How to help rural hometown friends survive in this economy?
December 27, 2009 8:56 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to help my rural hometown friends survive in this economy?

My hometown is a small city in north Georgia; less than 15,000 people or so. There isn't even a section of Craigslist for the surrounding area. A lot of my friends here are really struggling with finding a job or some way to pay the bills. There isn't so much as a McDonald's level position open.

I'm in town from Boston for a month to see family, and make some business trips to Atlanta, but while I'm here I'd really love to find some advice to give to help my friends. I don't have money to invest in them or any way to directly support them yet; I'm in the middle of trying to bootstrap a business off the ground myself.

In conversations we've had so far (initiated by them, I'm not pushing anything on anyone or talking down), I've talked about the importance of learning new skills, and the opportunity to make money from outside the local area via online freelance work. I'm hoping AskMe can...

* recommend some legitimate online opportunities to make money; including opportunities that would require them to learn a new skill (so long as it's feasible they could do so quickly).
* provide ideas for what type of non-obvious opportunities to make money there might be in a small rural town.
* provide other advice I should pass along.

Thanks in advance for all suggestions.
posted by ElfWord to Work & Money (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Etsy if their artsy, eBay if they have a collector's eye
Working for defense contractors in the middle east
posted by ijoyner at 9:04 AM on December 27, 2009

Is moving out of the small town an option? There are generally more opportunities in larger, less rural, areas. This has been a trend that has been going on for a couple of decades at this point. I don't intend that to be snarky; but maybe the issue simply is that they are living where there are, quite simply, no opportunities, and they would be better served moving elsewhere.

I realize this may not be the most practical piece of advice; nonetheless, it may be the most accurate.
posted by dfriedman at 9:06 AM on December 27, 2009 [7 favorites]

Depending on whether they have any basic computer experience, one odd idea is have them go to and bid for projects. I'm not really sure whether it's a buyers or sellers market there, but some of the projects are nontechnical or easy, and I've even posted projects where people just download a number of giant datasets from a server and put them on a DVD for me (since I have a slow DSL connection).

Other than that I'm thinking they may have to move to where the jobs are -- moving to the cities for work has been part of the human experience for generations, so maybe that time has come. I know it's easier said than done, but still.
posted by crapmatic at 9:08 AM on December 27, 2009

Do they have land? Can they grow a bigger garden and sell produce? Can they sell or rent some of the land out? Can they start a business such as a dude ranch, Bed and Breakfast, Fishing/Hunting tours or create some other type of tourist attraction?

How is the town fixed for things like hairdressers, plumbers, electricians, manual labor in the surrounding farms? Can they start a service business like: I'll go shopping in X town and get things for you that are not available here?
posted by CathyG at 9:19 AM on December 27, 2009

Oh -- another idea... they should look at the health care industry around their town, since rural locales tend to be geared for older people and the infusion of social security, insurance, and so forth tends to support a fair amount of activity among nursing homes, hospitals, home medical supply companies, and so forth. Maybe they could even figure out how to get some basic EMT or nursing training so they can get those jobs, or just go to a nursing home and see if there are positions available. I think at least right now, given the current economic climate, that health industry is likely to have more prospects in a small town than retail and construction... and I say that as someone who lived in a small town for awhile a few years ago. That's where the money was at in that town.
posted by crapmatic at 9:23 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Heritage-breed pigs or chickens are big in urban areas now. You can't make a killing, but it's a livelihood providing you have a slaughterhouse in driving distance. My friends in rural Illinois and upstate NY do this and I will probably do it next year because I like farming: the freedom, the tasty food, the fresh air...altough of course there are numerous bad things about it, like loading those ornery hogs on the trailer and driving three hours to the slaughterhouse or when a bunch of chickens escape and get eaten by the neighbors dog.
posted by melissam at 9:34 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Moving isn't an option for many, right now, though I offer regularly for them to stay with me in Boston, hoping they'll get a taste for larger cities. And even though this is a small town, it's been growing steadily for the past 5 years before the recession hit; it's not devoid of opportunity, it's just now constrained.

Computer experience is pretty limited. Programming jobs aren't really an option. My friends are early twenties with some college education, but they're casual users of computers; MySpace and such. The phone book would still be the first place they'd turn to for looking up a business.

Skilled labor is a very crowded market around here. Some of my friends do have electrician and construction experience, but they don't have the funds to start their own business, and none of the existing businesses are hiring.

