A new statewide survey released today by the Blandin Foundation shows the demand for jobs is the top concern for people in rural Minnesota.
Blandin's Rural Pulse survey polled more than a thousand people living outside the metro area in cities smaller than 35,000. The survey reveals a mix of worry over the economy and confidence in the future.
“There just aren't other jobs out there that my staff are able to jump to from this position like there used to be.”Rebecca Hoffman, Bemidji
About half of those surveyed listed the need for living wage jobs as their number one priority. Sixty-five percent said they believe there aren't enough job opportunities in their rural communities, where some people feel stuck.
Rebecca Hoffman, director of a homeless shelter in Bemidji, is among nearly a third of survey respondents who say the rural economy is worse today than it was a year ago. She said over the past year the number of people seeking shelter has grown.
Hoffman also sees another sign: an end to the high turnover in the seven minimum wage positions she oversees at the shelter. Now, those workers are sticking around.
"There just aren't other jobs out there that my staff are able to jump to from this position like there used to be," Hoffman said. "So as an employer, I've seen a difference in my employees having a sense of 'I'm just grateful to have a minimum wage paying job and I'm hanging on to that with my dear life.' "
The survey from the Blandin Foundation, a funder of Minnesota Public Radio, found a sharp jump in the number of rural residents who perceive their communities are struggling. Nearly 40 percent say the quality of life in their town is worse than it was last year. That number is four times higher than it was when the Grand Rapids, Minn., foundation asked the same question a decade ago.
"We think that the health of rural is critical to the health of the entire state," Blandin Foundation President Jim Hoolihan said.
Conducted in September by independent researchers Russell Herder, the Rural Pulse survey was included 1,064 responses and has a statistical reliability of plus or minus 3.2 percent.
It provides evidence that the distressed economy may be fueling a migration of rural workers to job opportunities in metro areas, Hoolihan said. Sixteen percent of respondents said they've considered such a move in the past two years.
When Blandin asked a group of more than 500 alumni from its community leadership program, one in four said they've also considered moving away from rural Minnesota.
It's the first time the survey asked that question, so comparisons are difficult. Still, Hoolihan said the responses are troubling.
"That reflects a fair amount of turmoil, a fair amount of instability. It's also a reality of the day," he said. "When there's that percentage of a community that is signaling 'it's pretty tough here and for economic and job reasons I might have to make a drastic change,' I think it's something that we ought to pay attention to."
Survey responses varied by region. In Southern Minnesota, retired community college vice president Roger Boughton thinks the economy there may be better than it was a year ago.
"What I'm seeing in Southern Minnesota is the farm economy is exceptionally good," said Boughton, of Austin. "The prices of crops are good [and] the number of bushels per acre is outstanding, which translates into people buying things."
The perceptions people have largely depend on their vantage point, said Drew Digby, a northeast regional labor market analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. He said times are tough for workers in the struggling timber industry, for example. But taconite mining on the Iron Range is enjoying a rebound from layoffs a few years ago.
"There are really sort of two economies taking place, you know," Digby said. "Depending on what industry you're in, you really have a different view of how the economy is doing, and two people who live only a block away from each other, could really disagree on how things are doing."
The Blandin survey found that 43 percent of rural Minnesotans feel their local leadership doesn't reflect a diversity of backgrounds. More than 40 percent -- especially younger people and those with lower incomes -- say they've never been invited to take on a leadership role.
Nearly all rural residents surveyed believe they can help make their community a better place to live. And nearly 70 percent think their quality of life will improve in the next few years.