Sixty five percent of respondents under 30 thought they would be better off in four years than they were today. That optimism declined with the age of the respondents across the board. Positive responses are in blue, negative in tan.

Nine in 10 Rural Americans say the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for, according to a poll commissioned by the Center for Rural Affairs and conducted by the bipartisan polling team of Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group.  

But nearly seven in 10 fear small town life may be dying. 

“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.” The poll found that three-fourths of rural voters believe politicians ignore problems in rural and small-town America while paying more attention to the issues of urban and suburban areas.

The poll found divided views about the role of government and populist views about the economy and big institutions.  Three-fourths agree that America’s future is weakened by a widening gap between the rich and families struggling to make ends meet. And six in 10 said it’s harder to make a go of it in rural America than in cities. (More about the poll.)

But they 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.”

“Neither the conservative nor progressive ideological perspective has it right,” said Lake. “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.“

The poll found strong support for specific actions by government to revitalize rural America. Among the results:

  • More than half said that “owning my own business or farm is a big part of the American dream for me” and seven in ten agreed with helping small business through less government (cutting taxes, spending and regulation) and strengthened government (loans, tax credits and training). A strong majority favored antitrust enforcement.
  • Three-fourths agree that too much of federal farm subsidies go to the largest farms, hurting smaller family farms.
  • 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 improvements 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. 

Rural Americans favor a populist approach to paying for these initiatives. They oppose across-the-board cuts in farm programs and across-the-board tax increases. Most would instead pay for these initiatives by cutting payments to big and mega farms and raising taxes on high-income Americans.

Forty-three percent of rural voters say the federal government is responsible for the condition of the rural economy. About a quarter of respondents (23%) say “the rich” are. (Center for Rural Affairs/Lake Research Partners/The Tarrance Group)

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, said Lake. “But rural Americans are somewhat optimistic that things will get better,” said Goeas. “And younger rural Americans are most optimistic.”

I think the optimism of the upcoming generation may reflect the new entrepreneurial opportunities in rural America and growing appreciation for the rural way of life. In my opinion, it appears young people get it, and that may give them the capacity to lead their communities to a better future.

Politically, the poll reveals openings for candidates of either party willing to fight for federal policy that supports opportunity for rural people and a better future for their communities. But rural voters are of mixed minds on the role of government in building that future. 

On one hand, more than eight in 10 voters said they would find it convincing for a U.S. Senate candidate to make the following statement:  “What we can do to help rural America is get government out of the way, keep taxes low and give entrepreneurs the freedom to start a business, grow that business and hire more people. The free market can work, especially in rural and small-town America because we work hard and have strong family values and faith. Big government means more complications, too many regulations and higher taxes – those are problems we don’t need in rural America.”

But equal numbers said they would find it convincing for a U.S. Senate candidate to make the following statement that reflects a very different perspective on government: “Small-town America is a big and important part of what makes America go. We are hard-working, patriotic, faithful and skilled. Making sure our families, our small business owners and our workers have the same chance as everyone else is fair and smart. That means supporting policies like investing more in helping our small businesses get started and bringing technology to our areas so we can be connected to the new economy.”

And about the same number said they would be convinced by a Senate candidate making the following statement, which also envisions a more active role for government: “Ordinary rural Americans are losing ground in our economy. We need to fix it. We need policies that address problems for rural Americans too, not just for the rich and powerful and not just for metropolitan areas. Our country is strongest when all of its communities are strong and all of its people have genuine economic opportunity. The rural American economy can be strong for everyone if federal policy makers understand rural concerns and address them.”

Fewer than one in five respondents had someone in their household who relied on agriculture for 25% or more of family income. (Center for Rural Affairs/Lake Research Partners/The Tarrance Group)

The bottom line is that rural voters care deeply about their communities and the plight of ordinary rural and urban working Americans. They want government to do something useful to address their problems, but are skeptical about whether government will do more harm than good. To me, that suggests we need a vigorous public debate about the future of rural life and the role of government in creating that future. 

But in reality, it gets little discussion in Senate and Congressional campaigns, in my opinion. In a democracy, elections are supposed to provide the opportunity to discuss the issues that matter to citizens. It’s time for the revitalizing rural America to become a top tier campaign issue. Only then will it get the attention it deserves between elections.

(The poll was conducted May 28-June 3, 2013 and reached 804 registered voters in rural areas or small towns. The margin of error is 3.47%.)

Chuck Hassebrook is executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Nebraska. He will leave that post in a few months to run full time for governor of Nebraska.

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