Faculty research examined attitudes of rural Pennsylvanians on key policy issues

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — With support from the Center for Survey Research at Penn State Harrisburg, researchers, led by Daniel Mallinson, collaborated to survey the attitudes of rural Pennsylvanians on a variety of topics, and how these attitudes affect their perspectives on issues relevant to state and local government, policymakers, community leaders, and other stakeholders. The research was conducted in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began in the U.S.

“Knowledge of the attitudes of rural Pennsylvania residents specifically is needed not only so that policymakers may respond to this quarter of the population, but also because there is evidence that attitudes of rural residents differ from those of urban residents and that attitudes may further vary within rural areas,” said Mallinson, assistant professor of public policy and administration in the college’s School of Public Affairs. “This project provides the data required to inform policymakers of the attitudes of this population concerning several key policy issues.”

Rural areas have been recovering from the recession, managing shifting demands for natural resources, realizing the need for broadband access for daily life, trying to provide access to quality healthcare, and trying to meet the challenge of the opioid crisis, to name only a few trends. According to Mallinson, the attitudes that rural Pennsylvanians hold on these issues, what issues they consider priorities, and what actions they would prefer policymakers take may have shifted over the last 10 years as these developments and others have occurred.

According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (CRPA), there are 3.4 million residents across the 48 rural counties in the commonwealth that policymakers serve. The researchers surveyed 2,000 Pennsylvanians (1,200 rural and 800 urban, as defined by the center).

Survey topics included attitudes about respondents' communities, satisfaction with how things are going in Pennsylvania, trust in government, most-important policy problems, natural resource management, and the opioid crisis. For questions asked in this survey and one conducted in 2008, researchers compared responses to those collected in 2008, which was also funded by CRPA. Researchers also compared rural and urban attitudes to identify commonalities and divergences in opinion on key issues.

“Since the most recent survey had been done in 2008, social, political, economic and demographic changes have occurred which could lead to shifting outlooks or new issues to consider,” Mallinson said. “This project provides up-to-date data on rural views, as well as allows for future opinion polls to continue to assess trends in these views over time.”

Mallinson added that the 2008 report came amid the Great Recession. “At the time of this survey the U.S. economy had recovered, but somewhat unevenly. Urban areas generally recovered better than rural. New issues were at the forefront. For instance, Pennsylvania adopted medical marijuana [a topic of the 2008 study] and the conversation has now moved on to recreational marijuana [a topic of the current study].”

He added that one of the most important differences from 2008 is the decline in engagement in community activities, such as community clubs or organizations and local government commissions, committees, or boards.

Findings include that rural residents agree with their urban counterparts on a number of issues, including general satisfaction with their communities and how things are going in Pennsylvania;    general agreement that most community and state issues should receive the same or higher priority; similar viewpoints on legalizing marijuana, keeping the death penalty, arming school teachers and staff, a graduated instead of flat income tax, the need to regulate fracking, support for a severance tax on natural gas, and support for renewable energy development; and some level of trust in state government institutions and officials.

Urban and rural residents also have some key differences, according to the study, including top priorities — jobs for rural residents, roads and infrastructure for urban residents. Both want action on opioids, but disagree on the forms — urban more supportive of treating this as a health care issue, rural more supportive for greater criminal justice response.

“Even though urban and rural perspectives are often thought to be quite different, we find that there is a lot of agreement,” Mallinson said. “There are some fundamental differences on important policies. There is far more agreement than we expected. We also think the decline in civic engagement is concerning. Lawmakers should think about whether there are policies surrounding things like voting and civic education that can address this problem.”

The project was originally developed as a collaboration between Chelsea Kaufman and the Institute for State and Regional Affairs when Kaufman was a postdoctoral scholar in the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs. Kaufman continued the collaboration after becoming a faculty member at Wingate University. She serves at a subject matter expert on the project.

“The similarities in rural and urban views on some issues show the importance of surveying citizens on state and local issues to inform policymakers at this level,” Kaufman said. “If we rely on national surveys alone, the views of rural Pennsylvanians on these types of issues may not be clear and policymakers may be forced to extrapolate from rural perspectives on national issues.”

Mallinson added that the final report highlights more nuance in terms of rural and urban differences, as well as how personal and demographic characteristics impact those differences.

The research was funded by a $50,000 grant from CRPA.