policy Alternatives: Discuss the current policy approach and explain proposed options. It should be fair and accurate while convincing the reader why the policy action proposed in the brief is the most desirable.
  • Policy Recommendations: This section contains the most detailed explanation of the concrete steps to be taken to address the policy issue.
  • Appendices: If some readers might need further support in order to accept your argument but doing so in the brief might derail the conversation for other readers, include the extra information in an appendix.
  • Sources/References: These should be reliable sources that you have used throughout your brief to guide your policy discussion and recommendations.

You can then have students present these briefs in a classroom discussion, allowing students to review their ideas and discuss which they think would work best. You could also host a debate and/or turn the briefs into a poster-session.