A large percentage (43%) of Oregonians do not believe they can make their community a better place to live, according to a recent Oregon Values and Beliefs Center survey. That figure becomes a majority among Oregonians ages 65+; just 62% do not believe they can have a big or moderate effect on their community. That percentage is also a majority among rural Oregonians (54%).
Comparatively, urban (64%) and younger (66%) Oregonians feel much more capable of having a positive effect.
What explains these differences?
There’s no one answer. Instead a variety of factors have convinced some Oregonians that the system is just too stacked against them to be able to turn the gears in their favor.
One explanatory factor: access to information. Nearly 6 in 10 urban Oregonians have a high degree of trust in the people who publish the news about their community; whereas just 4 in 10 rural Oregonians share that view. There’s also a 10 percentage point gap in how much Oregonians in the tricounty area trust broadcast news when compared to Oregonians in the rest of the state (57% versus 47%).
The connection between faith in local news and faith in capacity to incite change makes sense. If you feel confident that you know what’s going on in your neck of the woods, then you likely feel capable of getting involved or at least staying informed about major changes in your community.
Another factor impacting the impact gap: personal security. Oregonians 65+ seem to feel more in control over their personal wellbeing. A full 85% of these older Oregonians reported that they feel able to control what is important in their lives on a majority of days. That number plummets to 65% for Oregonians between 18- and 29-years old. Perhaps insecurity about their own lives spurs younger Oregonians to feel as though it’s only through communitywide changes that they can improve their own well-being.
One final factor and more evidence for the thesis: disparities in how much people feel as though community leaders care about their needs. Almost 60% of younger Oregonians agree that “[t]he people running my community don’t really care much about what happens to me.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, only 44% of older Oregonians doubt the responsiveness of their community leaders.
Why these gaps matter
Our democracy hinges on its perceived legitimacy. If people don’t feel as though the levers of change are responsive to their efforts to make their community better, then faith and participation in our democracy understandably decreases. Consider that around half of Oregonians in the tricounty area are somewhat or very satisfied with the way our democracy works, but only 39% of Oregonians in the rest of the state share that level of satisfaction.
The aforementioned factors suggest that we’ve got a lot of work to do when it comes to giving Oregonians the information and leaders they deserve.
What are some ways to chip away at this impact gap?
First, address news deserts. Oregonians in every community deserve news that’s well-funded and well-resourced so that they can keep local officials accountable and share opportunities about how and when to get involved.
Second, make our elected officials more accountable to voters, not special interests. One way this is happening is through campaign finance reform. This will help give all Oregonians a chance to impact an election, while also reducing the extreme sway wealthy individuals and organizations hold over candidates.
Third, we can end the idea of Oregon exceptionalism when it comes to good governance. This may sound harsh, but Oregon is not living up to its own standards when it comes to being a leader in democracy. Across the urban/rural divide and age spectrum, only 1 out of every 4 Oregonians think the state’s democracy has gotten stronger in the last four years. That’s abysmal.
To improve our democracy here in Oregon, we have to be more open about the fact that it’s flawed and more intentional about instituting meaningful reforms.