The New England Community Outlook Survey is a survey of service providers' perceptions of the economic and financial conditions of lower-income communities and individuals in New England and the organizations that serve them.
Over the first two weeks of October, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conducted its second semiannual New England Community Outlook Survey. This time period coincided with the government shutdown. Consequently, many of the respondents expressed concern regarding its effect on their organizations. Because the survey took place during the shutdown, many of the effects described by respondents may not provide a complete picture, as many respondents were unsure of when the shutdown would end or what the post-shutdown environment would look like. The survey covered topics ranging from the availability of credit to small businesses to emerging issues facing lower-income communities. The responses revealed trends about the challenges faced by lower-income families and the organizations that serve them. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents classify themselves as serving exclusively rural populations and an additional 38% as serving both rural and urban areas. Taken together, this means over 60% of the respondents classify themselves as serving rural populations in New England to some extent. What we found was that New Englandís rural communities face similar challenges as their urban counterparts, but their responses often differ.
Respondents ranked job availability, access to affordable housing, federal and state budget cuts, and K–12 education as the top five challenges for the six months covering May to October 2013. (Figure 1) The same top five challenges were highlighted in previous six month period (November, 2012 to April, 2013). Credit scores and home foreclosures appear on the list of the top 10 challenges, displacing crime and vacant properties.
New England is by no means unique. The unpredictability of government funding and policy affects lower-income service providers all over the country. The New England Community Outlook Survey provides a glimpse into the headwinds faced by providers in our region.
New England's Rural Poor
Every region has its own mix of urban and rural, and while rural geographies vary in countless ways, rural lower-income families from across New England face similar trials. New England's rural communities, from the painted foliage of the Berkshires to the rocky coastline of Acadia National Park, feel the pinch of fewer jobs, higher housing costs, and less financial security just like almost every other community in America. The difference is that solutions that work in Dallas, Texas, or Flint, Michigan, will not always work in Aroostook County, Maine.
The Impact of Fiscal Uncertainty
While New England's population has grown at a slower pace than the United States as a whole, it is growing all the same, and the poverty rate is rising at the same time. The capacity of organizations providing direct services to lower-income households has to grow both with population and with increased need. While the survey respondents consistently report that their capacity to serve does not shrink or stagnate along with their funding, at some point their ability to do more with less or the same will come to a halt. Predictable funding is only one part of any organization's growth, but it does help build a strong foundation from which to grow.
New England's rural community economic development challenges benefit from the collaborative nature and practical knowledge of mission-driven community organizations working within our rural towns and villages every day. The New England Community Outlook Survey will continue to ask service providers for local knowledge on how lower-income communities are faring and how the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston can provide insight on the issues.
For the past two years, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has conducted the New England Community Outlook Survey. The respondents represent organizations providing direct services to lower-income households. Organizations are asked twice a year to designate a senior staff member to respond to the six-minute survey. For the latest iteration of the survey, 160 service providers from the economic development, affordable housing, community action, human services, and workforce development sectors in each of the six New England states responded to 22 multiple-choice and fill-in questions. We asked respondents to comment on the changes in conditions over the previous six months and to project changes over the next six months. Respondents completed the survey between October 1 and October 18, 2013. For the purposes of this report, USDA Rural Urban Commuting Areas (RUCA) from 2006 were used to classify zip codes as either rural or urban. Data collected represent the opinions of service providers who completed the survey. While we strive to include a reasonably representative sample in our survey, responses should not be interpreted to represent the opinions of all service providers in New England.