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Thursday, July 11, 2013 05:10 am

The citizen survey beneath the surface

The recently released Sangamon County Citizen Survey offers an interesting glimpse into the attitudes, perceptions and conditions that help shape our local community. Since surveys like this are not intended to determine fact, using the findings to draw definitive conclusions about complex issues is dangerous. But in public affairs a fine line often separates perception and reality and community leaders need to know both. Therefore, this study, conducted by the Survey Research Office at UIS, provides valuable insight and food for thought for anyone interested in creating a stronger community.

The 2013 survey asked 100 questions of a representative sample of Sangamon County residents covering nine broad issue areas. On the whole, there was a high degree of support among respondents for public safety, growing the downtown, attracting new businesses and jobs and conserving the local natural environment. Sixty percent of respondents said Sangamon County was on the “right track” and 68 percent rated Sangamon County as a good or excellent place to raise children.

Readers must delve deeper into the results of the survey, however, to fully appreciate the complete picture. For instance, responses vary between African-Americans and whites and between urban, suburban and rural respondents throughout the report. But the gaps by income groups are particularly striking. More lower income respondents said Sangamon County is going in the wrong direction, feel less safe in their home and walking at night, are less likely to have health insurance or a primary doctor, reported feeling economic insecurity about their family’s health care and think litter is a big problem.

Education, however, enjoyed broad support. Parents with children in elementary and secondary school, both public and private, reported high levels of satisfaction with the quality of their child’s education. This is certainly a positive response on the surface. But excellence in education occurs when there are high student outcomes for all students. Sadly, thousands of Sangamon County schoolchildren experience poor or mediocre outcomes at best. The continued denial of this reality helps explain why nationally recognized school improvements and reforms struggle to take root here and we cling to outdated methods of instruction and school models.

Moreover, 75 percent and 84 percent of respondents respectively rated pre-k education and post-high school institutions as very important but only 57 percent rated having a college degree as very important. U.S. Census Bureau data, however, proves individuals possessing college degrees earn nearly double annually those without college degrees and advanced degree holders average more than $25,000 more per year than bachelor’s degree holders. And we just eliminated the Capital College Preparatory Academy, a highly successful Springfield public school dedicated to 100 percent graduation from a four-year college for at-risk students – a clear clash between perception and reality.

A critical area in the survey tries to ascertain respondents’ engagement levels along a continuum ranging from individual charitable responses to higher-level engagement activities in politics, government and policy, which have broader societal impact. Eighty-four percent of Sangamon County respondents said they discuss politics and community issues with family and friends, but few put any skin in the game. Only 8 percent worked for a political party or candidate, 21 percent participated in a school or civic organization and only 24 percent reported contacting a public official to voice an opinion.

Eighty-eight percent said they voted in the most recent presidential election (actual Sangamon County voter turnout was 72 percent) but in consolidated elections, a better gauge of local interest and involvement, voter turnout is dismal (18 percent in April 2013; 28 percent in April 2011). Assessment of Sangamon County elected leadership fell short in the minds of many with 46 percent of respondents indicating little or no confidence in the ability of locally elected leaders to effectively solve local problems and 52 percent saying Sangamon County had weak leaders. With these findings, high levels of civic involvement would be expected, but instead there is a huge disconnect between political satisfaction and action.

Disinterest in civic engagement and the democratic process is the status quo’s best friend. In general, those who believe things are on the “right track” tend to benefit directly from the existing system. Asking them to support community and institutional change can be a hard sell if they think their quality of life could be diminished in the process. Therefore, those who seek change must mobilize and work strategically within the democratic process to develop and push an inclusive, forward-looking agenda for Sangamon County.

The Sangamon County Citizen Survey is a good first step in providing a deeper understanding of how Sangamon County residents view their community. Over the next decade, project organizers intend to conduct follow-up surveys. Perhaps in 10 years, with hard work, the gulf between perception and reality will lessen, activism will replace apathy and a stubborn adherence to the status quo will become a thing of the past. For the sake of Sangamon County’s future, let’s hope so.

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant specializing in nonprofit management, civic engagement, public policy and political campaigns.
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