Thanks for the ideas of Etsy, tours, and nursing (most of the few job ads I've seen are for CNAs) so far. Hope to hear some more great ideas. :-)
posted by ElfWord at 9:35 AM on December 27, 2009

I respectfully disagree with selling on Etsy, even if your friends are pretty talented. I can't find the article I'm thinking of right now, but I believe the aggregation of so many crafts from different geographic regions actually drives down the prices and keeps most sellers from earning enough to make it worth the time (or, god forbid, even paying for the cost of materials).
posted by tantivy at 9:41 AM on December 27, 2009

You noted you don't have a craigslist in your town. If you have the computer experience, you could start one. This would let people trade locally. It might also kill your local newspaper, so there is that.
posted by chairface at 9:45 AM on December 27, 2009

What about starting a coop of some sort so that, however they go about sustaining and hopefully improving their incomes, maybe they can save money on purchasing things they all commonly need?

Maybe a coop that, when possible when it is actually a cost advantage or otherwise affordable, could focus on a local source for a couple of items/services?

It might not make sense for groceries if there's a big box type grocery store that is already as inexpensive as it can get (assuming the idea here is to save as money as possible, not make certain pricey and possibly extraneous things, particularly in hard times) -- but maybe services, or maybe bulk stuff if it isn't otherwise convenient to buy in bulk.
posted by mjb at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2009

My recommendation: The ones who CAN DO computer research could take a grant-writing course, and then begin charging for writing grant applications that are offered by the USDA and the DOE directed toward the rural community. Of course, they'll have to find companies and/or rural businesses interested in gaining access to the grant funds available, and who are willing to pay them for their services. But, I know, there is a big movement to sustain and/or revitalize rural economies with an emphasis on conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. For what it's worth, it takes gumption, smarts, and connections in the rural community to pull this off, but it can be done, and the pay-off can be quite handsome.
posted by zagyzebra at 10:05 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's temporary but well-paying jobs through the US census.
posted by Sara Anne at 10:05 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is there a good thrift store in town? Are there people who'd be up to starting one?
posted by dilettante at 10:08 AM on December 27, 2009

looking at the map of local offices in Georgia, it lookas as though a census worker in Georgia can make anywhere between $11-$18 per hour.
posted by Sara Anne at 10:13 AM on December 27, 2009

Seconding dfriedman. I realize that people may not think it's practical to move at this time, but it ain't like things in many rural areas are going to get substantially better. I moved out of rural Pennsylvania 15 years ago because of lack of jobs. Guess what? No jobs have been added since then despite population growth. Yeah, the current economy sucks across the board, but it wasn't that great in 2005, either. Unemployment has only risen.

My sister in PA lost her job last year. I could easily have gotten her one out here in Vegas making $15-20 per hour. Instead she collected unemployment for 3 months, then got a temp job making $8. (Cost of living is comparable, given that she bought her house there at the top of the market.)

Many in rural areas see moving as "giving up." It's not; it's an investment in your family's future.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:14 AM on December 27, 2009

For starters find out if they have a local Freecycle mailing list. If they don't, start one for them. On our local Freecycle people are giving away chickens and fencing, beds and clothes, really basic things that a person who needs these things might not hear about otherwise.

Freecycle is only for free things. So if I were you I would try to start an additional message group where locals could brainstorm on how to help each other. I don't know how to do that. But I do sort of like the regional message boards at City-Data. Georgia Forum
posted by cda at 10:26 AM on December 27, 2009

I grew up in a rural town as well, same size, same type of population, and the two jobs that are booming/available in our area are anything related to nursing or physical therapy and child care; I would suggest your friends also look into any local hospice care facilities, that sort of thing, because they always need new workers (those jobs have high turnover) or look into getting medical training of some kind.

Many rural/remote areas will, for example, subsidize the cost of becoming a medical professional if you agree to work in their local hospital or physical therapy clinic for X years after graduation.

Getting your aesthetician's license to cut/color hair, do nails, etc. will allow some of them to be self-employed and work out of their own homes with a minimum of advertising needed.

Could any of them offer to become personal trainers? I realize there's a lot that goes into learning stuff like this, but if any of them are really into exercise, becoming someone else's paid coach/motivator could be an option.

Becoming a licensed day care professional also allows you to work out of your own home and people in rural areas ALWAYS need cheap, reliable day care from people they trust at church/around town, so if they're up for it... those are all I've got.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:44 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the continued suggestions, still looking for even more.

Co-Ops are a good idea; since several of my friends know each other I've already been encouraging them to find some way to work together.

