In recent years, the Area Wide United Way has distinguished itself as a significant agency for gathering facts about Cape Girardeau and Scott City -- its service area also includes Perryville -- and espousing ideas on how to make the area a better place to live.
The United Way demonstrated this in its most recent survey effort, aimed at parents, businesses and community leaders throughout the area, hoping to tap them for information about what needs they perceive.
It was a follow-up to a smaller survey last year, which was distributed to businesses, service providers and labor unions in Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City. Through it, the United Way temporarily shifted its focus to transportation, affordable housing, substance-abuse prevention and assistance for low-income families -- needs identified by those surveyed. When United Way officials found that their fund-raising efforts yielded 15 percent more money over the previous year, they directed a portion of it into one-time grants aimed at helping address those specific needs.
With the newest survey going home mostly to parents of school-age children, a different list of needs was discovered. The top five neighborhood concerns were, in order from most important to least: lack of cultural activities, poor road conditions, lack of affordable medical care, inadequate public transportation and crime.
The top five household concerns were, in the same order: anxiety and related emotions, not enough money for medical care, difficulty budgeting, not enough money for recreational activities and not enough money for entertainment.
It's not surprising that parents would find these things on their top-five lists. But before the United Way shifts too much money in that direction, they should consider the methodology.
About 1,500 household surveys were distributed, beginning last fall and extending into spring, asking residents to name both personal concerns and neighborhood issues. About 1,200 of the surveys were sent home with public and parochial schoolchildren in Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City, and public schoolchildren in Delta, Oak Ridge and Nell Holcomb school districts, according to Kay Azuma, local coordinator for the Community Caring Council and the project leader on the survey effort.
Of the 444 surveys that were returned and useable, 81 percent were completed by women. Eighty-two percent of respondents were white, and 63 percent were between the ages of 35 and 54, Azuma said.
An assistant professor of management and marketing at Southeast Missouri State University said there's no scientific proof that the survey represents the area. But it wouldn't take a professor to realize that.
United Way executive director Nancy Jernigan already has said she'll consider mailing more surveys to households if that will yield more accurate and diverse results.
Currently, the agency has a good handle on what a large segment of the population thinks about local quality of life. Once that group is diversified and a more scientific method is employed, there will be good information to use in writing grants and determining how funding should be spent in the United Way's service area. Until then, the United Way is wise to regard the survey as another data point -- and not a definitive study -- about community needs.