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Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Preliminary Survey Analysis, March 2016

Eccles Rural West Conference- 2016 Montana Issues Survey

Preliminary Results, March 24, 2016

By Christopher Muste
Political Science Department
University of Montana

On this page

Montana is emblematic of the rural west in many ways. It has the highest percentage of rural residents in the west and the second-lowest median household income in the region, placing rural issues atop Montana's policy agenda and budgetary challenges. Resource extraction and utilization dominated the state’s early economic development and remain controversial through continuing resource-intensive production and ongoing environmental cleanups. Montana has the fifth-highest percentage of Native American residents in the U.S., many of whom live on reservations and share with other rural residents challenges of limited access to health care and economic opportunities, and the daunting distances involved in travel in the fourth-largest state. Housing is a challenge in a state with boom-and-bust cycles, both in rural areas such as the Bakken oil fields and the many small-to-medium sized cities in the west and south of the state.

The Rural West Conference Montana Survey assesses the views of Montana's residents about major social, economic, and political issues, as well as events and political leaders that affect rural as well as urban Montanans and the state's ability to address their needs. The Rural West Montana Survey interviewed 923 Montana adults from February 1-28, 2016.[1] The survey questions focus on the four main topical panels in the 2016 Rural West Conference: health care and access, natural resource allocation, tribal policy, and homelessness, with additional questions on opinions about Montana and its political leaders, and demographic questions. The data has been weighted to approximate the demographic profile of the Montana population in gender, ethno-racial background, education, and age.[2]

This preliminary analysis provides a brief Executive Summary, then discusses in more detail the five main sections of the survey, following the sequence of questions in the survey. For each question, the overall results are discussed, followed by a breakdown of any differences between self-identified rural, small town, and urban residents. The results discussed are attached in a separate file in the form of crosstabulations, where the rightmost column represent the opinions of all survey respondents who answered the question, with separate columns for urban, small town, and rural opinion.

In a final report to be completed later, other major demographic and geographic differences will be highlighted (gender, ethno-racial background, age, education, and region), and the data will be available for analysis after an embargo period.

Executive Summary

Video: Presenting initial results at the Eccles Rural West Conference

The Rural West Conference Montana Survey shows the complex social and political culture of the state in many ways. Montanans view the state in positive terms, placing its natural environment at the top of a long list of positive attributes of place, and believing the state to be moving in the right direction. The principal concerns expressed by residents are economic, with a range of other issues in the mix, including the environment. The state is unusually bipartisan in contrast to neighboring states, reflected in the high job performance ratings of the two Republican and two Democratic statewide officeholders asked about here. Montanans also trust the state government to use budget surpluses well in programs and services, instead of tax cuts.

Health Care

Health care is a challenge in a rural state with widely dispersed population. Most Montanans report having some health care coverage or insurance; however, costs and distance are hurdles, even for those with some insurance. Moreover, cost perceptions appear to drive widespread negative views of the ACA’s impact, in contrast to broad support for the state’s expansion of Medicaid in 2015. Few veterans using VA hospitals report long waits for appointments. Most Montanans perceive that their communities provide substantial opportunities for their disabled residents, largely due to the communities rather than government at any level. Methamphetamine abuse is overwhelmingly seen as a serious problem, although no consensus exists on the best solution.

Natural Resources

Natural resource issues divide Montanans, although few divisions are sharply polarized. Majorities view climate change as serious, but also favor resource development and transfer of federal lands to the state, with mixed views of the Malheur occupation. Yet Montanans want federal lands to be used for wilderness and recreation more than development, prefer that government support renewable energy over fossil fuels, and are concerned about toxic spills into waterways and fracking. There is strong support for the state to fashion its own carbon emissions policy, and for state policies supporting tribal resource acquisition. These tensions pose complex policymaking puzzles in a state with many stakeholders and access points.

Tribal Policy

Tribal policy issues see some divides in opinion, but broad support for tribes. A large majority of Montanans believe tribal sovereignty doesn’t work well. However, similar majorities support recent policies enhancing tribal control of natural resources. Few Montanans believe the tribes have too much control or receive too great a share of natural resources, and most approve of tribes’ repurchasing ancestral tribal lands and developing coal deposits. Statewide education for all K-12 students about Native American culture and history is widely supported. A plurality of Montanans perceives Native Americans as having fewer opportunities than other Montanans.


