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Professors bring LIFE to community survey

Determining a community’s quality of life can be a difficult undertaking. A proper assessment looks beyond easily-accessible statistics and census data and takes into consideration variables like health care options, child care availability, public safety and accessibility to food. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point sociology professors Robert Enright and David Chunyu are assisting with such an initiative to measure quality of life for Portage County residents.
 
The Portage County Local Indicators for Excellence is a comprehensive overview of county residents’ quality of life, coordinated by the United Way and Ministry St. Michael’s Foundation. Roughly 4,000 county residents were sent a mail survey asking questions about a wide range of social indicators.
 
Enright and Chunyu reviewed the questionnaire for scientific validity, trained volunteers on the process for transferring data from questionnaire to a computer readable format, and will process the data for presentation to the organizing groups.
 
“We can provide scientific and social science expertise on getting this done,” says Enright.

Enright notes that the university has a long history of involvement in projects like LIFE, primarily through the Community Research Center. Professor emeritus Gary Itzkowitz, who died in 2012, was the primary point person, and since his retirement CRC activity has slowed. “We see this as an opportunity to resurrect this idea,” Enright says.
 
United Way of Portage County executive director Sue Wilcox is happy to hear it. Wilcox, who worked with Itzkowitz and the CRC, says Enright and Chunyu’s involvement in this and potentially other similar projects helps quantify the effect various initiatives have on the community.
 
“What Bob and David, and ultimately what the Community Research Center, can do for the community and other organizations in Central Wisconsin is demonstrate the results of their work and of their direction,” Wilcox says.

Getting involved with LIFE allows Chunyu and Enright to provide UW-Stevens Point sociology students with real-world experience shaping survey results into clean, meaningful charts, tables and other summaries. In previous research methods classes, Enright’s students have used the general social survey, which is a nationally representative sample of the United States.
 
“We have identified some very good students from the classes I have taught, and this will be a wonderful opportunity for them to put their learning into practice,” says Chunyu.
 
Those survey results will then be used by community organizations to drive policy and other initiatives aimed at improving quality of life. Gathering scientifically vetted support for such actions is a critical step in making the best possible decisions.
 
“Without some kind of evidence, statements about what the community needs are all anecdotal,” says Enright. “It’s easy to dismiss; policy makers have no reason to believe it. But when you’ve produced some evidence regarding various populations and their quality of life, it gives them a strong basis to be able to say this is where attention should be focused.
 
“Those of us interested in community sociology think this is really vital because you cannot reduce all problems to simply economic problems. What are the social consequences of the economic issues that are raised? More than the results, this gives residents a voice in what they define as issues and what they don’t.”
 
Wilcox says the conclusions drawn from the survey can help generate future funding to address areas of concern.  “This information could be helpful for grant writing – organizations can cite the report to reference what we’re hearing from the community,” she says.
 
For more information on the Community Research Center visit www.uwsp.edu/cols-ap/CommunityResearchCenter/Pages/default.aspx.

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