MOLINE – More than half of participants at a series of rural listening posts held across Illinois this year said they expect their quality of life to improve in the next five years and cited job creation, education funding and access to affordable healthcare as the top issues facing their communities, Lt. Governor Simon said today.
These are the major themes in a report written by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University detailing the feedback Simon gathered from citizens during her rural listening tour in the spring, which took her to Carbondale, Freeport, Gibson City, Mattoon, Peoria and Quincy.
Simon presented the report to the 25-member Rural Affairs Council during a council meeting in Moline today and said the information will form the basis of a strategic plan that will guide the council’s work and complement its focus on expanding local food access and strengthening rural emergency medical services.
“I look forward to working with council members to turn this feedback into a plan that ensures state government is meeting the needs of rural citizens,” said Simon. “Being from Southern Illinois I appreciate the need for innovative ideas that will boost rural economies.”
Over 360 people attended the listening posts and were asked to rank top concerns in the areas of health care, education, infrastructure, business climate, workforce training and quality of life before giving more detailed input during small roundtable discussions.
Despite the overall optimism of listening post attendees, 37 percent thought the quality of life in their community would get worse due to a lack of good paying jobs, and nearly 35 percent voiced concerns about inadequate school funding. Close to half of participants said the ability of local schools to prepare students either for college or for the workforce was the most important education issue.
Participants gave several ideas on how to alleviate these issues including a greater emphasis on vocational and technical training in addition to better collaboration between schools and local businesses. Participants also identified skills such as literacy and math as skills workers need to improve.
Governor Quinn recently signed a bill that Simon helped draft that directs the Illinois State Board of Education to develop model math curricula that will improve college readiness and workforce preparedness. The law is part of Simon’s efforts to strengthen the state’s community college system and improve college completion rates.
“Too many students arrive at college not prepared for college-level math and too many employers, especially in manufacturing, say workers lack the necessary math skills needed in today’s global economy,” Simon said. “We aim to reduce remediation and prepare students for careers by strengthening math instruction in middle school and all four years of high school.”
Rising healthcare costs were a top issue for participants as 32 percent of attendees said affordable healthcare was the most important healthcare issue, while another 22 percent cited access and availability of health insurance. Participants said that improved preventative care and healthier lifestyles could help stem rising costs.
Participants also discussed the critical role technology, particularly access to high-speed internet, will play in offering rural areas expanded access to specialists, preventive care and education services and helping control costs through improvements such as electronic medical records.
Improving high-speed internet access was seen by participants as vital to all parts of rural life in Illinois and attendees said it could offer solutions that enable rural residents, businesses and institutions to collaborate, increase efficiency and control costs. But the biggest barrier to expanding internet use was cost, according to 32 percent of attendees.
"We were impressed by the quality of the discussion and the passion that many of the attendees brought to the conversation," said Christopher Merrett, director of the IIRA. "By participating in the Listening Posts, rural residents demonstrated their commitment to their communities and their belief that rural areas are great places to live, work, and do business."
The report directs the Rural Affairs Council to form a work group and use participants’ feedback along with data from the IIRA’s Rural Life Poll, which formed the foundation of the questions asked at the listening posts, to begin work on a strategic plan.
Rural listening posts were held by Lt. Governor George Ryan across Illinois in 1986 and led to creation of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council the following year. In 1998, 2000 and 2007, the Rural Affairs Council, the IIRA and the Illinois Rural Partners, a non-profit, organized listening posts across Illinois to directly gather input from rural citizens.
The Rural Affairs Council is comprised of citizen members and representatives from various state agencies, institutions and organizations that impact rural Illinois. For more information on the council or to read the listening post report visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.