By: Bob Pest
Changing Perceptions of Rural America
In 2001, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation contracted with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research to conduct a study on perceptions of life in rural America. The study involved 242 interviews of rural, urban, and suburban Americans in several regions of the country. The research indicated that most Americans held “strongly positive views of life in rural America.” Interview participants saw rural communities as “the repository of traditional values, closely-knit communities, and hard work.” However, participants were also aware of the economic and social challenges facing these regions as corporate agriculture began to replace the family farm, the centerpiece of rural communities for decades.
The study revealed a number of prominent dichotomies that were noted by many participants: rural life represents traditional American values, but is not keeping up with changes of all kinds that are taking place; rural life is more relaxed and slower than city life, but people work harder and longer hours; rural life is friendly, but intolerant when it comes to outsiders. People who live in the Ozarks, for example, refer to outsiders as being from “off.” The research also pointed to the fact that rural America “offers a particular quality including serenity and aesthetic surroundings, and yet is plagued by lack of opportunities, including access to cultural activities.”
Respondents, both urban and rural, largely agreed upon four differences that separate rural from urban and suburban America:
Rural America is almost entirely agricultural. In reality seven percent of rural employment was agriculture based.
Rural communities are family-centered, committed to religious values, and driven by self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
Rural America is serene and beautiful, populated by wild animals and livestock and dotted by clear streams and rolling rivers.
Rural America is a safe and inviting place to raise children, away from the materialism and moral decline that defines big city life.
These differences suggest that the respondents did see rural America and its residents as making a significant contribution to life in America. Rural people are credited for helping perpetuate the traditional American values of individualism and neighborliness. The survey also identified rural Americans as our primary suppliers of food and the protectors of the last open spaces.This positive, idyllic vision of rural life was offset by a number of participant concerns:
The family farm, facing competition from vertically corporate farms, is threatened with eventual extinction.
Government regulation, especially environmental regulations and restrictions on what can be grown, limits market opportunities for farmers.
Rural land and lifestyle is being overtaken by urban sprawl and suburban housing development, which prices the land out of reach from most citizens and reduces the availability of already shrinking farm land.
Rural communities face inadequate access to healthcare, fewer educational choices, few opportunities for professional advancement, and the exodus of talented young people seeking educational and career opportunities.
The concerns articulated in the 2001 survey have become realities and, combined with other more recent challenges, have led to a new and much less positive perception of rural communities. This same conclusion is reached in What Happened in Our History Books?, a recent study of textbooks over the past 50 years that “finds high school students increasingly being taught that rural America is a deprived and lonely place.” The authors—Aimee Howley, Karen Eppley, and Marged Howley—also note that “Earlier books emphasized qualities of individualism and community spirit, stability, and adventurousness but texts in the past two decades primarily characterize rural as deficient. While both these messages about rural life were present to some degree in the books across all five decades, there has been a decided shift in emphasis. In the more recent texts, rural Americans industriousness and contributions to the nation’s democracy are downplayed, supplanted by references to rural ignorance, recklessness, and despair.”
America was born as a nation of farmers; for generations, urban dwellers viewed rural life as both essential and idyllic. Outside forces such as corporate farming, urban sprawl, and the global economy played and are continuing to play a major role in the current perception of rural as “backward.” The failure of our leaders to live up to the promise of broadband internet access to all has created a digital divide that isolates rural people from the new mainstream of information and entertainment. Meth production in the most isolated rural areas leave a taint on the surrounding communities and destroy lives before they get started.
So how can rural people and communities change the perception of rural America as “deficient” and “without opportunity.” The first step is to challenge, avoid, and eventually eliminate the aged stereotypes of rural people as illiterate moonshiners, resistant to change, narrow-minded, lazy, and reckless. The authors of What Happened in Our History Books? offer a succinct approach, “Requiring greater honesty about the past and the present invites the conception of the more connected future: human nature in league with the natural world, rural and urban people and ways of life understood in their complexity and fallibility, and democracy seen as an unfinished project in need of nurture. The stories of rural people and ways of life might voice meaningful alternatives to prejudice—not because these alternatives exist in a rural idyll but because rurality itself, in its struggles and vistas, resists both the blandishments and the depredations of the powers that be.” America has a long way to go; we can begin by understanding each other.
This article owes a great deal to the impressive work of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, based in Washington, D.C., and to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their commitment for building the capacity of people, communities, and institutions to solve their own problems.
It is also appropriate to introduce the authors of What Happened in Our History Books?: Karen Epply lives on a farmette in Central Pennsylvania and is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Altoona branch 0f Penn State University; Dr. Aimee A. Howley studies issues relating to rural education and educational policy and currently serves as Associate Dean of the Patton College of Education at Ohio University; and Marged Howley is a middle school teacher and educational researcher with Oz Consulting. Their important work will reach far beyond this article.