The heart-breaking stories had come forth one by one over the tough months of the Great Recession:
• With unemployment stuck in the double digits, the jobless in Kanabec County were deeply embarrassed to turn to their food shelf for cereal, spaghetti sauce and other staples.
• With the loss of its major employer, Lewiston’s last full-service grocery store closed too.
• Job losses coupled with health care bills left an Alexandria family struggling to pay heating bills.
Now, a statewide survey sponsored by the Blandin Foundation documents the recession’s hard bite on rural communities.
A whopping 65 percent of all Minnesotans who participated in the Rural Pulse Survey said their communities lack job opportunities.
Indeed, they ranked the need for living-wage jobs as more than twice as important as the second most critical issue, which was a lack of educational opportunities. Residents of hard-hit central Minnesota and those over age 50 expressed the least confidence in their communities’ current economy.
Quality of life
The struggle to create and retain jobs is nothing new for small towns across America.
But the recession apparently undercut one strength that had kept town after town going: a belief in the quality of rural life — trust that some deeply important intangible benefits came from living outside cities.
More than one in three of the rural residents, 37 percent, said in the survey that the quality of life in their communities has declined. Only 15 percent said it has gotten better.
That is a steep decline over the past decade. Ten years ago, only 9 percent of those who participated in a similar survey said the quality of life in their communities was deteriorating.
Community leaders, surveyed separately, expressed even greater concerns. Only one in five of the leaders agreed that there are adequate, quality employment opportunities. Indeed, one in four of them had considered moving to a larger city or metropolitan area themselves, largely in pursuit of job opportunities.
One key strength that seems to have survived the recession is hope in the future, based on a firm belief that individuals can make a difference in their communities.
A solid majority — 87 percent of those surveyed — said they can help their communities become better places to live. And a very large majority said members of their communities work well together.
Further, nearly seven in 10 were confident quality of life will improve over the next few years.
“Rural Minnesotans are struggling to maintain jobs, schools and checkbooks — and yet have confidence about the future of their communities,” Jim Hoolihan, president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation, said in a statement.
“Their challenges and assets must be a part of the discussion — and a part of the solution — in virtually all matters relevant to the future of Minnesota,” he said.
The survey looked into the striking demographic changes that are sweeping Greater Minnesota as members of ethnic minorities take jobs there. More than half of those surveyed — especially in southern Minnesota — said their communities had become more diverse.
Seventy-eight percent agreed with the statement “My community is a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds and perspectives.”
But Caucasians were far more likely to agree with that statement (80 percent) than non-Caucasians (63 percent). And 43 percent did not feel local leadership reflects representation from people of differing backgrounds.
Internet and cell phone access
On another measure of sweeping change, 86 percent of those polled said their communities had adequate access to technology.
While cell-phone access has steadily improved over the years, school officials and community leaders say that rural areas lack adequate broadband service.
One argument takes the issues full circle. It holds that job prospects will improve if more communities are fully wired with high-speed Internet connections.
Residents who were surveyed may be taking into account the fact that millions of federal stimulus dollars have been dedicated to bring broadband to many of their communities in the near future.
Among other survey findings:
• Forty-one percent of rural residents — particularly those younger and with lower incomes — say they have never been invited to participate in a leadership role.
• Identifying alternative energy resources is a high priority for rural Minnesotans — 81 percent feel it is important to pursue emerging energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuels.
• Most rural Minnesotans believe their community provides equal, quality access to essential services. As an example, 89 percent feel their community is doing an adequate job of controlling crime, serving the elderly and being good environmental stewards.
“Even though facing challenges, rural Minnesotans have a strong sense of possibility as innovation and new technologies offer opportunities unimaginable to generations past,” Hoolihan said.
“Yet overwhelming concern for sustainable jobs suggests the need to establish a more meaningful link between education, innovation and employment opportunities,” he said. “To embrace such positive change, leadership in our rural communities must be inclusive, responsive and collaborative.”
About the survey
The Blandin Foundation conducts the periodic survey of Minnesotans living outside the seven-county metro areas in communities with populations smaller than 35,000. About 1,064 Minnesotans participated in this year’s survey which was conducted in September by the independent research agency Russell Herder. It has a statistical reliability at the 95 percent confidence level of plus or minus 3.2 percent.
You can view the full report or visit the Blandin Foundation website.
Sharon Schmickle covers science, Greater Minnesota, the economy and other topics for MinnPost. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.