Survey: We're not far apart

Oregon's urban-rural divide is well documented, reflected in the fate of statewide ballot measures and legislators' votes.

It's a fact: Residents in Pendleton don't always see eye to eye with residents in Portland, and vice versa.

So guess which part of the state is home to a majority that feels we need to change our lifestyles in response to climate change, and that productive farm and forestland need to be protected from development.

And which part of the state is home to a majority that feels that personal income taxes are too high, and that government is wasteful and inefficient and can't be trusted to make good decisions.

The answer: All parts.

That's among the more revealing findings in a statewide Oregon Values and Beliefs Survey conducted last year by two researchers and underwritten by four organizations, including Oregon State University and Oregon Health & Science University.

It's not that a rural-urban divide doesn't exist, said Tom Bowerman of Eugene, one of the two researchers who conducted the survey. But the divide is not nearly as deep or wide as commonly assumed, he said.

"We have differences, but there are a lot of similarities" in the values and beliefs held by Oregonians in all four corners of the state, Bowerman said.

Bowerman and his fellow researcher, Adam Davis of DHM Research in Portland, will outline many of those differences and similarities at a City Club of Eugene event at noon today.

More than 9,000 Oregonians across the state took part in the survey, which has a 2.6 percent margin of error and a 95 percent confidence rate, Bowerman said. The survey divides respondents into five geographic regions: Central, Eastern, Southern, Metropolitan (Portland) and the Willamette, which includes Lane and nine other counties.

In addition to such topics as climate change and government inefficiency, a majority of respondents in all five regions also said they would pay more to ensure a basic level of quality health care; feel children should have access to nutritious food at school; and want to see better access to mental health services in the state.

A majority in all areas also feel that Oregon's tax system is too complicated and in need of major overhaul.

Other findings include:

K-12 education is the highest priority for public funding, selected from a list of 20 common policy items.

Eighty-one percent said such funding is important and more than half of all respondents — 58 percent — said it's "very" important.

Wellness and healthy living should replace treatment of illnesses as a primary goal of the health care industry (77 percent), and residents should be held accountable for such high-risk behaviors as smoking and lack of exercise through higher insurance premiums (72 percent).

When asked to choose between environmental protection and economic growth, Oregonians favor the former over the latter, 57 percent to 35 percent.

Criminals should be rehabilitated through counseling and job training whenever possible (66 percent) as opposed to strictly being locked up as punishment (27 percent).

Among the findings that most surprised Bowerman: Oregonians across the state, by a ratio of 1.7 to 1, said they're willing to shift some funding from road and highway construction toward public transportation, such as better bus service and high-speed rail.

"Who would have ever guessed that would come out that way?" Bowerman said. "The (prevailing) attitude has always supposedly been, 'I want my own car and I don't want to mess with the bus.'?"

The survey cost $100,000 and was shared by the four sponsors, which also include Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Community Foundation.

Bowerman is a former member of 1000 Friends of Oregon, the land use advocacy group. He said he was motivated to found his nonprofit agency, PolicyInteractive, seven years ago, after Measure 37, a controversial land use initiative opposed by 1000 Friends, was approved by Oregon voters.

"I figured something was dreadfully wrong if we were so out of touch with the general public," he said. "That's what prompted me to independently do some survey work."

Bowerman said he pitched the idea of a statewide "values and beliefs" survey after discovering similar surveys that were conducted in 1992 and 2002. Changes in methodology and questions make it difficult to compare findings from the three surveys, he said.

Despite his previous advocacy work, Bowerman said he stands behind the validity of the current survey findings, which follow American Association for Public Opinion Research standards of practice. "Our research is worthless if it's not reliable," he said.

One common thread is Oregonians' mix of optimism and pessimism.

For example, 84 percent say it would be desirable if Oregonians from diverse backgrounds could find common ground in tackling the state's critical issues, but only 42 percent say such a result is probable.

Similarly, Oregonians' attitudes are mixed when asked whether the state will be in a better or worse place 10 years from now: 27 percent say better, 24 percent say worse, and 44 percent say "the same."

But Oregonians are much more upbeat about their personal futures over the next five years: 78 percent said they are optimistic, 11 percent pessimistic and 11 percent neutral.

"People are pretty satisfied with their personal lives," Bowerman said. "But when you get to public policy, we're pretty disgruntled. Because on some level, we generally feel we've been led down a path and are not very happy with where we've arrived."

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