Using information collected from the U.S. Census, direct interviews and surveys, previous projects have investigated various facets of economics, quality of life, and issues of governance in the Intermountain West. The first project examined how the rising cost of health services and low incomes in rural communities combine to create substantial barriers to healthcare services. Using information on the demographics, federal land, health policy impacts, and health care market structure in nineteen rural counties, the study integrated descriptive market and demographic characteristics with geographic mapping methods to examine the relationship between land ownership structure, market structure, and other factors potentially impacting health care. As part of the study, scholars also conducted a series of key-informant interviews with individuals directly involved in health policy and land management to refine a typology of rural health markets and assess how federal, state, and local policy impacts the viability of rural health care systems.

The second project considered social services beyond health care and education. Part of the project’s scoping process included key informant interviews with county level administrators and politicians. These interviews suggested great variation in the set of services offered to citizens that cannot be explained solely by land ownership patterns. In fact, the different composition of rural populations across communities appeared to be the driving force behind the process. To put that finding into a systematic context we developed a generalized model of collective action based on the collective action literature and collected census, expenditure, and income data in the counties in order to test the model.

The third project evaluated both the structure of rural educational systems and parents’ satisfaction with those systems. In completing this study, information was gathered on educational attainment, expenditures, test scores, Title 1 eligibility, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, ethnic makeup of student bodies, and student/teacher ratios. This information was supplemented with an in-depth telephone public opinion survey and key informant interviews. Our sample was stratified and analyzed to facilitate county-by-county comparisons of educational attainment and satisfaction. 3 We found that the standard explanations of how quality education is conceived failed to account for the variation in school performance in rural western counties, instead we found that the influence of parental demand proved a better predictor of school performance.

The fourth project organizes the data from our previous projects and combines it with other
secondary data and demographic information primarily gathered from the United States census to develop a more comprehensive perspective of the economic and social lives of rural westerners. Specifically, we compare rural non-public lands counties with rural public lands counties and urbanized areas and constructed a comprehensive quality of life index which we used to compare quality of life within those counties.4 Our early findings indicate a profound effect of quality of life on how rural citizens consider and make political decisions, and our ongoing research in this area seeks to explain differences in outcomes across rural counties through the lens of varying quality of life.