Housing problems and homelessness are seen by few Montanans as the most important problem in the state, ranking sixth in importance. While a majority of Montanans view homelessness in their own community to be at least “somewhat” important, there is greater recognition of the problem statewide, and two-fifths personally know someone who is or has been homeless. Most Montanans believe the problem has stayed the same over the past few years. There is disagreement about the causes of homelessness as well as over the responsibility for addressing the problem. However, large majorities favor additional government spending on low income housing, and would be willing for housing to be sited near their own neighborhood.

On this page

Section I: Montana Conditions and Leaders   

Montanans generally have a positive view of the state, its future direction, and its political leaders. Differences in opinion exist between self-identified urban and rural residents on most issues, with small town residents typically closer to rural residents. While many of the differences are statistically significant, the magnitude of the differences on most questions is generally in the 5-20% range, with few gaping differences in opinion. [3]

Value of Living in Montana

When asked what they “value most about living in Montana” fully 49% select “nature and a clean environment,” with 16% opting for “more freedom to do what you want,” 8% favoring “cost of living” and 7% saying “smaller government and lower taxes.” Good education (3%) and good health care (1%) were the least valued. Urban-small town- rural differences were notable, with rural residents about 12% more likely than urbanites to favor “more freedom” and less likely to cite “nature and environment,” with small town residents falling in between. The urban-rural differences were statistically significant, but just barely (the combined margin of sampling error is about +/- 11%, compared to the 12% gap in opinion.[4]

Right Direction?

The next question asked whether things in Montana were “generally headed in the right direction... or off on the wrong track.” The “right direction” option was favored by a 64% - 27% margin. However, only 53% of rural residents said “right direction” compared to fully 75% of urban residents.

Most Important Issues Facing the State

Montanans’ assessment of the “most important issues facing the state” focuses on jobs/unemployment (21%) and economic growth (16%), followed by “environmental protection (11%), health care (10%), education (8%), cost of living (8%), housing costs and homelessness (8%), Native Americans’ rights (5%) and taxes (4%). Rural and small town residents place somewhat greater emphasis on “jobs and unemployment” (22%) while city dwellers emphasize “economic growth” (22%). Otherwise, urban-rural views are very similar.

Elected Officials

Elected officials receive positive evaluations overall among survey respondents who expressed an opinion about their performance. Governor Steve Bullock’s job performance rating is 75% positive, with 27% “strongly approve” and 48% “somewhat approve. Rural residents rate Bullock 12% to 15% lower than their urban and small town counterparts, likely a reflection of greater Republican identification in rural areas, but still are overwhelmingly positive (65% approve). Democratic Senator Jon Tester, in his second term, has a 61% positive rating, and only a 50-50 rating among rural residents. Republican first-term Senator Steve Daines has a 67% approval rating, only slightly lower in urban areas. First-term Republican U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke has a 65% approval rating, uniformly spread across the state, although this is only among the 70% of respondents who had an opinion of his job performance. The Montana Legislature was rated positively by 64% of Montanans, slightly lower in rural areas than in towns and cities.

Budget Surplus

Montana’s past two budgeting cycles have seen conflict over how to deal with the state’s surplus. When asked how they prefer a surplus to be used, respondents prefer using the funds on state programs and services (53%) instead of reducing taxes (38%). The urban-rural split is sharp, with urban residents favoring programs over tax cuts by 62-32% and rural residents evenly divided (45-47%), with small town dwellers falling in between (52-35%).

Overall Views

Overall, Montana residents hold a range of views of what they value and are concerned about, primarily the environment and economic issues. Their views of the state’s direction and its political leaders are positive, with a willingness to let the state use budget surplus funds for programs. Opinion is not uniform, with rural residents more concerned about economic development, less motivated by concern for the environment, and less supportive of democratic officeholders than are urban residents.

