An uneasy happiness among Pennsylvanians

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Pennsylvania is a great place to live and raise a family, but economic woes are dragging down the state's quality of life, many residents believe.

One quarter of the population frets about losing a job in the next year, especially women and workers making $20,000 or less. Two of three people rate the economy ''not so good'' or poor. And four in 10 see times worsening.

With America mired in a post-boom economic bust, awaiting an all-but-certain war, The Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Quality of Life poll finds Pennsylvanians in a state of uneasy happiness.

A first of its kind in Pennsylvania, the poll is a snapshot of a sunny day with a storm cloud on the horizon. And a sizable number of people fear it will rain.

''A lot of people aren't feeling rosy about the future,'' said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. ''They like the general fabric of life here, but in terms of looking specifically at whether things are getting better — that optimism isn't apparent.''

Jennifer Twentier, 29, of Butler County, near Pittsburgh, enjoys the Keystone State.

''We have the best of both worlds,'' she said. ''We have different seasons so we can ski in the winter and swim in the summer. We don't have earthquakes; tornadoes are rare and there's no deadly killer bugs. Everything is pretty perfect.''

But her husband lost his steel fabrication job last year. Although he found new work and she sells medical equipment, they're reeling from the loss of six months' wages.

''We're OK,'' said Twentier, who has two young children. ''Nothing's been repossessed, but things could be better.''

The Quality of Life survey asked 418 Pennsylvanians from Erie to Easton from Feb. 5-13 about their attitudes on 10 aspects of their lives, including education, health care and crime. Its margin of error is plus or minus 4.8 percent.

Nine of 10 Pennsylvania residents find it a good place to raise a family. And 87 percent give it high marks for livability. But the slumping economy is taking a toll, in incomes and attitudes.

The biggest concern is loss of work. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is at 6.1 percent, the highest it's been in nine years, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. About 25 percent of those surveyed worry they will lose their job this year.

''That's a major problem,'' said Borick.

Kamran Afshar, a Bethlehem economist, said he didn't need a survey to tell him people are worried about the economy. ''We are not an island from the nation,'' he said.

When high-flying companies such as Agere Systems crash, wiping out 8,000 jobs in the Lehigh Valley and Reading areas alone, people notice. Agere was spun off from Lucent Technologies.

''That causes fears not only for those who lost their jobs, but for those who have relatively stable jobs and never thought Lucent would be in such a situation,'' Afshar said. ''It's a double whammy.''

The likelihood of war with Iraq is also causing apprehension.

''We are all guessing what's going to happen,'' Afshar said, ''but the anxiety affects everything. People postpone purchases and travel as a result.''

Attitudes tied to economy

Poll respondent Christine, who asked that her last name be withheld for this interview, lives in Warren, Warren County, with few money worries. She is a speech pathologist and her husband is a certified public accountant for United Refining, an oil company.

Yet the 51-year-old mother sees a better life for the couple's three teenage children across the border in neighboring New York state. At least five companies have pulled out of Warren in the past three years, she said, leaving the borough depressed, its taxes ''horrendous'' and its municipal services poor.

''It's more difficult to live in places like we do,'' she said. ''The jobs aren't here. We need more big industries.''

Pollster Borick said such episodes, repeated statewide, color commentary.

''Your perceptions on the status of the economy fuel your attitudes on which way the state is going,'' said Borick, who conducted a similar study in Wisconsin during the 1990s. Then the nation's economy was in high gear, and Wisconsinites gave their state high marks.

The first in a series of annual observations of residents' views on the quality of life in Pennsylvania, the survey will measure changes in attitudes over time. A separate survey will put the same questions to residents of the Lehigh Valley.

Measures were taken on broad and closer-to-home levels. Respondents were asked, for instance, about public schools and about schools in their community. They were asked about health care and their individual health.

''It gives you a broad flavor for attitudes within a geographic area,'' Borick said. ''We share a common state government and because of that we share economic issues, a state school system. In the end we share the title, 'Pennsylvanians.'''

Dissatisfaction with schools

Except for the economy, respondents expressed wide satisfaction with all aspects of their lives. Within those categories, the age, gender, location and income of the person answering the questions caused fluctuations in the results.

Predictably, income played a large role in people's satisfaction with their lives, even spilling into satisfaction with their families.

Fifty-six percent of residents earning under $20,000 said they were ''very satisfied'' with their family relationships, as opposed to 91 percent of residents earning $80,000 or more. People with lower incomes are more afraid of becoming crime victims and unemployed and more likely to be unhappy with their jobs. Poorer individuals also were less satisfied with their housing, quality of health care and education.

What's surprising, Borick said, is that households with the highest education level also had a significant rate of dissatisfaction with public schools.

''There's all kind of research to show people in low-income categories live in school districts that don't have a lot of resources, but the highest-income folks shared their pessimism,'' Borick said. ''It could be these individuals have the capability to send their children outside of public school, so they might not have a vested interest.''

Tim Allwein, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said wealthier residents may believe they're shouldering a disproportionate share of school property taxes.

''For one reason or another,'' he said, ''they're already dissatisfied with public education or they want nothing to do with it.''

Borick noted that people living in the Philadelphia School District were the most dissatisfied with their schools. Parents in poorer districts know pay and perks are lower, making it difficult to attract and retain good teachers.

Vivian Hazen, 59, a retired administrative assistant in Butler County, said she has two 9-year-old grandsons. One attends third grade in Maryland, the other in Pennsylvania.

''I noticed a difference in what they're being taught in Maryland versus what they're being taught here,'' said Hazen, who is considering finding a part-time job because her retirement stock investments took a nose dive. ''In Maryland, they're being taught simple algebraic formulas.''

Her grandson in Pennsylvania, she said, is learning multiplication and division. ''They should be teaching that up here,'' she said.

Despite that discrepancy, Hazen believes her two daughters, now 39 and 40, received a good education at the local schools.

Safe neighborhoods

Sue Guilford, 43, of Tunkhannock in Wyoming County, and a native of Allentown, said she had considered sending her children, ages 15 and 17, to private school, but decided on public education after investigating the local schools.

''I think the school districts in Pennsylvania are good,'' she said. ''We're more academic. Our school, at least, is more about education then sports.''

Crime was another category that touched a nerve depending on where a respondent lived.

Guilford said Tunkhannock is a small town and some people leave their cars open and running when visiting the post office, but not her. ''Coming from Allentown,'' she said, ''I'm always very cautious.''

Forty-six percent of residents are somewhat or very concerned about becoming a crime victim, but 91 percent are satisfied with the safety of their neighborhood.

Beth Michener, 35, a social worker at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia who recently bought a house in Wyndmoor, a nearby suburb, said a police officer showed up at her door on the day she moved in.

''At first I thought my neighbor must have done something bad, then I thought, 'Uh, oh, I had done something bad,''' she said. ''He said he was the welcome wagon from the police department. This must be a safe place to live if police have time to welcome you to the neighborhood.''

While friendliness isn't a problem, a warm greeting from the economy would be welcome. As the economy goes, so go Pennsylanians' hopes for the future, Borick noted about the poll results.

''Overall, it's a nice place to live,'' Hazen said. ''... I'm a little concerned where we are headed, but it's the nation as a whole, not just Pennsylvania.''

kathleen.parrish@mcall.com

610-820-6627

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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