Thrift stores: there are a few, as well as antique stores. Did you have specific ideas regarding them, dilettante?

Census jobs: not an option. Anecdotes I've heard about several people who were looking into just that indicate the actual job won't be available for months.

So far I'm hearing that increasing market efficiencies via CoOps or improved marketplaces (ala Craigslist) would be a good indirect way for my friends to make more money, and that healthcare is good direct opportunity to make more money. Other ideas for the kind of opportunities that might be overlooked in a small town, that are direct ways to make money?
posted by ElfWord at 11:12 AM on December 27, 2009

On the thrift stores, no ideas if there are good ones already, really. Thrift (and consignment) stores don't have to be connected with a charity, they can be privately run for profit, and not every small town has a good one. If people really can't or don't want to leave and the local economy isn't good, sounds like there will be a demand for used clothes (especially children's), toys, appliances, and furniture - all the thrift store stuff. But that niche may be well filled.
posted by dilettante at 11:37 AM on December 27, 2009

This previous thread might or might not yield a few ideas.
posted by Orinda at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2009

If any of them are interested in farming/gardening and have access to a few acres, a friend of mine has been able to make a decent living at small-scale organic farming and selling the produce at farmer's markets in nearby larger cities and/or in a CSA arrangement.
posted by flug at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2009

Other ideas for the kind of opportunities that might be overlooked in a small town, that are direct ways to make money?

I'm reading your posts to say "How can these people get paid right now?"

All opportunities for making money in a hurry are filled as soon as they are created. Therefore the best answer is to do things that are going to make jobs. And those things take months and years to pay off. A small town is particularly constrained because their economy is so small that it pretty much has to bring in money from outside. A poor small town even more so. You've shot down all of the good ideas that would create a better infrastructure for jobs in the city. I'd suggest that people volunteer for the local chamber of commerce and for their state representatives to do what it takes to make the city as attractive as possible to businesses and business incubators. That will take months/years to pay off, but when it does it will create substantial, positive, lasting impact on the town.

Creating a job for yourself takes time and investment. Reeducation for a new career takes time and investment. If they need a job right now they need to move where jobs are. That's the simple fact. They don't need to move to a big city, and maybe they don't need to move very far, but if they're not going to invest in new jobs they have to go to where the jobs are.

Or simply talk with people there about your experiences starting your own business. Share what you're doing and they can help/advise/be mentored/be inspired by what you're doing. As laudable as it is to want to help out these people, some tasks are beyond us and we have to be satisfied doing only our small part.
posted by Ookseer at 12:08 PM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm reading your posts to say "How can these people get paid right now?"

More: "What are low-upfront-cost business opportunities available in rural areas during a recession?"

I absolutely want to encourage my friends to invest in long-term prospects for themselves and the area around them; but they've got to get a stable foundation for their short-term survival before they can do that. I'd like to be clear that I'm not shooting down ideas for indirect methods; I'm actively looking into implementing things like a local Craigslist. I'm just trying to encourage more ideas for direct methods.

Orinda's link to a previous thread has some more useful ones; one of the things I'm taking away from that and will suggest is starting a delivery business. Many local restaurants don't employ delivery drivers, or even offer delivery, but might work with a 3rd party that provided that service for several restaurants.

The more ideas, the better, right?
posted by ElfWord at 12:39 PM on December 27, 2009

There are no INSTANT CASH NOW opportunities.

The fact that the census jobs won't be available for months doesn't mean people shouldn't apply for them and keep them in their back pockets. These are going to be very good jobs for underemployed people and respectfully I think you're doing your friends a disservice by not encouraging them to sign up for these opportunities.

Ways to make money right now:

1) go through everything in their houses that aren't directly related to survival. Research what they are worth on ebay. Sell.

2) books, cd's, dvd's - again, look up the prices and sell. Keep in mind costs of packaging and shipping. I know both and amazon talk about how you have to use brand new bubble mailers- I never have and I've never had a complaint. At this point I package books well in craft paper with good mailing tape. Again, no complaints.

2a) If they don't want to or can't sell online then try holding garage sales. If no one in town has money for a garage sale, can they go to the next largest town/city and hold a stoop sale/curb sale or get an affordable table at a flea market? Be sure to find out the laws about vending before doing stoop sale/trunk sale/curb sale. You don't need a ticket for vending without a license to kill your profits. Might be worth the gas to cruise around a weekend or two to see what the community norm is.

