Poll finds rural Nebraskans optimistic about their lives
LINCOLN, NE – Rural Nebraskans are much more optimistic about their lives than they have been in previous years, according to the Nebraska Rural Poll. But that finding comes with one giant caveat – the poll was taken last spring, before recent economic upheaval that has some drawing comparisons to the Great Depression.
“I would think if we did this right now we could see the bottom drop out,” said Randy Cantrell, rural sociologist with Nebraska Rural Initiative and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and member of the poll’s team.
“It’s all about timing,” Cantrell added.
Surveys for the 13th annual University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll were mailed to about 6,200 randomly selected households in Nebraska’s 84 rural counties last spring. Results are based on 2,496 responses.
The poll found that 53 percent of rural Nebraskans felt they were better off than they were five years ago – up from 44 percent a year ago and the highest number in the poll’s history. Nineteen percent said they believed they were worse off, up from 15 percent last year. The shift came from the percentage of rural Nebraskans who believed they were about the same as five years ago – down from 41 percent in 2007 to 29 percent in 2008.
The poll also showed rural Nebraskans feeling generally positive about their future. Forty-five percent of respondents said they expect to be better off 10 years from now, up from 41 percent last year. Thirty-three percent expect to be about the same, and 22 percent expect to be worse off in a decade.
Throughout the poll’s 13-year history, rural Nebraskans generally have been positive about their future; most years, the percentage of those expecting to be better off in 10 years has hovered around 41 percent.
For much of the year, there’s been good reason for optimism in rural Nebraska, poll organizers said.
“The ag economy has been robust. And many people in rural Nebraska feel that ‘what’s good for the ag economy is good for my town,'” said Bruce Johnson, UNL agricultural economist.
For the first time, the 2008 poll quizzed respondents about their short-term concerns about specific financial matters. Leading the list of rural Nebraskans’ financial worries, not surprisingly, were rising fuel prices; 77 percent said they were very concerned about them.
Also high on the list were rising taxes, 67 percent very concerned; rising cost of living, 56 percent; and recession, 46 percent.
Poll organizers noted that 21 percent of respondents said they were very concerned about paying their mortgage or rent – a percentage that seemed strikingly high for rural Nebraska.
Overall, these findings seem to suggest that rural Nebraskans, though generally satisfied with their lives and optimistic about the future, still worry.
“At the margin, everybody might sense that something’s at risk,” said Brad Lubben, another UNL agricultural economist.
Following trends in previous years, the poll finds rural Nebraskans most satisfied with their marriages, families, friends, religion/spirituality and the outdoors and least satisfied with job opportunities, current income levels and financial security during retirement.
Another trend that’s held true over the years: People with lower education levels are more likely than those with more education to believe they are powerless to control their own lives. Forty-two percent of people with a high school diploma or less education feel that way; only 22 percent of respondents with a four-year college degree share that opinion.
Cantrell likes to call this “our annual stay-in-school message.”
Without a college education, “you’re not going to be as happy with a lot of things,” he added.
The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans’ perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year’s response rate was about 40 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent. Complete results are available online at http://cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/.