In the spring of 2020, the Rural Poll arrived in 7,000 mailboxes of rural Nebraskans across the state, as it has each year since 1996.
Last year was special—2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Rural Poll, which has given rural Nebraskans an annual platform to voice their opinions and concerns on wide-ranging and important topics including agricultural policy, energy, the environment, climate change, government, crime, education, health care, housing, immigration, taxes, community development strategies, technology and work, among others.
"Rural people haven't always felt they have much of a voice," said Becky Vogt, manager of survey research for University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Agricultural Economics. "Nebraska's urban population can sometimes overshadow the rest of the state."
The poll was first conducted under the leadership of Dr. John Allen and Dr. Sam Cordes. Vogt, who was a student at UNL then, began managing the poll in its second year in 1997, and has been with it ever since.
Over the first 25 years of the poll, some trends have emerged. For example, rural Nebraskans' satisfaction with services such as medical and nursing home care, mental health services and access to senior centers, has generally declined across all years of the study. In addition, satisfaction with entertainment, retail shopping and restaurants has generally declined over the past 20 years.
At the same time, the optimism of rural Nebraskans has been building. Each year the proportion of rural Nebraskans who say they are better off than they were five years ago has been greater than the proportion saying they are worse off than they were five years ago, with around 45 percent reporting they were better off and 19 percent reporting they were worse off. During the past six years, the gap between the two groups has widened.
Rural residents are also increasingly positive about the future. The proportion saying they will be better off 10 years from now has always been greater than the proportion saying they will be worse off 10 years from now, and the gap between the two groups has gradually widened since 2013.
The 2020 poll was mailed just after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many schools and workplaces across Nebraska and disrupted agriculture and other industries. Most rural Nebraskans who responded to the poll (89%) agreed that infectious diseases will have a major impact in the country in the next few years. And most rural Nebraskans assumed there will be limits on what federal and local governments can do to contain a widespread infectious disease outbreak.
Most respondents also indicated that their community was willing to work together to overcome a setback, and that, for the most part, their neighbors were willing to help one another out.
Each year, findings from the Rural Poll are distributed in a series of reports crafted by Vogt and a team of faculty from the University. In 2020, reports focused on the impact of severe weather, resilience, well-being, and the impact of the state's agricultural industry. This data is used widely by economic development groups; local, state and federal lawmakers; and nonprofits, among others. Findings from the poll are regularly lifted up in local and state media, but national outlets, including the New York Times and National Public Radio, have also cited the poll over the years.
Other states, including Mississippi, Texas, South Dakota and Ohio, have modeled survey efforts after the poll, and academic researchers have incorporated poll data into examinations of community satisfaction, migration intentions, residential preferences, and other topics.
"The Nebraska Rural Poll started out over 25 years ago as a research tool," Vogt said. "Today its reach goes well beyond that."