Those of us who live and work in rural America are often torn, showing off our assets on one hand, begrudging our deficits on the other, and trying to explain the gray area in between.  And as traditional rural livelihoods –farming, mining, manufacturing – continue to disappear in rural communities, there are more gray areas to explain.

A new poll from National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health surveyed 1,405 adults about life in rural America. What they learned was that most respondents were optimistic about their communities, felt safe at home, and had attained satisfaction with their quality of life despite higher levels of rural poverty and the difficulties that come with it.

It is no secret that rural Americans are poorer than the country as a whole. Fewer jobs. Lower wages. More illness. One out of four rural kids is living in poverty. The NPR/RWJ/Harvard poll shines a light on a variety of related concerns.

Forty percent of those polled acknowledge their families have had difficulties paying off medical, housing, or food bills in recent years. Half say they could not come up with $1,000 to pay off an unexpected expense right away. And a third worry about homelessness in their communities. Those concerns are even more problematic in rural communities of color.

But what may be more surprising is the generally positive outlook of those surveyed. Ninety-two percent feel they have people nearby to rely on for help and support. Nine out of 10 respondents said they feel safe from crime. Nearly three out of four say they are satisfied with their quality of life. And 62 percent hold a sense of optimism about their own communities and their abilities to make things better there.

I took a Shakespeare class in college. I don’t remember much about it, one lesson really, but I think of that lesson almost every day. The professor whose name I’ll never recall said the difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies was that the tragedies were written to the rhythms of the individual’s story. His life. Her life. And in the end every individual, no matter the beauty, the heroism, or the insight, must weaken, fail, and perish: King Lear on the heath, star crossed Romeo and Juliet in the tomb, Macbeth defending his crimes, Hamlet plotting his revenge. For each an unavoidable fate awaits.

But the professor said Shakespeare’s comedies were written with the rhythms and the outlook of the society, and the society would persevere through hardships, shipwrecks, love gone wrong, the mischief of fairies, a surplus of rakes disguised as young maidens, and vice versa.

Communities hang on even when the mines close and the plant shuts down. They endure in the gray areas. That sounds about right.

Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies and publisher of the Daily Yonder.

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