Newswise — Rural residents often lack internet access – but how do West Virginians compare? Do West Virginians put off expensive medical care more or less than the average American?

A first-of-its-kind survey produced by the Survey Research Center and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at West Virginia University is helping answer questions like these by making statewide socioeconomic data publicly available. 

The West Virginia Social Survey focuses on the most pressing challenges faced by West Virginia residents. It will produce state-specific reports on issues like internet access, the economy, health, crime, volunteering, religion and more, which can help inform policymakers.  

Most social surveys are conducted nationally. A typical random sample of average American adults includes 1,000 to 2,000 individuals from all over the U.S. While these surveys are useful for informing the public about national trends, they are less helpful for learning about specific states, especially those with smaller populations, like West Virginia.

“In a random national sample of U.S. adults, you may have two, maybe three West Virginia residents. When you think about how much we learn from surveys and how few social surveys are conducted in small states like West Virginia, it really gives you appreciation of how little we know. We really don't know that much about the state as a whole other than the information produced by the U.S. Census Bureau,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Chris Scheitle, one of the survey’s creators. “The idea was that if we conducted a similar social survey with questions asked at the national level, we could represent West Virginia residents and have the opportunity to compare them to the U.S. population as a whole.”

The survey was mailed to 4,950 West Virginia residents in March and April 2020. The research team received answers from 1,888 individuals, just more than a 38% response rate.

“There's so much about our world that is shaped by surveys. So much of what we know about the social world, whether it's politics, health, the economy or people's attitudes, behaviors and beliefs, is based on data generated by surveys,” Scheitle said. “A lot of people do not appreciate how much that is true.”  

The reports produced from the survey are designed to be accessible, user-friendly tools for government leaders, policymakers, public health officials, business leaders and more when planning for the state’s future.

“The reports are intentionally straightforward and simple,” Scheitle said. “We're trying to provide descriptive information for the general public and community leaders who aren't necessarily statisticians or social scientists who might be interested in these topics.”           

The first report , “Confidence in Institutions,” was published Sept. 24. It considers West Virginians’ confidence in state institutions like education, organized labor, media, healthcare, organized religion, law enforcement and major businesses.

When the survey was conducted in spring 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state, 58.1% of West Virginians surveyed reported some confidence in medicine, while 26.6% reported a great deal of confidence in it. In contrast, in 2018, a national social survey reported that 37% of U.S. adults had a great deal of confidence in medicine.

“Medicine is one of the institutions that West Virginians report the most confidence in. With that being said, it's still a minority of residents who say that they have a great deal of confidence in medicine,” Scheitle said. “That’s a mixed conclusion, because on the one hand, it's good that, relatively speaking, medicine has a high level of confidence among state residents. However, it could be much higher in an absolute sense.”

The COVIDÔÇÉ19 pandemic has also produced economic uncertainty and loss as many individuals have become unemployed and businesses have closed. The second report, released Sept. 30, analyzes West Virginians’ abilities to recover expenses after a loss in income.  

It offers a baseline for assessing financial security by examining which West Virginians indicated whether they could make ends meet for three months if they were to lose their primary source of income. In the survey, 43.8% said that they could not cover three months of expenses if this occurred.  

“This statistic may actually be an extreme underestimate because the survey question suggests that one of the ways you could potentially cover expenses is by borrowing from friends and family. That assumes your friends and family also don't have a loss of income,” Scheitle said. “During the shutdown in the spring, many people’s friends and family probably couldn't loan the money, so the results that we see on that survey question are probably an underestimate of people's actual abilities to cover those expenses.”

The third report, published on Oct. 22, focuses on internet access and use in West Virginia. It offers insights on digital needs around the state during the remote work and education environments.    

The findings in this report vary greatly by county. Overall, 82% of West Virginians have access to the internet in their homes. Some counties have as low as 44% of residents indicating access to the internet in their homes, while others have as much as 97% of their residents reporting access to internet. This is markedly lower than broader survey data, such as 2019 findings showing about 94% of all North American residents had access to the internet.The next report, to published later this month, focuses on access to healthcare and primary care providers. The researchers learned that 19% of West Virginians needed access to medical care in the last year but did not get it due to the cost. Compare this to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey of U.S. adults, which found that only 9.7% of adults nationwide did not get access to medical care when it was needed due to cost. This makes the rate of unmet medical need in West Virginia due to cost about twice the national rate.

"The West Virginia Social Survey provides a voice to West Virginians whose experiences are often lost in large national surveys,” said Katie Corcoran, associate professor of sociology and one of the survey’s creators. “The results allow us to learn about the lives of West Virginians as they faced the COVID-19 pandemic, which provides invaluable information for researchers across the state and nation."  

Several sociology graduate students helped collect and analyze the data and build reports, including Frederick, Maryland, native Taylor Remsburg.

“This project is as broadly important as national surveys, which often ask questions similar to those we integrated into the social survey. To make progress in West Virginia, we have to have some knowledge of what residents see as problems in their communities as well as what solutions they would like to see,” she said. “The questions address social issues that occur nationwide and applies them to the context of West Virginia to get a better picture of West Virginia on its own and in a national context.”

To learn more about the survey and access the reports, visit survey.wvu.edu/west-virginia-social-survey.

Other Link: 2020 West Virginia Social Survey Reports