Section II: Health Care and Access   

As noted above, “health care” is seen as the most important problem facing Montana by 10% of Rural West Montana survey respondents, but only 1% cite “good health care” as what they value most about living in Montana.

Overall, in terms of their own experiences Montanans report a high degree of access to health care, and a mix of views on policies related to health care, regarding the effects of the ACA and the state government’s decision in 2015 to substantially expand Medicaid coverage. Rural, town, and urban differences are generally not significant, although rural and small town residents were less favorable toward the ACA than urban residents, and rural residents perceived meth as a more serious issue while being less favorable toward treatment and rehabilitation.

Most Report Having Some Form of Health Coverage

Fully 89% of respondents in this survey report having some form of health coverage or insurance, with slightly higher coverage in urban areas. About 60% are covered by their or their spouse’s employer, and 39% buy insurance on their own (which may supplement other forms of insurance, as the survey allowed respondents to select more than one form of coverage). Medicaid coverage was reported by 13%, with fewer receiving any form of military-related coverage (8%) or coverage by government programs for Native Americans (3%). Fully one-third of Montanans reported that they had insurance or coverage from another source (34%). None of the rural-town-urban differences was significant.

But Are Not Always Able to Access Health Care Services

Despite the broad health coverage, 17% reported not being able to see a doctor in the past year due to cost, and 24% reported delaying needed medical care for a reason other than cost. These combined problems were slightly worse in small towns (46%) than rural areas (39%) or cities (35%). For those who delayed coverage, 23% cited little or no insurance, 7% couldn’t get an appointment soon enough, 6% cited the distance to health care providers, and a wide mix of considerations made up the remaining 59% of responses (open ended responses are available). Appointment delays were slightly worse in urban areas and minimal in small towns, while distance was a greater concern in rural areas and nonexistent in the cities.

Views on Affordable Care Act

Turning to opinion about policy, the ACA health care reform law was viewed unfavorably by 65% to 31%, with 49% having a “strongly unfavorable” opinion. Rural Montanans were substantially more unfavorable (72%) than urban residents (55%), with small town opinion closer to the rural viewpoint. Opinions appear to be due to a mix of personal experience and partisan viewpoints. While 52% say the law has not directly affected them, 34% report being hurt by the law and only 13% helped by it. Reported harm is 12% higher among rural than urban residents, and reported help is 8% lower. The main form of “harm” was increased costs (56%) and “other” (31%). The main forms of “help” were allowing coverage to be maintained (33%), increasing access to needed care (22%) and lowered costs (17%), which was higher in rural than urban areas.

Views of Montana's Medicaid Expansion

In contrast, support for Montana’s expansion of Medicaid coverage in 2015 was high, with 36% supporting the expansion, 26% opposing the expansion, and 29% favoring expanding Medicaid coverage to include everyone. A slight plurality of rural residents opposed expansion (33%) rather than favored (30%), but 26% of rural residents favored covering everyone.

VA Health Services

Montana has the second-highest proportion of military veterans of any state, 11% in this sample, about 13% of the small town and rural population, and 9% in urban areas. Among veterans, 57% have received medical care from the Veteran’s Administration (VA), primarily in the small towns (66%) and cities (64%), compared to rural veterans (44%). They report being very or somewhat satisfied with how soon they were able to get an appointment (66%), although only 50% of urban VA patients were satisfied, in contrast to 76% in rural and 92% in small towns (note these are small subsamples with very large margins of error for the percentages).

Disability Opportunities

Montanans believe their local communities do well providing opportunities for their disabled residents, with 24% rating the opportunities “excellent” and 49% “good,” while just 27% rate them as “only fair” or “poor.” Urban-town-rural differences are minimal. Among those who rated opportunities positively, 58% thought opportunities were due to “people in the community,” 22% to non-profits, 12% to local government, 6% to the state and 3% to the federal government (a net of 21% credit for all levels of government). Among those who rated opportunities negatively, major responsibility for opportunities was placed with “people in the community” (38%), local (21%, federal (19%) and state (16%) government – a net of 56% responsibility or blame for government - and lastly non-profits (6%).

