WNPR's live radio program, Where We Live, recently hosted Mark Abraham, Executive Director of DataHaven, and Anita Chandra, Director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment, to discuss findings from the DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey, which completed in-depth interviews last year with over 16,000 randomly-selected adults throughout Connecticut.
You can listen to a recording of the approximately 18-minute-long segment, recorded on Monday January 4th, at the WNPR website:
An edited version of the transcript is posted below:
John Dankosky: This is Where We Live, I’m John Dankosky. Coming up, life in Syrian refugee camps is not easy, as Connecticut’s Saud Anwar found out during a recent trip to the border of Syria and Jordan. But first, what’s the thing we should measure when we try to determine how a society is doing? It’s a difficult question because many of the traditional metrics we use tend to equate economic success with quality of life. Wealth and education level are relatively easy to measure, but don’t give a full picture of a community’s wellbeing. Last year, New Haven-based DataHaven completed what they’re calling the largest ever survey on neighborhood-level quality of life, health, and happiness. What is your quality of life? How happy are you? It’s one of the things that we’re going to be talking about with Mark Abraham, who is Executive Director of DataHaven and is also W.K. Kellogg Foundation racial equity fellow. Mark, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for being here, I appreciate it.
Mark Abraham: Thank you John.
JD: So first of all, tell us about this survey. What motivated you to do this?
MA: This survey was a very high quality, one-of-a-kind survey. It involved in-depth live interviews with expert staff at the Siena Research Institute. Ultimately, we interviewed about 17,000 adults in the state, in every town. Each interview was an 18 minute-long interview and about 80 to 100 questions. Basically, each interview is the story of someone’s life in Connecticut. When you put all this together, keeping in mind that one person represents maybe 50 or 100 other people like them in the state, and then they’re weighted to represent that group, like in other surveys, you gain really tremendous insight into how neighborhoods are doing in the state, how groups like young adults, older adults, much older adults, minorities, and other groups are doing in Connecticut on a whole range of issues that we ask about on the survey.
JD: 17,000 people, that’s an enormous survey!
MA: It was a very intensive effort, and we had about 50 partners throughout the state who funded the survey, so part of it was just getting that group together. Then, because there are so many funders across different issue areas, they’re interested in different topics. That’s what makes the survey unique — really it’s a survey about many different topics from employment to community life to safety, health, transportation, and other issues.
JD: We’re going to get to some of the findings in just a moment. Just in terms of methodology, how did you make sure that, out of the 17,000 people that you had, it was an accurate representation of who actually lives in Connecticut, so that you made sure you had all the racial, ethnic minorities, all of the various income levels represented?
MA: We did an unusually large number of interviews by cell phone, and that’s a good way to reach people, both people who have listed numbers, sort of billing addresses, but also the unlisted cellphone numbers that people might buy. Having worked on many surveys around the state, I think this is a really excellent data set and again the weighting ensures that the final estimates we produce for a town or a region are representative of that group.
JD: In just a moment, as I say, we’ll get to some of the findings here. I want to bring Anita Chandra, who’s the director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment. Throughout her career, she’s worked on a number of studies and projects related to community wellbeing. Anita joins us by phone today. Welcome to Where We Live, thanks so much for joining us.
Anita Chandra: Hi John, thanks for having me.
JD: Maybe you can just explain through all of your efforts why a survey like this, like the one that Mark and DataHaven have done, why it’s so important to measure the sorts of things we’re measuring here.
AC: I think it’s important for two reasons. One, as Mark pointed out, it really gives you a picture on how residents are doing across the state and in neighborhoods specifically, which can help community leaders plan. But it’s also very comprehensive. It really provides a holistic understanding of quality of life, which we know matters, not only in the immediate but over the long term. Capturing things like how do people perceive their community, how do they relate to each other, in addition to economic indicators that are more traditional, really gives us a better sense of not only individual wellbeing but community wellbeing, and that is important for ongoing policy and program development.
