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Volume 16, Issue 46 - November 13 - November 19, 2008
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Who Are You?

Dan Nataf not only knows about you, he tells what he knows, hanging your laundry out to dry in detailed reports

by editor Sandra Olivetti Martin

Dan Nataf knows all about you.

You may never have met the inquiring, green-eyed professor. But he’s questioned your friends and neighbors — and they’ve talked.

For 13 years, he’s been building your dossier.

He knows how you vote.

He knows what worries you.

He knows the ways you’re generous — and the ways you’re selfish.

Nataf not only knows all about you. He tells what he knows. Twice a year, he hangs your laundry out to dry in detailed public reports.

Nataf gets to ask the questions because that’s his job as director of Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

At the Center for the Study of Local Issues, Nataf’s work is, he says, “completely unique.”

Nataf at Home

Nataf lives in Severna Park with his wife, Beth Sammis, Maryland’s deputy insurance commissioner, and daughter Colette, a student at University of Maryland.

“There is, to my knowledge,” Nataf says, “no other entity that systematically does local surveys developed as part of the learning experience and provided to the community. We ask the population what they think — about impact fees, ambulance fees, environmental measures — in an ongoing dialogue that produces a longitudinal database so we can go back in time and see the big picture.”

The Big Picture Is You

The big picture is you: What you think and what you say you’re going to do in a couple dozen timely categories.

The most recent edition of that big picture was taken October 20 to 23 and printed October 28.

You and 10,000 of your friends and neighbors might have been phoned to answer Nataf’s six pages of questions. That long cross section of Anne Arundel County was provided by a company whose business is random numbers. Fifty-eight Anne Arundel Community College students trained by Nataf spent three two-and-three-quarter-hour nights dialing. Five hundred seventy-nine people answered and agreed to talk.

They talked from eight to 45 minutes. Students listened and translated the commentary into predefined answer categories for Nataf to tally.

About one percent of Anne Arundel’s population responded to this fall’s survey. You probably weren’t one of them. How, from so few, can Nataf claim to know your mind?

Because survey research is pretty much a science.

“It’s an inferential process,” Nataf explains, “by which you ask a few people questions, and depending on how carefully selected the sample is, you can generalize to a much larger universe.”

The larger the sample size, the lower the margin of error. The statistical margin of error for this fall’s study is about five percent.

So who are you?

It’s the Economy

Thirty-eight percent of the greater you — much higher than ever before and 15 points higher than last spring — said the economy was “the most important problem facing the residents of Anne Arundel County at this time.”

Other questions darkened today’s degree of economic anxiety.

As was the case last spring, utilities, slowly rising salaries, taxes and transportation costs all worried people. A new question — “significant losses in stock or retirement accounts” — rose to the top, with 71 percent saying they’d experienced such losses.

“People are seeing their life savings dwindling before their eyes,” Nataf says. “There’s a high level of insecurity.”

Perceptions of the county’s economy dipped as well, with 49 percent (versus 44 percent last spring) saying that economic conditions were fair or poor.

How bleak a picture is that? Depends on whether you’d call the glass half full or half empty. Because about the other half, Nataf explains, called the county’s economy excellent or good.

About the national economy, we felt little ambiguity. Only five percent called it excellent or good. That bad news made Nataf “beam with happiness” — for his figures agreed exactly with the national Gallup poll.

More on Your Radar Screen

You like windmills for their promise of clean energy. A majority (80 percent) favored making it “easier to install wind turbines to generate energy, even in scenic places like across the river from Annapolis where the old radio antennas are located or in state parks in Western Maryland.”

You don’t like taxes. Over 11 surveys, a mean of 13 percent said high taxes were their biggest problem.

In fact, you like taxes so little that you’re against them — even if other people are paying. That’s how Nataf explains your 59 percent disapproval of raising the hotel tax — paid by people staying in hotels — from seven to 10 percent. People who fell in the class of “ideological conservatives” liked the higher hotel tax least: 69 percent disapproved.

Some fees aren’t so hard to swallow.

Nearly two-thirds of us (63 percent) said they would favor “increasing impact fees on new construction in our county.”

“Creating or increasing fees to sports leagues that use public parks to cover the cost of maintenance of those parks?” That one came out nearly even, with 50 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing.

But a $500 ambulance use fee, to “help pay for county services”? Only a quarter supported that, and 67 percent opposed.

Overall what does Professor Nataf make of us?

We’re shortsighted.

“We’re not funding government enough to make Anne Arundel as attractive a place as it might be,” he says. “If people would invest more in themselves and trust their government and leaders, we’d improve the capacity of the community to take care of itself, to develop programs for the 21st century.

“Instead, we vote out anybody who talks about taxes. Thus in a sense, we’re our own losers.”

Seeking Meaning

Knowledge is a commodity of value for its own sake, but community colleges have a special mandate to make knowledge work for their communities. So the Center for the Study of Local Issues has a board that helps it stay responsive, and it coordinates its questions to illuminate the decisions — and dilemmas — facing the county council and executive. By offering its county a factual foundation on which to build policy, the Center has practical value. But Nataf argues its contribution goes beyond the here and now to the nature of America.

“Other than the occasional election, we have nothing to solicit the will of the people,” the political scientist says. “Since most localities have no way of poling themselves, they go without that knowledge. So they can’t make judgments. Yet we live in a democracy, which thrives on understanding and interpreting the will of the people.”

But in Anne Arundel County, twice a year the people speak.

Dan Nataf is listening.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.