The Nebraska Rural Poll conducted its nineteenth annual survey of nonmetropolitan Nebraskans in April of 2014. Initiated in 1996 by the University of Nebraska and what was then the Center for Applied Rural Innovation, the Nebraska Rural Poll is a mailed survey that is sent annually to a random sample of about seven thousand households in eighty-four nonmetropolitan counties. More precisely, the poll goes to households in the eighty-four counties that were classified as nonmetropolitan prior to the Census of 2010.
Sponsorship of the Nebraska Rural Poll today resides within the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resource with support provided by Extension, the Agricultural Research Division, the Rural Futures Institute, and the Department of Agricultural Economics. That support has helped to make the Nebraska Rural Poll both the longest-running and the largest survey of its kind. It has been replicated in other states, but never as consistently.
In 2014 the Rural Poll included this question: “How essential or necessary are the following characteristics of a community in order for you to have a high quality of life?” Respondents were then offered a list of twenty-five community characteristics and asked to rate each characteristic as either: (1) Not at all essential; (2) Nice but not essential; (3) Important but not essential; or (4) Absolutely essential. There was no neutral or other nonresponse option.
The results look very much like a traditional hierarchy of need, with very basic characteristics most likely to be identified as essential. At the top of the list, 79 percent of those responding identified a sense of personal safety as being absolutely essential to their personal quality of life. More than 70 percent of those responding identified jobs and economic opportunities, a quality K-12 school system, and available medical services as essential. And at least 50 percent of those responding identified affordable housing, quality housing, well-maintained infrastructure, effective community leadership, and a strong church or religious community as essential.
At the other end of the scale, 19 percent of those responding identified cultural opportunities as an essential characteristic for their personal quality of life. To an extent, items that were less frequently identified as essential tended to represent characteristics that are largely unavailable in very rural areas, such as available public transportation. They also reflected the respondent’s current life cycle position, with younger respondents being more likely to identify characteristics such as available college classes or available child care services as essential, while older respondents were more likely to identify characteristics such as available medical services, available senior citizen programs, and a strong religious community as essential.
One of the advantages of the Rural Poll’s long history is that questions can be repeated on occasion, allowing comparisons of opinion to be made over time. Indeed, poll respondents rated many of the same characteristics as to their essential nature for the first time in 2002. For the most part, the percentage of respondents identifying a given characteristic as essential doesn’t seem to have changed in any significant way.
There are, however, a couple of exceptions to that observation. Jobs and economic opportunities were rated as absolutely essential by 77 percent of poll respondents in 2014, but only 65 percent of respondents in 2002. On the other hand, some characteristics such as friendly people, a clean and attractive natural environment, and a sense of community among residents seem to be somewhat less likely to be viewed as being essential to an individual’s quality of life today than they were a decade ago.
Both the 2002 and 2014 polls also asked respondents to rate the availability of the same characteristics. The exact question was “To what extent do the following characteristics describe your current community?” Possible responses were (1) Not at all; (2) Very little; (3) To some extent; and (4) To a great extent.
In this case, the characteristics most often rated as being present “To a great extent” was lack of congestion, which was identified by 49 percent of poll respondents. Other characteristics seen as being present to a great extent included a sense of personal safety, a strong church or religious community, and a quality school system, each of which was identified by at least 44 percent of those responding.
Not much changed with regard to these availability ratings between 2002 and 2014. A clean and attractive natural environment was identified as being present to a great extent by 41 percent of respondents in 2002 but by only 33 percent of respondents in 2014. However, that is the only change that falls outside of the Rural Poll’s estimates of error.
More interesting than those changes over time is the extent to which the perceived availability of various community characteristics fails to match the perceived importance of the same characteristics. For instance, while 79 percent of poll respondents identified jobs and economic opportunities as being absolutely essential to their personal quality of life, only 11 percent of respondents indicated that those jobs and opportunities were present to a great extent.
The availability of affordable housing and quality housing similarly fall far short of their perceived importance. In fact, the same can be said for most of those community characteristics rated as being “absolutely essential.”
In only two instances (specifically, lack of congestion and being close to relatives or in-laws) did more respondents perceive the availability of a given characteristic exceeding its importance.
The difference, or gap, between the percent of respondents identifying a characteristic as absolutely essential and the percent of respondents identifying the same characteristic as being present to a great extent provides us with an estimate of how likely rural residents are to be dissatisfied with conditions in their communities. Jobs and housing top that list, followed by well-maintained infrastructure, a sense of personal safety, community leadership, K-12 schools, and available medical services.
None of this is likely to be very surprising to most observers. The traditionally low unemployment rate in rural Nebraska is somewhat masked by self-employment and multiple job holding. Tax and employment data have shown nonfarm self-employment to be growing much faster than wage and salary employment over the last couple of decades. At the same time, nonfarm self-employment income per job has declined steadily, especially when compared to wage and salary income. The more rural the area, the more pronounced this trend becomes. This is likely to be why the Rural Poll recently found that in Nebraska’s smallest communities up to 70 percent of households have more jobs than working age members.
Housing starts are something of a rare event in much of rural Nebraska, and available, affordable housing is often cited as an impediment to attracting new residents to rural communities. Rural infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and water treatment, is aging and in many cases in need of repair or replacement. Rural schools continue to grapple with consolidation, and medical services are often located long distances from rural households. Research at the universities of Nebraska and Minnesota has identified leadership deficits that exist throughout the rural Great Plains.
At the lower end of the gap list, some amenity-based characteristics, such as available public transportation, are likely to be seen as problematic by a relatively small segment of the population. In the case of public transportation, 20 percent of respondents saw the amenity as absolutely essential. That result varies with age, but only 29 percent of respondents age sixty-five and over gave the amenity that rating.
Some of these gaps may reflect the trade-offs that rural Nebraskans are comfortably willing to accept in order to be rural Nebraskans. Lack of congestion, a sense of personal safety, and a strong church may simply trump most other considerations. Indeed, the 2014 Rural Poll also found that concerns about crime (a component of personal safety) were lowest in the most rural communities surveyed. Those same communities are, of course, least likely to house amenities such as public transportation.
The economic development community will see the gaps identified in this survey as clear evidence that their work is seen as important by the nonmetropolitan population. For housing professionals, these data seem to again emphasize the need for innovation in that very complex arena. Some community developers may see the data as a way to more closely identify who might have interest in, or even passion for, the services and programs that they offer. Others may wonder why the importance that they attribute to a characteristic isn’t more widely accepted.
Any way that you interpret the results, the 2014 Nebraska Rural Poll has provided a fascinating insight into both the merits and the shortcomings of our nonmetropolitan communities as seen by those who live there.
This report and all other reports written over the Nebraska Rural Poll’s nineteen-year history can be found online at ruralpoll.unl.edu.
For more information on the Rural Futures Institute, visit ruralfutures.nebraska.edu. For more information on the University of Nebraska Extension, visit extension.unl.edu. For more information on the UNL Department of Agricultural Economics, visit agecon.unl.edu.