Rural life worth fighting for,
even if it isn't healthy right now
Tuesday, July 09, 2013 3:21 AM
Rural Americans can agree on a couple things: That the rural way of life is worth fighting for and that opinion definitely isn't shared by public officials at the national level.
Those are some of the findings from a poll for the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Neb., that surveyed rural people in the Great Plains, Midwest and Southeast. It was conducted by a bipartisan team of Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group that looked at the role of federal policy in creating economic opportunity for rural people and the future for their communities.
The poll showed that nearly 90 percent believe the rural and small-town life is worth fighting for.
"But they sadly believe the rural way of life may be fading and they want to stop it, reverse it, and revitalize rural America," said pollsters Lake and Goeas. "And they believe they are being ignored by politicians and government and blame them for the state of the rural economy."
Although there is agreement on some issues, there are many mixed opinions in the poll.
For example, the poll found divided views about the role of government with anti-government sentiment as well as populist views about the economy and big institutions.
Rural Americans surveyed split evenly on whether it's time for government to play a stronger role in strengthening rural communities and making the economy work for the average person in rural and small-town America; or whether "turning to big government to solve our problems will do more harm than good."
Lake pointed out "on the one hand, the language around lower taxes, smaller government, and fewer regulations is one of the highest testing messages. On the other, they support policies that call for more job training, increased infrastructure investments, more technology, and better preschool - all requiring a role for government in making things better."
Goeas said, "It is too simplistic to believe rural America is anti-government and that there is nothing for progressives to say, nor is it possible to say that rural America wants bigger government and more spending. They want tax breaks but they also support increased loans and grants to help people gain skills and open small businesses. They want more efficient and effective government and view much of public policy as a fairness issue in which rural America has not received fair treatment."
As for the more populist views, three-fourths agree that America's future is weakened by a widening gap between the rich and families struggling to make ends meet. The same percentage agree that too much of federal farm subsidies go to the largest farms, hurting smaller family farms. The poll shows rural Americans also distrust other big institutions.
Over half said that "owning my own business or farm is a big part of the American dream for me" and most agreed with helping small business through less government (cutting taxes, spending and regulation) and strengthened government (loans, tax credits, training and antitrust enforcement).
Three-fourths support tax credits and investment in new transmission lines for development of wind, solar and other renewable electric generation in rural areas.
Eight in 10 support grants and loans to revitalize small towns through upgrades to water and sewer systems and investments in roads and bridges.
Six in 10 say government has some or a lot of responsibility to help the working poor advance economically (versus a little or none). Eight in 10 support job training to improve earnings, Medicaid for health coverage and helping the working poor afford necessities through payroll tax refunds like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Eighty-five percent favor preschool programs to prepare lower-income children to succeed in school.
An interesting side note to the poll is that comparisons with the views of urban residents showed rural people have the same worries about making ends meet and the cost of healthcare as do their counterparts in the cities. Also, rural residents readily acknowledge that the definition of rural has changed as it is no longer about farming and ranching since just one in 10 rural residents directly rely on agriculture or farming for their livelihood. The rural economy is much more diverse than conventional wisdom would suggest.
The poll shows rural Americans are frustrated that the economy has grown stagnant, feel they have too little control over their own economic situation and feel worse off now than four years ago.
An unexpected finding is that rural residents have optimism as more than half feel they will be better off in the next four years. This is particularly true among younger residents.
Center for Rural Affairs executive director Chuck Hassebrook said the optimism of the upcoming generation reflects the new entrepreneurial opportunities in rural America and growing appreciation for the rural way of life. "They get it," said Hassebrook, "and that gives them the capacity to lead their communities to a better future."
Perhaps the key question is what about the rural way of life is worth fighting for - or maybe even what makes the rural way of life different?
In some ways, the rural way of life is more a mindset or attitude - a belief that an individual can make a difference - than an actual condition. After all, the biggest irony in the poll shows that rural Americans think achieving the American dream is more viable in rural America than it is in the cities or larger towns, even though rural residents also say the rules favor the wealthy few and those living in large cities.
Another important quality in the rural way of life - and this is a real condition - would be scale as the smaller populations highlight the importance of each individual as well as community as a whole. That human scale is why so many people in rural areas volunteer, support local institutions and look out for each other.
The rural economy is more complex than our social lives, but that attitude and human scale also play a part in our mixed messages.
Our small scale of life shows the consequences of foolish centralized policies - the folly of looking for all the answers from the federal government, even if it promises to come in and fix things for us.
At the same time, we've seen the limits of what one person can do in a global economy that has become so complicated over the years.
So, yes, we don't want to end up in a position where we have to rely on the government for our wellbeing since we have a self-reliant tradition. We just want public policy to play fair and provide enough assistance so the little guys in the little towns can show their entrepreneurial and resourceful spirit to get us moving forward again.
The American dream is something we can achieve, not something given to us, but all of us need some help along the way.