For the last couple of years we have been working with groups around the country to get a sense of what rural communities were feeling about the economy. Are country people hurting? Are they optimistic? Is it the same old up one day and down the next? As part of our research, we have commissioned polling, conducted eight focus groups in four states, and shared what we have found with policy professionals and political analysts. As the fog begins to lift here is what I see.

My uncle used to tell me he was too poor to pay attention. News that the economy is rip roaring, with crashing unemployment and rising wages is lost on most rural Americans we surveyed right now, even with those who say they are better off than before. The price of things — a gallon of gas, a dozen of eggs — has knocked rural communities off course and money is not what it used to be. And a measurable part of the rural population is pissed. They have had it with oil companies, drug makers, and distant corporations who care not a whit what country people are going through. And rural people are of two minds about government in that, one, they want it out of the way, and two, they want it to intervene to create new jobs in rural America.

Want to see the full poll results? Find them here.

The type of focus groups we conducted is called story circles. The technique was developed by two theater companies from the South (Roadside Theater and Free Southern Theater) who were often working with audiences that felt they were being left out. The goal of the story circles is to create a conversation where everyone participates by telling stories from personal experiences and observations. We convened these story circles in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, the East Kentucky coalfields, the Allegheny Plateau in Ohio, and the Iron Range in Minnesota. And one benefit of using story circles is that responses come in language that breaks through.

Focus group participant from Wisconsin: “It’s really difficult not to fall into the trap…where you really do start to internalize it and think ‘Well I must be a failure, because I don’t have what my parents had. I certainly don’t have what my grandparents had.’”

Participant from Kentucky: I’m in survival mode every day.”

Participant from Ohio: “I’m really worried about the kids, because it’s way worse than a lot of people realize. Like so many of them are depressed and anxious and don’t know what to do. Losing hope, being suicidal. I mean children, like little children even, we are not even talking teenagers. And they need hope. They need to see something get better. Some reason to become an adult. “

Our analysis of these rural focus groups showed us:

  • People want to share their stories and be heard, but they often feel ignored: misunderstood and maligned by the media.
  • People are struggling with loss — loss of status, wealth, a valued role — but they try not to give in to despair.
  • People will act out of hope in situations where they can both receive and offer community support. Being of service to others is valued purpose.
  • People in our groups want to push back against partisan politics and culture war rhetoric.

We conducted polling with Lake Research and aimed at rural voters in swing states. These are voters that have an outsized impact on national elections. And what we learned is that now the majority of these voters identify as Republicans, a big change from when Bill Clinton won rural America twice. Only about a quarter of rural voters in the swing states identified as Democrats now. But more than a third of the voters were gettable outside of their partisan affiliations. They are looking for a reason to cast a vote.

We also surveyed what kind of policy and messages resonated with these rural voters, and here we got strong responses that often transcended party I.D. Where freedom, faith, and family were strong priorities for these voters, there was also a populist streak that does not surface in most elections.

Here are parts of three messages that got right at 70% positive response:
“For too long wealthy corporations have had their foot on the throat of rural and small-town America.”
“…politicians try to divide us and turn us against each other and say our children can’t have a shot at the American dream — that some must be excluded.”
“Rural and small-town communities are being ignored, and years of neglect have taken a toll.”

We plan to continue this work on rural perceptions of the economy through the 2024 election. We will reach out to more communities. But to sum up what we are seeing thus far is that there is an urgency within rural communities that is not being recognized by other parts of the country. And a sense of being neglected. That may not be a good place to start restoring civic infrastructure and building can-do spirit, but it is where we are.

Focus group participant from Wisconsin: “There’s a lot of loss in this room, and there will be…for those who haven’t experienced it yet…they will.”

Participant from Ohio: “If working made you rich, then day laborers would be millionaires. It just doesn’t work that way. But we’ve listened to so much of this crap that poorer people are indoctrinated with that too. They carry that shame.”

Participant from Kentucky: “The cavalry ain’t coming. We’re the cavalry…we as a people have to be the cavalry. You have to make a stand and say, ‘Who’s my neighbor out there? Him, her. I don’t got much, but, oh hell, for God’s sake, these people have nothing.’”

Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Yonder’s parent organization, the Center for Rural Strategies.

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