Methamphetamine Abuse

Methamphetamine abuse is perceived to be “extremely serious” (42%) or “very serious (39%) by a large majority. There are slightly higher “extremely” responses in rural (46%) and small town (44%) than urban (35%) Montana. To cope with abuse, a range of policies are supported, primary “educating young people” (31%), followed by “increasing legal penalties for meth dealers” (17%), “providing more treatment and rehabilitation programs” (16%), “more resources for law enforcement (13%), “increasing legal penalties for meth users (5%) and “limiting over-the-counter drugs used to make meth” (4%). Regional differences were small, although the “treatment” option was favored more in urban (21%) than rural (10%) areas.

Section III: Natural Resources   

Montanans’ opinions about natural resources and resource development reflect tensions over concerns for environmental protection and economic growth, mirroring the state’s historical reliance on extractive industries to drive development but which has left an ongoing and costly legacy of environmental problems.

At the start of the Rural West Conference Montana Survey, half of Montanans chose “nature and a clean environment” as the thing they valued most about living in Montana. However, just 11% of respondents chose “environmental protection” as the most important issue facing Montana, lower than “jobs and unemployment” and “economic growth.”

Effects of Climate Change

When asked about “the effects of climate change in Montana” overall opinion is divided, with 54% of Montanans agreeing that they “pose a serious problem for the state” and 46% disagreeing. Urban residents are somewhat more concerned (60%) than rural residents (47% - a significant difference), among whom fully 38% “strongly disagree” compared to just 20% of urban residents (also significant).

Development vs. Environment

Similar divisions overall and in place are evident in opinion on development and environment, with development generally favored. First, by a 58-42% margin, Montanans agree that “there is not enough development of natural resources in Montana,” with 64% of rural, 61% of small town, and just 44% of urban residents holding that view, a significant difference. Second, by a 43-57% margin, Montanans disagree that “there is too much environmental damage due to energy production, mining, and other industries.” While 51% of urban residents agree that there is too much damage, only 42% of small town and 35% of rural residents share this view, again a significant urban-rural difference. Third, 56% of respondents believe “environmental laws are too strict and limit economic development,” including 64% of rural, 58% of small town, and 47% of urban residents.

Federal Lands Policy

Federal lands policy has been contentious throughout much of the west, and the survey was conducted during a portion of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. In our survey, 59% agree that “the federal government owns too much land in Montana and should transfer some of it to the state.” Small town residents agree (63%) more than rural (59%) or urban (55%) residents, but these differences are not significant.

However, when asked about how federal lands should be managed, support was greatest for “protect the land and wildlife” (36%), with 23% favoring “development from farming and ranching,” 14% favoring an “increase in recreational opportunities” and just 10% supporting “development from oil, gas, and mining.” Differences are significant on “protect land and wildlife) with 47% urban and just 32% small town and 29% rural support, and on “development from farming and ranching, with just 17% urban and fully 30% rural support.

The Malheur occupation elicits mixed responses. When asked to choose between two points of view, 45% view the occupiers as “breaking the law and should be arrested and prosecuted” while 38% see occupiers as “protecting citizens’ rights and should be supported.” An additional 17% volunteer “neither” or another response, possibly indicating conflicting views about this situation and its complexity. Opinion is polarized, with more “strongly” responses than “somewhat” by 64 – 36%. Urban residents were more strongly supportive of arrest (35%) than rural residents (24%) but this difference is barely at the level of significance due to the combined margin of error (+/-11%).

Responsibility for Environmental Cleanup and Concern over Spills

Recent oil spills in the Yellowstone River are overwhelmingly viewed as the cleanup responsibility of the pipeline company (75%) rather than the contractor who laid the pipe (12% or state and federal governments (4%). There are no notable differences among rural-town-urban residents.

Montanans are “extremely” or “very concerned” (46%) about the possibility of future toxic spills into public waterways, with 35% expressing a middle position of being “somewhat” concerned, and only 19% being “not very” or “not at all” concerned. Urban-town-rural differences are minimal.


There is an even 47-47% split on approval of “the use of fracking to increase by oil and gas production.” Rural approval (53%) is significantly higher than urban approval (41%) with small town support evenly divided.

