Local community groups in central and southeastern Ohio spoke to 1,100 residents about issues facing their households. Here’s what they said.

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Politicians need to localize their legislative platforms and focus on decreasing daily expenses and improving quality of life to engage residents living in rural communities like ours. That’s the preliminary finding from our four-month Participatory Civic Research project in high-need, low-engagement neighborhoods in rural Ohio.

The Local Progress Report surveys, which collected responses from 1,106 households, blended political canvassing and community-based research to collect detailed insights into neighborhood needs and opinions. This data shows that, even more than job creation in these communities, elected officials need to focus on reducing daily expenses and improving local quality of life, particularly by addressing the ongoing addiction epidemic and investing in local housing, public services, and infrastructure.

Co-developed with local grassroots organizations, our Drop Off/Pick Up (DO/PU) survey methodology was crafted to reach small-town residents typically ignored by public opinion research and political campaigns, addressing well-established barriers to civic participation such as voter registration status, language and literacy barriers, family responsibilities, and institutional experience barriers. In addition to hyper-local data, this program invested in these communities’ abilities to tell their own stories in 2024 and beyond.

Ahead of President Biden’s visit to Licking County, Ohio, this week marked the final chapter in our Local Progress Report data collection. Already the data sheds light on why so many small-town Ohioans feel politicians are out of touch with their communities.

Based on the preliminary findings from this survey, we recommend that politicians representing rural battleground communities like these:

  • Focus their agendas on reducing daily expenses for residents of small towns and rural communities. Rural Americans spend a larger share of their budget on day-to-day expenses. Over the last two years, Congress has allocated billions of dollars for rural-exclusive or rural-focused cost reduction programs. Local, state, and federal candidates for office should work to ensure these programs actually reach small-town America.
  • Build legislative platforms centered on concrete initiatives that improve the quality of life in small towns and rural communities by investing in affordable housing, transportation, and addressing local impacts of the addiction epidemic.
  • Establish programs that ensure local wages rise with the cost of living. Household incomes in small towns and rural communities are lower than other areas of the country, and while Congress has allocated billions of dollars for rural-exclusive or rural-focused job creation programs, many of these programs are implemented at the state and local level.

Through our Local Progress Report surveys we spoke to:

  • 1,080 total residents across Licking, Fairfield, and Athens counties
    • 331 residents in Licking County Census Tract
    • 274 residents in Fairfield County Census Tract
    • 501 residents in Athens County Census Tract
  • 91.5% of the residents were White (n=1034)
  • 8.5% of the residents were non-White (n=1034)
  • 57.3% of residents had a household income below $50,000 (n=843)
  • 77.3% of residents had a household income below $75,000 (n=843)

Rather than relying on outside polling firms, our Local Progress Reports work with partners who live and work in the community to ensure our survey instrument is focused on hyper-local issues ensuring that local leaders have been empowered to explore the issues they know to be the most relevant to their communities.

While traditional canvassing relies on voter files, our network includes many rural stakeholders who are often invisible through this dataset. Our surveys are intentionally structured to capture voices from people who are left out of the political process and whose needs are neglected by public resources.

Through our Local Progress Reports, residents of small towns and rural communities identified the following as the most helpful community improvements for their households:

*Responses represent 501 participants surveyed by Indivisible Appalachian Ohio.

*Responses represent 248 participants surveyed by Fairfield Think Tank on Poverty.

**Responses represent 331 participants surveyed by Newark Think Tank on Poverty.

Even more than job creation in these communities, our data shows that elected officials representing these communities need to focus on reducing daily expenses, and improving local quality of life, particularly by addressing the ongoing addiction epidemic and investing in local housing, infrastructure, and public services.

There are three primary ways the Local Progress Report approach improves the community input gathering process. Education Fund is a nationally-focused organization based out of Ohio. While our team members live in communities across the United States, rural Ohio has been the heart and soul of our organization since our founding in 2017.

Over the last five years, ROEF has worked to support the work of rural civic leaders across Ohio. For the last few months, organizations in our network have been knocking on doors and talking to voters too often ignored by both political parties.

These community-based conversations and research techniques not only put local leaders in the driver’s seat to generate local solutions that respond to local needs, but they also paint a clear picture of the critical local issues too often ignored by federal and state officials.

Our front porch “Local Progress Report” methodology is a new model for addressing some of the well-established barriers to participation in the political process like language and literacy barriers and caregiving home responsibilities. Leaning on relationship-building as a way to move past institutional experience barriers such as suspicion of organizational actors or fear of being typecast. Additionally, our DO/PU surveys are COVID-safe.

Participatory Survey Development Holistic Local Representation

Drop Off/Pick Up Methodology

  • Is non-partisan
  • Data can be used for electoral and issue advocacy campaigns
  • Co-development of survey with local leaders means questions are hyper-localized
  • Achieves base-building and agenda building in tandem, instead of in sequence
  • Randomized sample of households is more representative than voter files
  • Selection set limited to rural to gather uniquely rural perspectives
  • Community-selected census tracts targeted those neighbors facing continued discrimination
  • To cross-validate neighborhood selection, a demographic analysis showed residents were disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, verifying the reach to historically underrepresented neighborhoods
  • Following the leadership of local leaders to select the highest-need census tracts, prioritizes local knowledge
  • Offers a variety of ways and multiple opportunities to engage; instead of only one method of sharing a perspective
  • Recognizes barriers to participation and addresses them, like low literacy and folks with reasons to fear institutions
  • Targets folks who are often not included, such as folks not registered to vote
  • Builds relationships with more personal conversations over multiple visits
  • No persuasion agenda breaks down defensive walls and fosters connection
  • Catalogs information in real time but without an overly simplified set of responses – this increases data accuracy
  • “Sorry we missed you” cards wrap many method benefits into one small action

As seen so far in the 2022 cycle, candidates with a bold, progressive, and hyper local rural agenda can set themselves apart.

Right now, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fight income inequality and grow prosperity in small towns and rural communities. Residents of small towns and rural communities across central and southeastern Ohio are looking for bold federal programs with concrete local impacts.

Our Local Progress Report analysis is just getting started so stay tuned for more analysis from the team here at Education Fund and our local partners.


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