Small Town Quality of Life Driven by More Than Economics

ISU Extension and Outreach publication explores what makes a town attractive and appealing


AMES, Iowa – Providing an attractive and appealing place to live is a concern for small towns across Iowa. What are things a town can do to attract new residents, and what are things that push them away?

This concern is discussed by David Peters, associate professor and extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University, in his newest publication “What Drives Quality of Life in Iowa Small Towns?” (SOC 3082).

The data on quality of life and social conditions used in the publication are from the Sigma Study, a long-term USDA-funded research effort in Iowa. Residents of 99 small towns (population between 500 and 6,000) were surveyed in 1994, 2004 and 2014 and were asked to subjectively rank their community on things like overall quality of life, jobs, medical services, schools, housing, child and senior services, retail and entertainment.

small Iowa town main streetWhile quality of life is usually thought of in economic terms, Peters found a much different result.

“I have always thought high quality of life was associated with higher incomes, lower poverty and lots of jobs – typical economic factors,” Peters said. “What I found instead was that there was no difference in income, poverty levels and mix of jobs in high and low quality of life towns.

“The strongest driver of quality of life were social capital and civic measures. This study shows participation in a community and whether the community provides social supports, those intangibles are more important. So there are opportunities to increase quality of life in a community without creating more jobs.”

Recruiting large businesses to a town can be expensive, time consuming and take a large coordinated effort. Investing instead in social capital projects are much less taxing on a small town’s limited resources.

“It is within a community’s control to get people to participate in projects and efforts within that community,” said Peters. “These type of initiatives do not cost a lot of money. The degree in which people participate in the town and feel safe, supported and trusted in the community is something a town can do to better itself.”

Raising a town’s quality of life can then make it more attractive to others.

“The hope is that if a town does have a high quality of life, it might be more attractive to new residents or smaller firms that might not create a lot of jobs but who want to be in a community with a quality of life that matters to them,” Peters said.

According to the study, overall quality of life has improved in Iowa’s small towns over the last 20 years. The only area to decline in that time period has been senior services.

“As the population of small towns age, having quality senior services is more important than it was 20 years ago,” Peters said. “Communities are going to need to make a larger effort into making sure seniors have access to good services in those towns or they will risk losing these people, many who have lived in that community for a long time and are leaders in the community, to larger cities where they have access to the services they need.”