Renewable Energy Policy

The complexity in Montanans’ views on natural resources extends to the role of federal and state policies in energy production, with 50% support for policies that promote both “oil, gas, and coal” and “wind, solar, and other renewable” production. The balance of opinion favors renewables (33%) over oil, gas, and coal (7%), or “neither” (11%). Renewables are supported most in urban areas (40%) and towns (35%) significantly more than rural areas (24%) which are more likely to opt for “both” forms of energy (56% compared to 45% among urbanites).

Carbon Reduction

Montana is slated for steep cuts in carbon emissions under the recently revised federal regulations due to the state’s coal production and power generation, magnifying the controversy over the smaller cuts proposed in the earlier draft carbon rules. When asked how the state should respond to the new carbon rules, an overwhelming 71% prefer that Montana “develop its own plan to reduce emissions” rather than having Montana “sue the federal government to get the rule changed” (17%) or “allow the federal government to develop the plan for Montana” (13%). Rural-town-urban differences were minimal.

Tribal Water Compact

Two other resource-related questions on the survey also relate to the conference panel on Tribal Policy. First, the state government ratified a water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in 2015, which survey respondents approve of by a 63-37% margin. Rural residents were less approving (56%) than urban residents (69%).

Tribal Ownership of Dam

Second, ownership of the former Kerr dam on Flathead Lake (the largest freshwater lake in the west) was transferred to the CSKT tribes from private ownership in 2015. It produces hydroelectric power and controls irrigation flows to a large area in western Montana, and the transfer has been controversial, with several lawsuits filed to stop the transfer. Montanans approve of the transfer by 59-41%, with lower but majority support in rural areas (53%).

Overall, Montana views on resources are complex. Majorities support seemingly inconsistent views of climate change as a serious problem, favor resource development and transfer of lands, but favor federal land policies for wilderness and recreation, over farming, ranching, and energy development. Montanans have mixed views of the Malheur occupation, concerns about toxic spills into waterways, fracking, and government policies on energy production, while strongly supporting a state-crafted carbon emissions policy, and the CSKT water compact and dam transfer. State control over resources is a clear theme, but how the state should manage resources is less clearly defined. With nature and the environment the most valued aspect of living in Montana (49%) but jobs/unemployment and the economy the most important issues (37%), an inherent tension is built into future policy decisions affecting the allocation of the limited and varied resources of the state.

Section IV: Tribal Policy   

Native Americans are the largest minority group in Montana and comprise a higher proportion of the population (6%) than in any other state except New Mexico, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. The seven reservations across the state are located in predominantly rural areas, and are at the center of tribal policy issues related to resources and economic development, health care, housing, education, and culture. When asked what the most important issue facing Montana is, 5% of Rural West Survey respondents chose “Native American rights.”

Two of the resource-related questions discussed above relate to the Tribal Policy panel. To reiterate: “First, the state government ratified a water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in 2015, which survey respondents approve of by a 63-37% margin. Rural residents were less approving 56% than urban residents (69%). Second, ownership of the Kerr dam on Flathead Lake (the largest freshwater lake in the west) was transferred to the CSKT tribes from private ownership in 2015. The dam produces hydroelectric power and controls irrigation flows to a large area in western Montana, and the transfer has been controversial, with several lawsuits filed to stop the transfer. Montanans approve of the transfer by 59-41%, with lower but majority support in rural areas (53%).”

Tribal Soveriegnty

When asked about how well tribal sovereignty works, most Montanans view it as not working well (62%) with over one-third saying so “strongly” (37%). Urban-town-rural differences are minimal. Since tribal sovereignty encompasses a wide range of complex issues and has many effects on people living on and off reservations, these concerns may reflect different aspects of tribal sovereignty.

Control of Natural Resources

Respondents were asked about tribes’ “control over natural resources on and near their reservations” with 48% saying the tribes had the “right amount” of control, and the remainder split between “too much control” (28%) and “too little control (24%). Rural-town-urban differences were negligible.