JD: Anita, talk about the sorts of questions that get at that very fundamental notion that you and Mark are both talking about, quality of life. This is something that is quite a bit different than “how much money did I make last year?” or “was I employed?” These are things that really get to how I feel about living in the place that I live and that’s a very, it’s a very important thing, probably the most important thing that we can measure. It’s also probably, I would assume, pretty hard to develop questions around.
AC: Absolutely, John, and that’s why a lot of researchers are really refining how we actually capture these indicators of quality of life and well-being. It’s not just, as you know, the economic indicators but really understanding how do people feel connected to their neighborhoods and communities, how do they feel connected to their family members, their neighbors, their fellow co-workers, whether they want to contribute to their community, how they feel engaged in the civic processes of their community, can they really help to inform the direction of where their community or neighborhood is going? All these things matter in terms of what people perceive their life to be, how happy and optimistic they are, how resilient they are, but also it contributes to the overall health and livelihood and productivity of that community. Capturing that means asking a lot of questions about how people really participate, and those are the kinds of questions that Mark and his team really have put into their survey.
JD: Could you pick up on that Mark, and tell us about some of the questions that you’re asking?
MA: This year I sat at a table at the World Health Organization in Geneva with representatives from Shanghai and Hong Kong, Melbourne, and Tehran. New Haven was one of 15 cities selected to help create a guide to measuring age inclusivity or the friendliness of communities to aging, in the world. We were a test case because of this wellbeing survey. One of the interesting things was from Tehran, where they’re very interested about whether residents in Tehran, Iran would be advocating for improving their sidewalks because they had a lot of broken sidewalks in parts of the city, and trying to figure out the connection between residents and their elected officials or the bodies that govern that city. I think we found similar things in Connecticut, where some older adults are more likely to feel included in government, more likely to contact their officials and have influence in that sense. As you know, good quality sidewalks are important to people with disabilities to get around their neighborhoods. There’s just tremendous differences by whether people have access to a car and other circumstances about their family life or their personal background that would influence their connectedness to government and ability to effect change in their neighborhood.
JD: You just gave me a really good idea for a future program though, because I’m fascinated by the notion of how the quality of the sidewalks actually affects the quality of people’s life in connection to their government in Tehran, which is something we, frankly in America, never ever think about. We think about all sorts of other things that people must be concerned about in Tehran, but they’re probably not concerned in our minds about potholes. But, you know what, they probably are, just like we are here in New Haven.
MA: Yeah, absolutely, it’s a fascinating study.
JD: Okay, let’s get to some of what we found here. So, first of all, some of the top line things, Mark, that you found as far as community wellbeing here in Connecticut and some things that maybe surprised you.
MA: One of the things that was important about the survey was the need to measure health conditions locally since we have this great federal or state level data on health. We don’t often have that data locally on things like dentist visits and smoking. One of the things, you know, in Connecticut, I think more adults have visited the dentist in the past year than in any other state. We have about 75% of dental visits this past year, but if you look at neighborhoods in the state, it can really vary from 50% to 90% visiting the dentist. That’s a pretty big difference especially if you adjust for the age. There are groups in Connecticut that provide free dental care in low income neighborhoods and I think they are very interested in using this data to see how they’re doing and what groups they’re reaching. That’s one example. Another is, back to the health issue, the smoking rates. I think it’s important to realize that local officials, mayors, they have a different kind of reach in their communities than maybe the state or federal government does. They can organize things locally and to have that kind of information about smoking rates in their community as a whole is very important for them to be able to enact local legislation. Like in New Haven, they use the neighborhood level data we collected to help organize anti-smoking program in that city and regulate smoking in parks and other public places.
JD: Anita, could you talk a bit more about how you take information like this, very community level information, and put it to work from a policy perspective?
