Rural Optimism and Volunteerism

Roger Rose, Associate Professor of Political Science, joined Center for Small Towns as director in the summer of 2015. His teaching interests include state and local politics and policy, and his primary research examines what motivates people to serve local governments and nonprofits.

Polls over the last couple of years have revealed a marked decline in public optimism about America’s future.  For instance, the 2015 American Values Survey of nearly 2700 adults by Public Religion Research Institute, found that the percentage of people who said America’s “best days were behind us” had increased from 38% to 49%, tying for the first time the percentage of people who felt the best days were still to come.  While the decline of optimism is across all groups and ages, pessimism is found most prominently in whites, working class adults, conservatives, particularly Tea-Party conservatives, and those who follow evangelical or mainline Protestant faiths.  

Though we do not have good polling on optimism among residents of greater Minnesota, it is likely that this overwhelmingly white, working-class population contributes its share to the pessimistic view.  Yet one imagines that a sense of pessimism has existed in rural areas for a long, long time.  Like much of rural America, many areas of greater Minnesota have faced difficult times for far longer than the Metro area or other metropolitan areas in the nation.  Cities and counties have been forced to consolidate schools, close local hospitals and find solutions to the needs of a much older population.  

At the Center for Small Towns, we have seen for years how communities have adapted to and found solutions, even if just temporary, for many of the pressing challenges they face.  There are lots of reasons for the perseverance of the region’s communities: high education levels, ample jobs and the influx of younger residents in enough numbers to keep towns moving along or even allow them to grow.  

From my academic “perch,” I see another invaluable asset–high levels of volunteering and community cooperation.  Volunteerism is one America’s greatest and least noticed assets.  Some 62.6 million people volunteer each year, collectively contributing an estimated 5 billion hours of unpaid work.  And Minnesota is among the top five volunteering states year after year.   But volunteerism is particularly strong in greater Minnesota.  According to a 2012 survey of 103 small town organizational leaders by the Minnesota Association of Voluntary Administration (MAVA), a majority of community leaders reported that crucial areas of local services, such as emergency food provision, firefighting, transportation of the elderly and civic improvement, depend mostly or entirely upon volunteers.    

My own survey research of property owners in four Minnesota communities—Alexandria, Morris, New Ulm and Plymouth found very high levels of volunteering across a range of activities.  Almost 78% of respondents reported volunteering during the past year, spending an average of 9 hours per month on some kind of volunteer work.  Such a volunteer rate far exceeds the rates and hours reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and supports previous research on high levels of rural volunteering (Musick & Wilson, 2008:330).  

Important to community health, many citizens seem ready to help government with needed services. Some 17.5% of respondents reported they had volunteered previously for a city, county or other local government and some 34% said they would be willing to volunteer in “an area of interest” if asked by a local government.  

Voluntarism, of course, cannot substitute for the provision of many of the most vital services and, by itself, will not alter people’s view about the future direction of our country.  (It’s worth noting, though, that volunteers report much higher levels of personal happiness and even better health outcomes than non-volunteers (Musick & Wilson, 2009)). From a very practical standpoint, though, the communities of greater Minnesota continue to work well because its citizens are willing to do more than their fair share of unpaid work.   

In the year ahead, CST will be engaged in various projects that center on significant volunteering efforts by communities.  For example, UMM students have helped with farmers markets and food coops, as well as with community learning and assistance groups.   The powerful role of volunteers is one the reasons we at CST remain optimistic about the future of parts of greater Minnesota and why we challenge the narrative of rural Minnesota decline.

We can’t say that the “best days are still to come” for the stressed areas of our region.  But we know that our communities will continue to rely heavily on the volunteer efforts of many as they respond to various challenges.  It can be hard to measure the value “unpaid work”—though see the Independent Sector for its estimate—but, as a researcher and director at CST, I do hope to contribute to our understanding of this invaluable asset during tenure at the Center.

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