Similarly, Montanans’ perceptions of “how well the natural resource needs of Montana’s Native American tribes are balanced with other resource users” are positive, as 51% say they are “about right” and 25% saying the tribes receive more resources compared to others, and 24% saying “less.”

Tribal Land Ownership

Land ownership is one of the current issues related to tribal sovereignty and resources, and 78% of Montanans approve of tribes repurchasing “ancestral lands that the tribes no longer owned, for development or recreation.” Rural-town-urban differences were again negligible. Opinion was similar on the more environmentally controversial issue of coal development, with 73% approving of “coal development on tribal lands” and only 24% disapproving. Rural residents were more likely to “strongly approve” (43%) than urban residents (29%).

Indian Education for All

Cultural awareness through instruction at the K-12 levels is Montana state policy, based in the 1972 Montana Constitution and the Indian Education for All Act (1999, funded 2005). A majority of Montanans believe the Indian Education for All program “covers about the right amount” (52%), with another 39% saying it “doesn’t’ cover enough” and 9% saying it “covers too much” information “about Native American history and culture.” Rural-town-urban differences are minimal.

Opportunities for Native Americans

The survey posed a battery of questions asking whether various groups have “more opportunity, less opportunity, or about the same opportunity as other Montanans.” Overall, 41% of Montanans thought Native Americans had “less opportunity” with 38% citing “the same opportunity” and 22% “less opportunity.” Urban residents said “less opportunity” (49%) significantly more than did rural residents (32%), who were most likely to say “the same opportunity” (48%).

In comparison, Montanans saw a greater lack of opportunity among rural residents (48% “less opportunity”) and poor residents (67%), and higher levels of opportunity among city residents (5% “less opportunity” and 52% “more opportunity”) and farmers and ranchers (22% “less opportunity” and 22% “more opportunity”). A general if muted pattern is that rural residents tend to see opportunities as being generally similar, while urban residents see greater disparities in opportunity.

Support for Tribal Resource Control

Overall, while the term “tribal sovereignty” elicits substantial negative opinion, there is strong support for many manifestations of tribal sovereignty, such as control over resource use and development, and recent agreements transferring resource control toward tribal governments. While majorities or pluralities of Montanans view the tribes as having the right amount of and control over resources, opinion minorities roughly equal in size believe the tribes have too much or too little control. These minorities may be geographically concentrated, for example in the region within which the Flathead Reservation, home of the CSKT tribes, is located, making perceptions of resource inequality more politically consequential in those areas of the state.

Aside from resource issues, a large majority of Montana residents support the continuation or expansion of the Indian Education for All program. Finally, a slim plurality of Montanans believe Native Americans have less opportunity than other Montanans, although rural Montanans and poor Montanans are seen to have even less opportunity. To the extent that Native Americans in Montana are more likely than non-natives to have low incomes and live in rural areas, these factors compound the challenges facing Native American communities, both on reservations and throughout the state.

Section V: Housing and Homelessness   

Although housing and homelessness are often depicted as predominantly urban issues, rural communities experiencing rapid economic growth may face housing shortages, and community growth may be restricted by the geography of mountains or public landholdings. Economic downturns pose challenges for maintaining housing stock and residents’ ability to afford housing. Rural housing challenges and homelessness may be less visible than in urban areas, which adds to the challenges of understanding and addressing the issue.

Housing Costs and Homelessness

“Housing costs and homelessness” was selected by 8% of the Montana Rural West survey respondents as the most important issue facing Montana, with the related concerns of “jobs and unemployment” (21%) and “economic growth” (16%) ranked highest of all issues, with “cost of living” (8%) tied for fifth.

When asked specifically “how serious do you think the problem of homelessness is in your community” 27% of Montanans said it was “extremely” or “very” serious, with 34% saying “somewhat serious” and 40% saying “not very serious.” Concern was much higher among city residents (39% “extremely” or “very”) compared to small town residents (23%) or rural residents (17%).

Montanans perceived homelessness to be a slightly greater problem in the state as a whole, with 35% seeing homelessness as “extremely” or “very” serious. In contrast to perceptions of homelessness within their own communities, there were no differences between city, town, and rural residents in their perceptions of Montana’s homelessness problem.