AC: Well that’s a great question. I think the most important thing is that this data gets used. Being able to not only surface these top line findings and have it available for everybody to consume and look at and understand, but then putting it in the hands of mayors and city leaders and city council members and saying, how are you going to now prioritize your investments, given the dental visit finding or the smoking visit finding, can you align what you’re doing in terms of policies and programs, are they matching up to the need. If they are, great, are those programs effective? If they aren’t, should we be reallocating or targeting dollars accordingly to address those issues? It gives you really targets for investment and it also gives you targets for action and really evaluating the impact and that’s the kind of translation of this kind of information into local action that is really meaningful. The other thing that a lot of cities and communities are doing is they’re putting the data up much like Mark and his team are doing so that everybody can look at it. It’s not just about the government making decisions and making policy actions based on it, but the wide variety of community-based organizations and philanthropic organizations taking a piece of it and saying, I want to contribute, I want to take this challenge on with my partners and do something meaningful about it. So it’s really a catalyst for government and non-governmental partnerships as well.
JD: Did you notice, Mark, some other places other than the ones you’ve already mentioned where there were gaps between what we’ve thought the priorities were and what the actual needs on the ground might be?
MA: I think the great thing about this is, because it pulls together so many partners from across sectors, they can all see how their work is connected to happiness and wellbeing. So it’s not just a survey about how healthy people feel but it’s also measuring well-being, as Anita mentioned, on a bunch of conditions. I think any issue you think about in Connecticut, from commuting time to these health insurance and financial inclusion, they all have an impact on people’s happiness, anxiety levels, and other aspects of well-being. It’s really important to have those in a way that will connect these groups together in the future and then break that information down to the local level, so definitely our next steps are to map the information in all the cities in Connecticut and develop local reports. We also invite listeners to go on our website at DataHaven, ctdatahaven.org. They can download the survey results for themselves and start to look through those for their neighborhood or for their group of interest.
JD: We’re talking with Mark Abraham, who’s the Executive Director of DataHaven, which recently completed the largest ever neighborhood-level survey of wellbeing and it’s fascinating in what it finds about Connecticut. Also joining us by phone is Anita Chandra, director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment group. Throughout her career, she’s worked on a number of studies and projects like this. I’m just going to read from the top line of your report, Mark. 74% of men, 75% of women in Connecticut report feeling mostly or completely happy during the previous day. However, this measure varied widely by income, ranging from 53% among adults earning less than $15,000 per year to 89% among adults earning $200,000 or more. So that’s one of those things that you look at and go, well, of course. Obviously you make more money, you’re happier, you make less money, you’re less happy, but there’s a lot more nuance in it than that. Can you talk about something like that, that measure of happiness that doesn’t necessarily always run along economic lines, but economics has a lot to do with it?
MA: We see economics influencing happiness and other measures across the board but when you bring in these other factors like commuting time, for example, you see that low income workers in the state in many ways are more happy or less anxious than the very high income workers who are having long commutes. That’s one example of where all these factors play together in people’s wellbeing. Another one which we find is really important, in some places it’s called the quality of society, but we look at the responsiveness of local government to people’s needs. On that measure, that’s especially important at predicting how happy people are. Those very low-income workers that you mentioned, earning less than $15,000, they are actually just as happy as households making $200,000 a year if they have an excellent sense of responsive government versus a poor sense. That’s an example where these other factors do affect people’s quality of lives, not just income levels. On the issue of income levels, that also is very nuanced and gets into not just the income itself, but what wealth and assets people have to draw on and other things that would cause financial stress which, in and of itself is also one of the big issues that affects people’s happiness.
JD: And it gets to this point, stress is important, whether it’s financial stress or stress of commuting. That can be a lot of different things. Stress is something that causes unhappiness in a lot of people. Anita, you’ve worked on projects, as I’ve said, like this in the past, including a project somewhat similar in Santa Monica, California, the Wellbeing Project. Can you tell us about that and how it’s maybe similar to what Mark is finding here in Connecticut?
