Sunday, May 20, 2007

The "Suck Index?" (Or Not?)

As I waited for a couple of friends to join me for lunch Saturday, I picked up a copy of the Gambit Weekly resting near me- its a weekly paper mostly promoting music, arts, and events, with some commentary mixed in. One of the cover features was "Politics: Clancy DuBos on The Suck Index Part II." I read further probably for the same reason you are reading now- an interest in politics and a curiosity as to what the "suck index" might be.

As it turns out, a University of New Orleans professor and pollster had decided to drop "excellent" from the options for respondents asked to rate city issues and services, and add "very poor." As DuBos suggests in his Part I, "You know things are bad when a "quality of life" survey has to add comparatives beyond "poor" to let respondents describe just how badly their world sucks." He then goes on to list the combined responses of "very poor" and "poor" for each question as what he calls the "Suck Index." Here is the Suck Index as published in Part II, indicating changes from Part I, which was published on December 5, 2006.

• Overall level of government services -- 53 percent (no change).

• Police protection -- 37 percent (down from 41 percent in October, but within the overall 6 percent margin of error).

• Availability of housing -- 62 percent (down from 71 percent in October, a significant improvement).

• Availability of medical care -- 59 percent (up from 51 percent in October, and a dangerous trend).

• Conditions of roads and streets -- 70 percent (down from 75 percent in October, but still really sucky).

• Control of traffic -- 38 percent (not as bad as most other services, but this one scored only 30 percent in October, so the trend is disturbing. Besides, anything over 30 percent is bad. Ratings of 40 percent or more officially "suck.")

• Availability of public transportation -- 38 percent (ditto above; up from 33 percent in October).

• Drainage and flood control -- 56 percent (up 8 points from October's score of 46 percent. This is really bad news for the Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage and Water Board, especially considering the survey was finished well before the May 4 deluge.)

• Control of litter and trash -- 35 percent (down a whopping 30 points from October's 65 percent score. Maybe Sidney Torres IV should run for mayor.)

• Control of abandoned housing -- 75 percent (the most "sucky" score of all, and up 3 points from October's 72 percent.)

• Opportunities for employment -- 27 percent (statistically insignificant change from October's 26 percent. If you can find a place to live -- and if you can afford the rent or the homeowners insurance -- you should have no problem getting a job here.)

• Likelihood of new jobs and industry -- 37 percent (up 3 points from October's score of 34 percent, indicating a continued gloomy economic outlook on the part of voters).

Obviously these are saddening numbers- anyone driving around New Orleans can tell you abandoned housing is a problem, and the great success in solving the litter and trash issue through a new garbage removal service. But it might be simply a reflection of survey design. Any pollster will tell you that you can get surveys to give you whatever answers you want, so long as you ask the questions correctly. By dropping "excellent" and adding "very poor," ratings are essentially given a more negative slant than they otherwise would have. Another indication that the pollster might be looking for this negative slant is the fact that her middle-of-the-ground rating is "only fair" (suggesting things ought to be better than "fair"), as opposed to the standard "fair."

So what is going on? Is the pollster looking for data to validate her own perception that things in New Orleans suck? Or did she have so many "poor" responses on previous surveys and so few "excellent" responses that she saw a need to restructure her questions in order to more accurately gauge the public's sentiments?

Hopefully, we'll find out soon. I emailed her and asked.