Many Montanans affirm that they “personally know anyone who has become homeless or experienced periods of homelessness in the past two years” (42%). This includes just 35% of rural residents, compared to 45% of small town and 46% of urban residents. Most Montanans believe homelessness is stable, with 58% saying that “over the past few years… things are about the same” compared to 23% believing the state is “making progress” and 20% seeing the state as “losing ground” on homelessness. Perceptions of progress are somewhat higher in the cities (29%) than rural areas (17%).

Causes of Homelessness

No single cause is singled out to explain homelessness. “Lack of access to treatment for drug addiction and mental illness” is cited by 19%, followed by “low wages” (14%), “unemployment” (13%), “lack of affordable housing” (11%), a mix of “rising housing costs in previously affordable neighborhoods” rising land prices, lack of bank investment, and government regulations. “All of the above” elicits 10%, leaving fully 25% who offered different reasons, ranging from a focus on the actions and behaviors of the homeless themselves, to idiosyncratic explanations, luck and chance. While there is variation in urban-town-rural opinion, the differences are all within the survey’s margin of error.


There is no single agreed-upon source to deal with homelessness. When asked “who should take on the most responsibility for addressing homelessness” Montanans cited “state government” (27%), “local government” (18%), the “federal government” (10%) “families of homeless people (10%), “churches and other charitable organizations” (9%), and “local non-profit organizations (8%). An additional 18% chose “some other person, group, or organization,” with specific mentions ranging from the individual homeless person to society as a whole.

Low Income Housing

Increasing low-income housing opportunities can be expensive and minimally or not profitable. When asked if they favor “increasing government spending on housing in order to reduce homelessness” 61% of Montanans said they would “strongly” or “somewhat” favor the idea. While support was higher in urban (65%) and towns (66%), a majority of rural residents also supported government spending (52%).

The challenge of NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes is commonplace in siting facilities that are perceived to incur costs for local residents, including low-income housing. We asked if “low cost or emergency housing was going to be built in your community to deal with homelessness, would you support or oppose this, if the housing was within a mile of where you live.” Fully 70% supported the proposal “strongly” or “somewhat”, with support slightly higher in towns (74%) than rural areas (64%) and urban areas in between (71%).

Overall, the issue of housing and homelessness is recognized as a problem, but not of the greatest severity or highest priority, despite many Montanans knowing people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness. Most Montanans perceive no increase or decline in the problem. Likewise, there is no single agreed-upon cause or source for a solution to homelessness. However, most Montanans are receptive to increased government spending on housing to address homelessness, even if the new housing is located in Montanans’ own neighborhoods.


[1] Interviews were conducted by the Social and Economic Science Research Center at Washington State University. Questionnaire design was by Christopher Muste in consultation with UM faculty Monte Mills, Daisy Rooks, Steve Schwarze, Tom Seekins, Martin Blair and the staff of the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, and WSU faculty Jennifer Sherman. Iris Hui of the Lane Center provided invaluable consultation on survey design and weighting. Survey funding was provided by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, and by the University of Montana’s President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Vice-President for Research and Creative Scholarship, Institute on Ecosystems, Alexander Blewett III School of Law, Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, and a UM Faculty Research Grant.

[2] Due to weighting calculations the reported number of interviews in the frequencies and other tables is 908, although there are actually 923 completed interviews

[3] The accompanying tables include only the urban-small town-rural self-identification of residents, but this analysis was also conducted using a four-category objective (zip code-based) measure of the rural character of the locale, ranging from 0-10% rural (20% of the sample), to over 90% rural (35% of the sample). Results from this analysis paralleled the results using the self-identification measure, with self-identified urban and rural residents similar to the 0-10% and over-90% objective rural designations, respectively.

[4] With approximately 300 respondents each from urban, small town, and rural areas, the margin of sampling error for the estimates of each group’s opinion is +/- 5.5%. As a result, if the differences in opinion between two of these groups is greater than 11%, the difference is considered significant statistically, meaning that it is unlikely due to chance variation in the sample, and probably reflects real differences in opinion between these groups in the population.

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Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.