Virginians may be happy, but hard to pigeonhole

It's good to know that Virginians are basically a contented lot -- even if many of them may be a wee bit hard to figure.

Virginia Tech's Center for Survey Results, which this week released its ninth annual Quality of Life Survey, found that most residents it polled are pretty happy campers indeed.

A majority reportedly found the state a good or excellent place to live, get a college education, find a job, raise a family, take a vacation and retire. They gave high marks to their fire departments, their rescue squads, their banks, their police, their parks, their hospitals and their libraries. (The survey results, by the way, weren't broken down by region, nor by city.)

But when it comes to the issues, the survey might surprise you.

The conventional wisdom holds that Virginians as a group are fairly conservative. Increasingly, they're voting Republican, and responses to a number of survey questions certainly reflect conservative beliefs. Three-quarters said they believe in the death penalty for murderers, for example, and 61 percent came out in favor of school vouchers.

On the other hand, if the survey is to be believed, wide majorities of Virginians hold beliefs that you don't ordinarily associate with conservatism. Almost 70 percent said physician-assisted suicide should be legal for patients suffering from terminal illnesses if they and their families ask for it. Nearly three-fourths favored the medical use of marijuana. A whopping 81 percent agreed sex education should be taught in schools. And 74 percent said women have the legal right to abortion.

From that, you might conclude that a lot of these folks are flaming liberals. Alternatively, you might conclude they have much in common with libertarians, who oppose goverment interference in the lives of individuals. But look at the responses on health care, and it would appear a majority of the Virginians surveyed aren't afraid of the federal government, either.

More than 80 percent agreed America needs a national health-care policy. More than 75 percent believe national limits should be set on doctors' fees. And 86 percent said the same should go for prescription drugs.

When it comes to government help for the poor, though, things get really complicated. Forty-three percent said more public money should be spent to help needy families. Almost 59 percent said not enough is spent on the elderly. Half said they favored more child-care aid for low-income working mothers.

But mention the word "welfare," and the picture changes dramatically. Sixty-one percent said most people on welfare are abusing it. Seventy-eight percent favored a two-year limit on welfare assistance.

Assuming the survey accurately represents Virginians' feelings and opinions, you might conclude that the people of the Old Dominion don't really know what they believe. But there's a more optimistic -- and more realistic -- conclusion: They're thinking for themselves.

The pattern suggests that Virginians aren't marching in lockstep, bound by one particular ideology or another. Instead, they're trying to figure things out for themselves. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong. And sometimes, as in respondents' answers about helping the poor, the issues are confused by buzzwords -- from both the left and the right.

But in any case, it would appear they're trying. If so, that's probably as good a reason as any to feel good about the Old Dominion these days.

Published about 2001.