AC: Absolutely. The Santa Monica Wellbeing Project is an effort as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Innovation Project. What Santa Monica endeavored to do was very similar to what Mark and his team are doing, which was to capture well-being measurement at the local level by using survey data but also using social media data and other city data on what kinds of programs and policies are in place to support well-being. We really measured it alongside dimensions, and what we found was that, even though Santa Monica has a lot to be proud of in terms of its economic vitality and its location near the beach, there were issues that are very similar to what mark just addressed, in terms of individuals’ feelings of being able to progress economically in the community, feeling less connected than they would like to their neighbors, and a sense of community cohesion, which we know matters for health and wellbeing over the long term. We’ve been able to take all that kind of information and really use it to drive local policies and processes that are now underway in Santa Monica to address things like a sense of community, to improve the built environment or the physical environment, to address things like commuting time and traffic and development issues that can really stress and strain residents over the long term. So we’re really using data to drive local action, quite simply.
JD: Mark, before we run out of time, talk a bit more about where we head from here. You’ve mentioned that residents can go online to your website — which we’ll give again at the end of this segment — and find out more information for themselves, but what really happens next with data like this? Because I know, if people have listened to our program in the past, it’s fair to say that one thing that we tried to highlight is whenever our state or local governments are making decisions in a vacuum without real data and information, and this happens frequently. It happens because people want to make policies for their own reasons or whatever. Now you’ve got all this data, what do you do with it and make sure that it actually has some huge impact on the local level?
MA: In our case, because of the way the survey was structured, it was basically a grassroots effort, combining organizations, about 100 throughout the state of Connecticut. Each of those local cities or areas, like the Waterbury area, Fairfield County, others -- they’re going to be pulling together tremendous reports and resources, often with our help, to digest that locally and use that for health planning, for local improvement planning. We also find that journalists are especially interested in this data, so that when they are writing an article on farming, for example, they would want to use our local level data. We expect to see about a thousand news articles that cite the data and we work closely with journalists to help them use it, so that’s a particular interest. Also, in a few weeks, the Secretary of State is releasing a report called the Connecticut Civic Health Index with us as an author and that covers some of the same data on voting and civic engagement and electoral issues, as well as some highlights from the wellbeing survey around how to ensure that people can participate in their government. So, we’re just going to be very busy for the next year or two with this amount of data. We’re also working with national groups to write additional analyses or briefs that cover issues like immigration status, which is your next segment, and racial and ethnic disparities, other topics that require this more nuanced analysis. We’re really looking forward to those as well.
JD: And I’ll say, I’m really glad that it’s coming out as we head into this election year, obviously a presidential election year. But more importantly, I think really to the point of your survey, it’s an election year where there’s an awful lot of local elections that are going to make a big difference in people’s lives, and you’re providing a toolkit for people to be able to get involved in their local government in a way that maybe they haven’t been able to in the past. And I think that’s really important, finding things that don’t work and being able to say, look if we can’t change everything about my town that’s not working, maybe we can change these two or three things, right?
MA: Absolutely, our favorite groups to work with are community groups. Again, like I mentioned, local small town mayors have this reach that larger governments don’t have. Community groups are very good at mobilizing local residents, so when we can get data into their hands and they can tell their own stories using that data -- that’s our mission, it’s to make that available and help groups use it in that way.
JD: We’re going to be talking with the Secretary of State Denise Merrill later on this month about this survey that Mark was just talking about. We would love to have you back and maybe pore through some of this other data because there’s a lot more for us and other journalists to get to. I want to thank you for coming in, Mark. Mark Abraham is the Executive Director of DataHaven, which completed this largest ever neighborhood-level survey on well-being. Where do they find it online again, Mark?
MA: At ctdatahaven.org.
JD: Excellent, thanks so much for coming in, I appreciate it.
MA: Thank you.
JD: Thanks also to Anita Chandra who is director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment. Thank you Anita!
AC: Thank you.