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Garden State Quality of Life is in Eye of Beholder

This post originally appeared as an op-ed column in the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Courier-Post, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune.

We all have an opinion whether New Jersey’s quality of life is good or bad. But what exactly does quality of life mean? And how does our home state contribute to it?

New Jersey is not an easy place to pin down. It is a state of great variety in terms of wealth, culture and geography. We pack the 11th largest state population into the 5th smallest land area in the country. Among its own residents, the concept of “New Jersey” may encompass a reality that extends only 10 or 20 miles from one’s home. Beyond that limited radius could be an entirely different view of the Garden State.

Certainly, many observers have attempted to measure “quality of life” by looking at aggregate measures such as income and employment indices, home values, open space preservation, health statistics, and the like. Unfortunately, those indicators tend to mask the diverse experiences of New Jersey’s population. They cannot tell the whole story. That’s why Monmouth University’s Polling Institute undertook a project to find out what drives New Jersey’s quality of life by going right to the source that knows best – the state’s residents.

The Garden State Quality of Life Index survey asked more than 100 questions covering a dozen different aspects of life quality. As expected, we found that quality of life lies in the eye of the beholder. And New Jersey has millions of pairs of eyes with nearly as many perspectives on what contributes to a good life. Among inner city residents, suburban homeowners, Wall Street bankers, Jersey Shore denizens, and Pine Barrens farmers alike, there are significant numbers who love the Garden State, significant numbers who hate it, and significant numbers who are simply indifferent to the state they call home.

We also found, though, that there is such a thing as a Garden State Quality of Life. While life satisfaction has much to do with one’s personal circumstances, the state we live in does play a role in shaping those perceptions. Some may say that perceptions about quality of life are just a byproduct of current economic conditions. Our survey found that was not the case. Using tracking data going back three, and sometimes four, decades we were able to isolate contributing factors to New Jersey’s quality of life.

Obviously, the economy plays a role in how New Jerseyans perceive their home state. But it’s not the defining factor. The high point in the state’s overall rating came in the mid to late 1980s, peaking at an 84 percent positive mark in 1987. At the time, resident also gave positive marks about the economy, with about 6-in-10 saying the state was experiencing a good economic climate. By 1990, only one-third of New Jerseyans said the state was experiencing good economic times. The overall state rating dropped to 68 percent. However, the drop also correlated with growing negative attitudes about the state’s schools, crime, and environmental quality.

The economy had rebounded by 2001, with two-thirds saying the state was in good economic times, and the state rating also increased to 76 percent. We also saw a positive stabilization in school ratings and a lessening in concerns about the environment. Within two years, though, the picture had again changed. In 2003, only 1-in-4 New Jersey residents said the economy was good – a drop of 39 points – but the state rating had only slipped by four points to 72 percent due to other contributing factors remaining stable. By 2007, fewer than 1-in-10 said the economy was good and the state rating bottomed out at 63 percent, where it remained in our most recent poll.

At the same time the economy was sinking, school ratings remained positive, concerns about crime had abated, and environmental worries reached an all-time low. These are all factors that buoyed the overall state rating. But something else was pushing that perception down. Something other than the economy.

According to the survey, the culprit is a declining trust in government. The last time a majority of residents gave good marks to their state government was ten years ago, when 54 percent gave a positive rating and just 22 percent said they had no confidence in Trenton. Those ratings have eroded steadily every year of the past decade, ending at just a 24 percent positive rating for state government with nearly half, 44 percent, expressing no confidence.

We performed an additional analysis in an attempt to identify groups of New Jerseyans in terms of their shared outlook on quality of life. We were able to classify residents into nine different groups or clusters. We found only one cluster who, as a group, feel that New Jersey contributes positively to their own quality of life. They tend to be older residents in the state’s urban areas. We also found only one group who feel that the state is a negative factor in their quality of life. This group tends to be younger urban residents. The remaining seven groups include a mix of opinions on the role the state plays in their personal quality of life.

Among these groups, though, there is one that stands out for the level of disconnect between their own standard of living and the role the state plays in it. These are the state’s top income earners. This racially diverse group reports enjoying the state’s highest standard of living, but few make a connection between their own success and the quality of life provided by their home state.

These top earners’ ties to either their state or their hometown are not particularly strong. A majority of these residents say they would eventually like to leave New Jersey, and they have the means to do it. This is a group that the state can least afford to lose. But we risk losing them based on their perceptions about whether government is working for them.

Not to be lost in all this is the fact that perceptions about the state’s quality of life are still positive on the whole. An index which takes into account evaluations of the state, hometowns, education, crime, and the environment places the current quality of life at +21 on a scale from -100 to +100. Residents recognize that there is a lot that is right with the state at the same time they point to major areas in need of improvement.

The challenge for state policymakers, then, is two-fold: fix the negative aspects of perceptions about New Jersey’s quality of life and help residents understand the connection between their own standard of living and the quality of life that New Jersey provides for them.