SALEM, Ohio — There are many reasons why people prefer to live in the country: open spaces, the opportunity to own more land, and less traffic are just the tip of the list.
That’s the plus side. On the down side is the distance required to get to shopping or theaters or school, lack of high-speed Internet access, and limited employment opportunities.
Ohio State rural sociologist Jeff Sharp uncovered another disadvantage in a survey of Ohioans earlier this year: an “energy tax.”
Sharp and colleagues gauged 1,500 Ohio residents’ attitudes on various trends, part of the biennial Ohio Survey of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Issues. As expected, rising energy costs, specifically the rising gasoline prices that only just recently came down, were at the top of respondents’ concerns.
Nine out of 10 rural Ohioans surveyed said they were “very concerned” about the rising cost of gasoline and heating fuel. In fact, 42 percent of respondents living in rural townships said the overall gas prices were a “serious financial hardship.”
And that hits rural Ohio harder than urban Ohio, Sharp said, because of the miles traveled.
“Rural America travels a long way for its jobs,” he added, explaining that many industrial jobs have left rural communities.
Sharp added a sense of urgency to the impact of high energy costs and the necessity of finding alternatives.
“We’re really entering a new era,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of time to solve problems.”
“Some of us need to evangelize,” he added.
The crunch is not the same as it was in the 1970s, when energy was a geopolitical issue. Now, it’s a supply problem, Sharp explained, with a greater economic dimension.
The energy tax is not just hitting rural Ohioans, however. Sharp said the “exurbs”, or the areas between the edge of the suburbs and rural communities, are also affected. These residents are the ones who drive or ride the most miles each week, just over 210 miles, according to the 2008 survey, compared to 121 miles by urban residents and 194 miles by rural residents.
Sharp said these residents choose to live in the exurbs and make that drive.
When asked whether they consider themselves better off or worse than a year ago, 42 percent of the 2008 survey respondents replied “worse,” as compared to only 19 percent who answered that way in 2006.
The Ohio State researchers discovered, not surprisingly, that when the economy is doing poorly, many other issues pale in importance.
The survey started in 2002 to determine the public’s perceptions of agriculture, and several questions have been asked in each survey to track trends over time.
For example, only 28 percent of respondents this year said they were “very concerned” about large-scale livestock facilities, as compared to 40 percent two years ago.
“The economy is just the major issue,” Sharp said. “It’s dwarfing every other issue.”