OK, it’s the economy, but is it ONLY the economy that makes us different?

Do people in Worthington feel more powerful than people in Two Harbors? Do they work together more? Are they more welcoming?

The Blandin Foundation has produced the latest version of its Rural Pulse, a survey of rural attitudes among Minnesotans, and the latest results shed light on what has become one of my favorite topics — how different we are from place to place.

MPR News reporter Tom Robertson is reporting on the larger findings in the study, last done in 2010, on Morning Edition. The top line is that rural Minnesotans are less optimistic about the economy than urban residents and he does a good job showing you how that is so. But I’m also intrigued by regional differences that show up and, in particular, by the contrast in some things between the farm country of southwestern Minnesota and the woods, lakes and mines of northeastern Minnesota.

Blandin surveyed a random sample of more than 1,000 rural residents between March 7 and March 15, asking several dozen questions probing how people felt about their communities, quality of life, housing, transportation, diversity and more.

Again and again, it seemed, southwestern Minnesota was definitely a glass-half-full kind of place and northeastern Minnesota was on the other end of a spectrum.

blandin regions.jpg

Do you believe your community can work together? In the Northeast, 31 percent said no. In the Southwest, only 14 percent said no. Rural Minnesotans in total? 21 percent said no.

Does your community provide adequate transportation? Three out of five say yes in the Northeast. Four out of five say yes in the Southwest. Other regions are in between.

Is the economy worse than a year ago? A quarter of northeastern residents said yes. Only 19 percent of southwestern residents did. (In west central Minnesota only 11 percent did.)

Is your community welcoming for people of all backgrounds? The Southwest topped the state — 87 percent said yes. In the Northeast, only 75 percent did.

Do you feel like you can have an impact on making your community better? Ninety percent say yes in the Southwest; 81 percent say yes in the Northeast. Other regions are in between.

One caveat here is that the margin of error goes up when you break poll results down into small groups of respondents. And not all the questions reflected this pattern. But many did. Take a look for yourself.

The first explanation for the differences is economic. Sherry Ristau, president of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, said her region fared better than most through the recession. Farm income has been strong and value-added agriculture-related industries seem to be growing.

“I see so many awesome things happening in this region,” she said.

The region is outperforming other parts of the state when it comes to business expansion, innovation and new products and job growth, she said. In fact she just blogged about some regional status reports yesterday before the Blandin report came out.

Early analysis of the numbers by Blandin echoed the role of the economy. Median incomes between the two regions are similar but the unemployment rate is consistently 2 points lower in southwestern Minnesota.

But is that the only explanation? These are regions with different histories, different heritages, different cultures, different politics. Why wouldn’t the outlook people have be different?

I last took a run at this phenomenon when I mapped the per capita issuance of gun permits. There was a pretty obvious regional variation.

I didn’t really come up with many satisfactory explanations then, and the economic answer notwithstanding, I’m not sure I can now either. Anyone?