OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Opportunity and optimism

The Gallup Poll is the most visible (but least profitable) division of Gallup Inc., which is primarily a corporate research and consulting company.

Since 1935, the Gallup Poll has asked a multitude of questions, covering a wide range of topics, in its public opinion surveys. But only three times--all in the 21st century--has it asked Americans what kind of community they would ideally like to live in.

The exact wording of the question: "If you could live anywhere you wished, where would you prefer to live--in a big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town or rural area?"

The winner in the most recent survey, by a large margin, is towns and rural areas. That's where nearly half those surveyed wish they could live, which is almost five times more than those who said their dream location is a big city.

Yet in reality, the percentage of people living in rural America is less than 20 percent.

A majority of the people who live in a city or suburb say they would prefer to live somewhere else, but three-quarters of those living the Mayberry life (towns and rural areas) are happy right where they are.

Interestingly, one of the biggest growth areas in preference for rural living was among non-white adults: four out of 10 said they would prefer town/rural areas in 2020, compared to 28 and 27 percent, respectively, in 2001 and 2018.

Gallup's numbers were echoed a year later in a major study by the Pew Research Center, which also tossed in qualitative data measures indicating that rural residents worry less about crime, drug addiction and affordable housing than their urban counterparts.

Across the board, the highest-ranking factor for choosing a community is that it's a good place to raise children.

The data and analytics are undeniable: Rural life and living is experiencing something of a renaissance in the minds of a great many Americans. Those who already enjoy the small-town lifestyle are less inclined to leave it, and people packed tightly in high-population-density places are pining for it in larger numbers.

In addition to the national research firms, smaller organizations also conduct surveys among rural communities and residents, and those findings don't always garner headline news coverage.

The fifth edition of the annual Survey of Rural Challenges, for example, indicates some disconnects between stereotypical political assumptions and real responses from actual rural residents.

One instance, the survey found, was that while lack of small-business lending gets a lot of publicity, rural respondents actually ranked usable commercial buildings much harder to find than financing.

Rural people also ranked poverty, crime and drug abuse near the bottom of their community challenges.

Among the top challenges, named by more than half the respondents, were residential housing shortages, dead downtowns, not enough volunteers and young people leaving.

When asked to identify rural community assets, the most popular answers lined up with two high-ranking Pew study results about what Americans are looking for: access to recreational and outdoor activities and a strong sense of community.

Two out of three rural survey respondents named natural resources and outdoor recreation as the most valuable rural assets, and half listed an engaged community and committed people and leadership.

Demand is a key part of any business plan, and with more and more people finding the idea of living in small towns and rural areas appealing, that spells opportunity for a lot of Arkansas.

McKinsey & Company is a worldwide management consulting firm even older than Gallup, and its analysts have categorized rural communities into five "archetypes," the most at-risk of which is Distressed Americana.

Arkansas' map is a mass of Distressed Americana counties, with several exceptions bordering main population centers. And as expected from a global consulting conglomerate, McKinsey's strategies for rural redevelopment are highly data-driven and sophisticated.

One McKinsey term stands out for its simplicity, however: placemaking.

T he things that make cities bad places to live can be hard to fix, because they are derivatives of high population density and its inherent attributes: anonymity enables more crime, masses inhibit neighborliness, large schools create persistent learning challenges, huge municipal budgets generate more government dependency, etc.

The negatives rural places face are more easily corrected, and many remedies are already in process. Broadband connectivity is expanding daily. Safer cars and better roadways continue to improve commuting. Lower cost of living can often offset slower wage growth.

Making some place better is simply less daunting when that place is smaller. The can-do, make-do spirit runs deep in American heritage and history, and it's easier for individuals to make a difference in small towns.

Plus, when a place already checks some key boxes for what Americans want--safe communities, smaller schools, with lots of nature nearby--the path to progress and success is shortened.

The most significant question in the Survey of Rural Challenges might be the newest one for 2023: "Do you think your community will be better off in 10 years?"

By a two-to-one margin, the optimists prevailed.

May their number continue to increase. Rural Arkansas, and America, needs them.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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