June 28, 2006 | By: Terri McLean
LEXINGTON, KY.

It’s a common perception that it costs less to live in a rural area than in an urban area. But does it?

That’s a question that’s been nagging Julie Zimmerman, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, for quite some time. As lead investigator in the Rural Price Project, though, Zimmerman hopes soon to either affirm the commonly held belief about rural living or turn it on its ear – at least in Kentucky.

“I think we’ll really satisfy some curiosity about this,” she said.

Zimmerman initiated the Rural Price Project more than two years ago after hearing nationally prominent researchers on several occasions state that it is, indeed, less expensive to live in a rural area. 

“That wasn’t my experience when I lived in a rural area, so I started looking for research to back up those claims,” she said. “We looked and we looked and we looked, and we were amazed at how little we found. One thing we did find was research indicating that food prices can be higher in rural areas. That made me curious about other prices.”

To satisfy that curiosity, Zimmerman joined forces with research assistant Sarah Frank and Sunny (Seonok) Ham, of the department of nutrition and food sciences to explore prices for a wide range of goods and services in eight rural counties across Kentucky. The question behind their work is a basic one: If you bought the same item in a rural and an urban area, would the price be the same? 

“We went after a driving question that was really straightforward, so that we’re comparing apples to apples,” Zimmerman said.

And corn flakes to corn flakes, men’s haircuts to men’s haircuts, and veterinary services to veterinary services. Those were just a few of the 65 goods and services for which pricing information was gathered with the help of the UK Cooperative Extension Service in the participating counties. Graduate students at Morehead State University also lent their assistance in gathering information in one of the counties.

On a weekend in April, the volunteers fanned out across their communities to gather price information for a detailed list of goods and services. The list is similar to a national list of goods and services for which prices are regularly gathered. 

Prices weren’t all Zimmerman and her colleagues were after, however.

“There are costs that prices alone don’t capture,” Zimmerman said. “If you want to see a movie that has been just released, for example, you might have to drive a long distance to see it if you lived in a rural area. The cost of travel, as well as the time needed to get to a movie house, should be factored into the true price of going to a movie. This study examines some of these issues, too.”

That’s what Zimmerman considers “the rest of the story.”

“When you add the prices up, you start to get at a local cost of living, but not entirely,” she said. “A lot of personal decisions affect the cost of living. That could be one of the reasons we didn’t find as much research on it as we had expected. Nailing that down in a way that’s consistent and universally acceptable is a real challenge.”

Zimmerman and her colleagues are in the process of “cleaning” the data – double-checking it, filling in the gaps and entering it into a computer. They are also collecting background information on participating communities to help them have a better understanding of the hidden costs.

Soon, the UK researchers will analyze that data and begin to try to answer the question that Zimmerman has long pondered.

“I’m always asked, ‘What do you think you’re going to find?’ ” she said, insisting that it’s too early to tell.

One thing she can say, however, is that the findings will have practical applications. 

“Often, when we’re doing research we’re doing research on issues that, in the grand scheme of things, are not directly translatable to real life,” she said. “No so with the rural Price Project.”

Once Zimmerman is ready to release the findings, the participating counties will be the first to know. 

“What makes community-based research important and unique is that you’re involving people in communities,” she said. “We involved community members throughout the process. We sought their input from the very beginning as we designed the project, as we collected the data, and they helped us understand their communities. …We are committed to sharing back with them their results.”

Zimmerman will also share the findings on a national level through presentations and in publications. She is hopeful the study can be replicated in other states and provide much-needed information about the prices of goods and services in rural areas across the nation.

“This is a really exciting project,” she said. “There are many romantic notions about rural living. It will be interesting to see if the cost of living is one of them.”

Contact: 

Julie Zimmerman, 859-257-7583