3) Garbage picking: one man's trash is another man's treasure. People throw out books, clothes, furniture. Maybe there's more of a re-use climate in a small town but this is a good way to get things for resale. If anyone is remotely handy in either furniture repair or electronics repair people will throw out a tv that works BUT... all the time.

4) Look into if there are buyers of scrap metal or paper recycling nearby. You can't just walk around and open up people's recycling cans but plenty of stuff gets left on the side of the road.

5) I disagree that Etsy is a bad option. It is a lot of work but if someone is crafty AND has the brains to get out there and market themselves it is money from home. However, this is for someone who is super-talented and can differentiate and market and work hard to stand out. It probably won't meet your INSTANT CASH NOW requirements, however.

6) cut back on everything possible, downsize as much as they can.

The way to get someone to truly survive is to help them acquire other long-range skills. Pet sitting and child care are always in demand, but they require certification, brains and know-how. If there were instant ways to make cash people would be all over them. There aren't. It sounds like you have some level of survivor's guilt and that your friends might be angry at you for moving away and leaving them behind. If there was a way to make instant cash people would already be all over it.
posted by micawber at 1:51 PM on December 27, 2009

I disagree about Etsy; crafters can set their prices where they like, and buyers on Etsy are not just out looking for the cheapest prices. Quality goods can go for quality prices on Etsy; look at the highest volume sellers and their price points for evidence of such.

Provide ideas for what type of non-obvious opportunities to make money there might be in a small rural town.

There are often skillsets there that do not exist in other places, and these skillsets or their products can be exported - ie, sold online. These products include all kinds of things with specialised markets for which there is existing demand. If you can sew, there's cloth menstrual pads, cloth nappies, Waldorf dolls, felt food. For kitchen arts, there are also baked goods, canned goods, cheese, honey, jams. (For the Georgia connection, I'd personally consider making up Georgia Peach Cobbler kits and shipping them with peaches.) With wood crafts, there is a huge market for traditional children's toys.

The thing for good sales, online and especially through Etsy is (I think) the following:

1/ A narrow, defined and consistant product range.
2/ Excellent photos = DIY photo box
3/ Lots of work (knitting, crochet, quilting) is not as good as simple patterns (sewing)
4/ The product has to be right - nana's doiley loo roll holders, no. Strong, contemporary prints like the ever popular Amy Butler, yes.

Not everyone can pull off the right combination to make this work, and there's smarts and marketing involved here in addition to skill, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. MeMail me if you want more ideas or a How To for this.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:15 PM on December 27, 2009

Food Stamps isn't viable employment, but it's relatively easy to acquire right now and can really really make a big difference. I have some friends with a young baby who are getting over 500/month, and that's no small potatoes around here (also in the South). A single person usually qualifies for about 200 dollars. Food stamps aren't just really poor people. If you're out of work, you qualify and should take advantage of it.

I also have friends who brew there own beer and then trade it for fresh produce at local farmers markets.
posted by Rocket26 at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the beer concept is a good one - It's what a lot of folks up in Michigan are doing to pull themselves out of the area's general economic collapse. This looks like a good start - You could help out by bankrolling some of the (Pretty low, if they are willing to scrounge/fabricate heavily) startup costs, including the all-important lawyer consult...
posted by Orb2069 at 5:18 PM on December 27, 2009

Small towns are really taking it on the chin in this recession - seemingly the only options left are selling drugs or working at the prison. Nthing moving - your friends need to beg or borrow enough cash to get to an area with a more sustainable job market.
posted by porn in the woods at 5:59 PM on December 27, 2009

they're casual users of computers

If they have an Internet connection they use for updating their MySpace pages, they have an Internet connection they can put to better use. There are plenty of online tutorials for learning programming languages, HTML and CSS, and particular programs like Filemaker Pro.

I know a couple people who design software/web applications and hire people on a contractor basis to do some of the coding--they find their contractors through Craigslist or word of mouth but don't seem to particularly care where the person is located (Craigslist is just one of the more convenient ways to find people). Perhaps your friends could look through the listings on oDesk to get a sense of what might be some useful computer-related skills.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:27 PM on December 27, 2009

This is a different angle but might be inspirational; an undertaker is trying to revive a small Kansas town by moving his business there.

It sounds like he knows the business, likes the town, saw an opportunity and has money to invest. You aren't his twin but maybe you can find his twin?
posted by deanj at 9:04 AM on December 28, 2009

Setting up (or using, if one is already available) a local online barter network is an idea.
posted by flug at 11:56 AM on December 28, 2009

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