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. That's what the annual UNO Quality of Life survey, taken in October, did to measure people's opinions of government services and conditions post-Katrina.
Normally, pollsters will ask survey respondents to rate an individual, organization or situation as excellent, pretty good, only fair or poor. In her latest survey, UNO political science professor and pollster Dr. Susan Howell added "very poor" to the mix when asking citizens in Orleans and Jefferson parishes to rate a dozen governmental services. She also dropped "excellent" from the menu, and I have to agree that I can't think of any governmental services I would describe as "excellent" these days.
Instead, respondents in both parishes were asked to rate things such as police protection, availability of housing and medical care, control of litter and abandoned housing, and other governmental services on a scale from "very good" to "very poor."
Here's a closer look at those numbers. Bear in mind that the higher the number, the more things suck.
• Overall level of government services -- 53 percent
• Police protection -- 41 percent
• Availability of housing -- 71 percent
• Availability of medical care -- 51 percent
• Conditions of roads and streets -- 75 percent
• Control of traffic -- 30 percent
• Availability of public transportation -- 33 percent
• Drainage and flood control -- 48 percent
• Control of litter and trash -- 65 percent
• Control of abandoned housing -- 72 percent
• Opportunities for employment -- 26 percent
• Likelihood of new jobs and industry -- 34 percent
Those numbers are so bad that they deserve a name. I suggest Dr. Howell call it "The Suck Index" for future reference. The Suck Index goes beyond the well-worn "Misery Index," which typically measures things like unemployment and inflation. People can put up with a certain amount of misery, at least for a while, because they know that inflation and unemployment are cyclical in nature. But when things start to suck, there's often no end in sight, and that's when people start to think about moving -- which is what 32 percent of New Orleans respondents said they were "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to do in the next two years.
In neighboring Jefferson Parish, only one subject scored worse than 40 percent on the Suck Index (control of traffic, 42 percent). Nine of them scored 25 percent or less, which indicates that life in Jefferson does not suck these days. That's great news for Parish President Aaron Broussard, who says he will seek one more term in office next fall. It will be interesting to see if voters by then have forgiven him for telling pump operators to evacuate before Katrina made landfall, Thousands of East Bank homes flooded in what many still call "the Broussard flood." The UNO survey showed Jefferson respondents gave Broussard a 53 percent approval rating, compared to 32 percent disapproval.
Mayor Nagin doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected, but he ought to be concerned about his place in history. The Suck Index reflects what his constituents think of the job he's doing -- 40 percent of New Orleanians said they "strongly approve" or "approve" of Nagin, whereas 56 percent "disapprove" or "strongly disapprove."
Opinions of Nagin skew, predictably, along racial lines. Blacks view him more kindly -- 61 percent approve or strongly approve -- and only 35 percent disapprove or strongly disapprove of him. Whites, on the other hand, take a dim view of hizzoner. Only 23 percent approve or strongly approve of him, while 72 percent disapprove or strongly disapprove of him.
Interestingly, Nagin's approval among whites tracks the support he got in his bid for re-election. Among black respondents, however, he has slipped; he got 80 percent or slightly better among black voters in the May runoff.
Howell notes that the survey did not include persons who remain evacuated -- many of whom voted in the mayor's race and most of whom are black -- and therefore approval of Nagin "would probably have been higher" if evacuees could have been included. Even so, black disapproval of Nagin is almost twice the level of black support for his runoff opponent. That's significant, to the extent Nagin cares.
He may not. When you're mayor and you have round-the-clock police protection for yourself and your family -- and you're otherwise not personally affected by poor or very poor governmental services -- life doesn't suck nearly as much as it does when you're down and out.