Center for Survey Research finds Virginians have minds made up
By Susan Trulove
Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 06 - October 1, 1998
Virginians' minds are made up on issues that elected officials continue to debate, according to Alan Bayer, director of the Center for Survey Research.
For example, the seventh annual Quality of Life in Virginia Survey conducted by the center found that 77 percent of Virginians support providing sex education in public schools. The issue was being debated in the legislature this spring, as the survey was being conducted.
This is the first year Virginians have been asked about sex education. However, it is the seventh year in a row they have asked about a woman's right to have an abortion, and Virginians (70 percent in 1998) continue to support that right, which continues to be a subject of political debate.
On another subject of debate--whether doctors should be allowed to legally prescribe marijuana for medical use to reduce pain--72 percent of Virginians surveyed said yes.
But otherwise, Virginians appear to appreciate some aspects of a tough stance on crime by the current and former governors, Bayer said. Significantly fewer Virginians perceive an increase in crime in their community--30 percent, down from 41 percent. And more people think it is safe to walk alone in their neighborhood at night--37 percent said it is "very safe," which is up 5 percent, while 41 percent said it was somewhat safe. But only 28 percent of women think it's very safe, compared to 46 percent of men. "That still leaves 22 percent of Virginians who feel unsafe walking in their community," Bayer said.
Virginians appear to agree with the governor on the death penalty. When asked if there should be a death penalty, 52 percent strongly agree and 24 percent somewhat agree. However, Bayer said, 56 percent of Virginians support the alternative of a life sentence without possibility of parole for 25 years, combined with a requirement that the prisoner work for money that would go to families of murder victims. Women were more in favor of the alternative (63 percent versus 50 percent of men) to the death penalty.
Questions included in the 1998 survey touch on topics such as the economy, health care, public education, the environment, local community services, and personal well being. Some portion of the content of each annual survey is also reserved for special items requested by state policy makers, by faculty members at Virginia Tech, or by others to assess a special issue or important, timely question.
Welfare and Other Social Programs
One question asked for the first time this year and to be asked again next year, is whether Virginians approve of a two-year limit on welfare.
Asked their opinion on a two year maximum limit on support to families who are receiving welfare, 43 percent "strongly agree" and 35 percent "somewhat agree" with the policy. More men (82 percent) agree, than women (75 percent). However, in regard to state expenditures, few Virginians feel that the state is spending too much for social programs. Susan Willis, associate director of the survey center, said "only six in 100 Virginians feel that the state currently spends too much on programs that provide assistance to poor families, and only two in 100 think the state currently spends too much on social services for the elderly."
Virginians were happy with prospects for the national and the state economy this past spring, but as the response on social security reflect, some people still have long-range concerns.
Asked if the country's economic conditions are currently improving, 26 percent strongly agreed and 57 percent agreed--a sharp increase from spring 1997, when only 12 percent strongly agreed. Regarding whether Virginia's economic conditions are currently improving, 27 percent strongly agreed--7 percent more than last year, and 58 percent somewhat agreed--5 percent fewer than last year.
Virginians attitudes and opinions changed on several issues, in addition to those related to the economy, according to the 1998 survey. But on the major points of the survey, the vast majority of Virginians remain very positive on most aspects of the quality of life in their state, consistent with the six prior surveys, Bayer said.
"These citizen surveys are being used increasingly to complement traditional `social indicators' of quality of life data such as governmental economic statistics, vital statistics and population data, compilations on criminal activity, information on education and health, results of censuses of manufacturing and of agriculture, housing and employment data," Bayer said. "As these poll results accumulate over time, they will provide significant trend data."
Eight-six percent of Virginians say Virginia is an excellent or good place for people to get a college or university education, but only 73 percent say it is an excellent or good place to get an education through grade 12. Sixty-eight percent rate K-12 schools as excellent or good, 19 percent rate them fair. Fifty-two percent of Virginians--7 percent fewer than last year--agree with the statement that the public schools do a good job of teaching math and science; 19 percent strongly disagree--5 percent more than last year.
Fifty-two percent say not enough is spent on public schools through grade 12; 35 percent say spending is about right, and 5 percent say too much is spent. Forty-seven percent strongly or somewhat agree that state income taxes should be increased to support public schools; 51 percent disagree.
Twenty-nine percent say not enough is spent on state colleges and universities; 53 percent say spending is about right and 3 percent say too much is spent. Forty-five percent strongly or somewhat agree that state income taxes should be increased to support public higher education; 52 percent disagree.
Fifty-seven percent of Virginians agree that research in Virginia's public universities personally benefits them.
Virginians continue to want intervention on behalf of the environment, and their concern is increasing as their assessments of environmental qualities is tending to shift from "excellent" to "good" and "fair," Bayer said.
The study concludes that, for the most part, Virginia's citizens enjoy a rather satisfying quality of life across a broad array of domains--including job satisfaction, happiness with friends and family, and ratings of services within the community. Eighty-six percent rate Virginia as an excellent or good place to live. "Nevertheless," says Bayer, "the results suggest areas in which Virginians--as family members, employers, and citizens in the community and state, as well as state policy-makers, and the state government--might take action to improve the living environment in Virginia."
Surveyors completed 726 interviews to provide a representative sample of adult respondents in households across Virginia with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.8 percent.