Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in smaller communities often feel ignored by decision-makers at the state and national level. Being ignored is not always a bad thing, but there is at least one outfit that pays close attention to us - and that's coming up with some interesting and useful information.
The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University (www.iira.org) has a wealth of valuable information and research, from rural health care to "big box" retailers and brownfields. But right now, they're releasing and interpreting the results of their Illinois Rural Life Poll conducted in the summer of 2005.
In part of the poll, people living in towns of less than 25,000 population were asked about what we think of as "quality of life" issues - how much they rely on neighbors, whether they perceived their towns as "safe" and if rural Illinois is a good place to raise children.
Some of the results are about what you would expect, but the survey throws a curve or two. 65 percent "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that they could count on their neighbors, and 82 percent "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that their neighbors could count on them when they need help. But then only 35 percent "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that their neighborhood is "closely knit."
What's up with that? Charles Helm, the WIU professor presenting the results, says that last statistic "may indicate something about the fragility of the complex history, culture and economic well-being that underpin a democratic society." I think I know what he means; when we're asked about closely-knit neighborhoods, our answers carry a lot of assumptions about what "neighborhoods" and "neighbors" are, or should be, or used to be.
When people think of a "closely knit" neighborhood, they may think of Mayberry or whatever town the Cleavers lived in, and compare their neighborhood to that ideal - which may never have existed. And today, "neighborhoods" exist everywhere. I have a group of friends, mainly from my college years, who correspond via e-mail list on a wide variety of issues - some important, some not, some global, some personal. Is this like talking over the back fence or down at the coffee shop? It sure feels like it. Would I "count on them when I need help?" Probably, even though they range from California to Maryland. Are we a "neighborhood?" Why not? What does this mean for local communities? I don't know, but it probably helps explain that 35 percent figure; these days, we have other ties that bind us as closely, or more closely, than a local, physical community.
Of course, that doesn't mean we should give up on our local "community building" resources: Volunteer organizations, churches, sports, schools - even the newspaper you're reading is an important way for the community to gather, share, grow and maintain its identity.
Other parts of the poll dealt with the perception of safety. Eighty-eight percent "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that parents need to be more watchful these days to protect their children from potential harm from strangers - comparable to the result when the question is asked in a metropolitan area. And when asked to respond to the statement, "I can think of no other place to live where I would feel safer," 49 percent agreed or strongly agreed, 46 percent were neutral or disagreed.
We in the local and national media probably influence those results as much as anything else. As Helm says, "A public opinion poll measures people's perceptions, which are shaped by local environment, interactions with neighbors, and violence in the community. But perceptions are also shaped by national media and events such as 9/11 and continuing global violence. Rural residents' perceptions not only reflect activities of neighbors on the town square but also events in the global environment."
It's proven that the way we report crime and disaster creates a perception that these things are widespread and a general threat, whether they are or not. Whatever you think of the film "Bowling for Columbine" or its other points, it makes that point pretty convincingly. And, unfortunately, our leaders sometimes use those fears for political ends, and we sometimes base our own life decisions on those fears.
If our communities are really not much more dangerous than they used to be, or not much less dangerous than larger communities, maybe part of the message is just that we should have been more watchful of our children all along. And not just watchful of strangers; after all, most sexual assaults, whether of adults or children, are by someone the victim knows.
I'll try to share some more of the poll information as it comes out. And if you have thoughts of your own on the issues, feel free to share them on this page.
We received a letter from a reader taking us to task for not identifying the soldiers in our photo of the new "war on terrorism" monument in a recent issue of the Daily News. We normally try to identify as many people by name in our photos as possible, but it doesn't always happen for one reason or another, usually deadline-related. While most, if not all, of the servicemen have been identified before in the newspaper, and we constantly publish updates on their status, here are the ones who were present for the photo: Rodney Eubank, Ronnie Jones, Nathan Peters, Jason Shaffer, Justin Tuel, Omar E. Wilson, Kyle Culver, Chad Littlejohn, Chadd Nading, M. Shane Robinson, James Shaffer and Chad L. Thacker. Most of the names of currently serving personnel are included on the sign at the north side of the courthouse.
Visit the Operation Crawford County Web site (www.oppcc.org) for more on ways to support local troops, and keep letting our Michelle Wagoner know (firstname.lastname@example.org, 544-2101 ext. 111) about what's going on with the military personnel who are important to you.