Tackling perception

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Southwestern Minnesota’s topography teaches a simple lesson: ridges provide better unobstructed views than creek bottoms. The same logic applies to public opinion surveys.

Earlier this winter, Minnesota 2020 commissioned a poll. We asked 800 Minnesotans to prioritize their issue concerns. Health care; jobs/economy, and education came out on top.

Planning the survey, we knew that a random population sample would yield more Twin Cities’ respondents than rural ones. So, we oversampled rural Minnesota, meaning we added enough randomly selected non-metro respondents to achieve a statistically significant rural result.

Issue concerns were the same: health care, jobs/economy, and education. No surprise there.

Significantly, though, rural Minnesotans have a different perception of the problems facing our state. Specifically, 54% of rural folks think that Greater Minnesota’s problems are unique while only 42% of metro residents agree.

I could argue that 58% of metropolitan Minnesotans are clueless, but that’s not the case. Every Minnesotan wants a secure future, a safe home, a healthy family and rewarding work. Our issue findings support that observation.

No, the distinction is contextual.

Minnesota is no longer a rural state, demographically dominated by farmers and small towns, and hasn’t been since roughly 1920. By the same token, Minnesota isn’t Minneapolis-Saint Paul either. If anything, we’re suburban. More Minnesotans live in the suburban Twin Cities than anywhere else.

We didn’t ask rural Minnesotans why they feel that Greater Minnesota’s challenges are unique. That’s a different, more complex survey data collection challenge. But, let me hazard a guess. Or, if you prefer a more academic tone, let me postulate a hypothesis.

First, I’m a farm boy. Our family farm straddles Redwood and Cottonwood counties. My folks raised cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans. I enjoy listening to the midday farm reports. I’ve always subscribed to the Walnut Grove-Westbrook Sentinel Tribune. I once showed a market barrow that had the Minnesota State 4-H Junior Livestock Show’s tenth-highest rate-of-gain. I still see the world from a rural Minnesota perspective.

Health care, Minnesotan’s top issue concern, is a terrific jumping off point for understanding the rural/metro perceptual divide.

From Minnesota 2020’s office, emergency first responder service is probably three minutes distant. Hospital transport would add another ten minutes, maybe a scooch less, to a world -class trauma center.

Comparatively, from my parents’ farmhouse, several miles south of Walnut Grove, the volunteer ambulance squad likely arrives in 12-15 minutes. The Westbrook Hospital is ten miles south of us but for more serious cases, the realistic hospital choice is Marshall. That’s 35 miles. After that, better hospitals require traveling to Mankato or Sioux Falls, SD. Either are two hours driving which means a medivac helicopter.

As a practical matter, a rural heat attack victim better hope that he’s strong enough to hang on for 30-60 minutes before reaching a hospital’s trauma unit.

Consequently, when I study the rural-metro perceptual divide, I’m surprised that it’s not larger. Distance and relative isolation, traditional rural life factors, have shrunk with time. Good roads, critical for market access, also facilitate depopulation. Blessings can become curses.

Minnesota 2020 strongly believes that rural Minnesota is an asset not a liability. I look at my hometown and Minnesota’s hundreds of similarly sized communities and see economic growth opportunity. I see communication technology linking rural Minnesota to the direct global marketplace, raising wages and reinforcing small town life.

Consequently, when I study our survey research, I understand the perceptual disconnect but I also appreciate Minnesota’s revealed strength. When I was a boy, I learned that if you walk southwestern Minnesota’s high central plains ridges, on a clear day, you can see forever. With our survey research, I’m still doing that.

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