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Self-employment key to rural Nebraskans' job picture, poll says


Self-employment continues to grow in rural Nebraska, especially as "people are pasting together bits and pieces of work" in tough economic times, according to the Nebraska Rural Poll.

Surveys for the annual University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll were mailed to about 6,400 randomly selected households in Nebraska's 84 rural counties last March. Results are based on 2,852 responses.

For some years, Internal Revenue Service data have shown self-employment to be the fastest growing employment segment in rural America. In at least one recent year, it accounted for all net job growth in non-metropolitan Nebraska, said Randy Cantrell, a Nebraska Rural Initiative rural sociologist who's part of the Rural Poll team.

The 2009 poll, conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, backs up those findings in a series of questions about employment. The poll found that 66 percent of rural Nebraska households had at least one full-time job contributing to their income, with 36 percent having one full-time job and 30 percent having two.

Of the rural households with at least one person working, 47 percent derived part of their income from self-employment last year.

"People are pasting together bits and pieces of work," Cantrell said.

"People are pretty resilient," added agricultural economist Bruce Johnson. "They're doing a lot of things to adapt to economic times."

Self-employment is especially prevalent in or near smaller communities. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in or near towns with populations under 500 have some type of self-employment, compared to 34 percent of those in or near communities of 10,000 or more.

Sixty-five percent of the self-employed households in or near the smallest communities have a farm or ranch, 43 percent have an ag-related business, 45 percent have a nonag-related business and 17 percent have a contract service to a company.

One-fourth of the households with self-employment get at least 76 percent of their income from self-employment. Fifty-six percent get less than half their total household income from self-employment.

Since households relying more on self-employment are less likely to have health insurance offered by an employer, "rural residents have a big stake in this health insurance debate," said UNL public policy specialist Brad Lubben.

The poll found that 12 percent of working-age rural Nebraskans do not have health insurance. Sixty-eight percent have health insurance through job benefits, 16 percent have purchased insurance on their own and 5 percent have insurance through a government program such as Medicaid.

The 2009 poll also explored trends in agricultural land ownership. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed reported owning some agricultural land. Sixty-one percent of those landowners are 50 or older. Seventy-six percent of ag land owners said they plan to keep their land for at least the next 10 years.

For rural Nebraskans, ag land is "not a speculative asset," Johnson said. "It's a long-term, enduring asset."

"For these households," Johnson added, "the relatively favorable income flows to agricultural land over the past few years have likely buffered them at least partially from the full brunt of the economic recession.

The Rural Poll is the largest annual poll of rural Nebraskans' perceptions on quality of life and policy issues. This year's response rate was about 44 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent. Complete results are available online at http://cari.unl.edu/ruralpoll/report09.shtml.

The university's Center for Applied Rural Innovation conducts the poll in cooperation with the Nebraska Rural Initiative with funding from the UNL Extension and the Agricultural Research Division in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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