LINCOLN, Neb. -- Many rural Nebraskans seem ambivalent about newcomers to their communities, perhaps missing opportunities to embrace new blood that could enrich their towns, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln rural sociologist says.
That's one of Randy Cantrell's conclusions as he looks at findings in the 11th annual Nebraska Rural Poll, which included questions about rural Nebraskans' awareness and perceptions of newcomers.
Surveys were mailed in March to about 6,200 randomly selected households in Nebraska's 84 rural counties. Results are based on 2,482 responses.
Only 31 percent of respondents agreed that newcomers to their communities improve the quality of life. One-fourth disagreed, and 44 percent had no opinion.
About 18 percent of respondents agreed new residents have been bad for their community. Forty-six percent of respondents disagreed with that statement, and 37 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.
The high percentages of no-opinion responses -- which carry through on about a dozen separate questions about newcomers' roles and participation in rural Nebraska -- seem to indicate many people are more ambivalent than welcoming or negative toward new residents.
"People just aren't paying enough attention to newcomers," said Cantrell, who works on the poll.
That's curious, considering many rural Nebraskans cite population loss as a key concern about their communities' survival.
"If out-migration is this huge issue ... you'd think we'd be really interested in recognizing the contributions that newcomers might be able to make and that we'd seek them out and make sure that they have that opportunity," Cantrell said. "We seem to be missing out on this group as a potential resource in the community."
"This isn't just the job of your minister or your school principal or your main-street business people. It's the job of everybody to make newcomers feel welcome," Cantrell said.
It's not that rural Nebraskans aren't aware of newcomers' presence. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they're aware of new residents arriving in their communities in the last five years.
"I don't know that many communities are deliberately reaching out to newcomers anymore," said Bruce Johnson, a UNL agricultural economist who also works on the poll.
Johnson cited several reasons for that. Many people who live in rural Nebraska commute to larger communities for jobs and other activities. "That reduces the social networking, engagement and integration."
If newcomers seem to act a little strange or standoffish, suspicions may be aroused -- particularly given the rise in crime in rural America sparked by the methamphetamine crisis, Johnson said.
Finally, people are likely to be more welcoming of new residents who seem "more conforming" to the community's existing culture, he added. Rural Nebraskans who have seen a large influx of immigrants from other countries may have more negative feelings about newcomers.
That probably explains some of the regional differences in people's attitudes found in the poll. Only 26 percent of residents of northeast Nebraska, where packing plants have attracted immigrants to work, agreed that new residents improve quality of life. Twenty-four percent of northeast Nebraskans said new people moving into their community has been bad for the community.
Panhandle residents, on the other hand, are more likely than people in other regions to welcome newcomers, according to the poll. Thirty-nine percent of respondents from that region said new residents improve quality of life.
Whatever the challenges of welcoming new residents, communities that thrive and grow are likely to "see newcomers as new energy, new life, maintaining school enrollment and bringing in new leadership," Johnson said.
"In a world where everybody knows everybody, we really have to go out of our way to be inclusive," he added.
Cantrell agreed. "Communities need to be seriously proactive and intentional about making that happen."
Other findings in the poll:
The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year's response rate was about 40 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.
Complete results are available online at cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/report06.shtml.
The university's Center for Applied Rural Innovation conducts the poll in cooperation with the Nebraska Rural Initiative and Public Policy Center with funding from the Partnership for Rural Nebraska, UNL Extension and the Agricultural Research Division in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.