MET 111822 SURVEY GAGNON FILE

Julie Gagnon and daughter, Mackenzy Hughbanks, work together to load sacks of potatoes into a recipient’s trunk during the Manna from Seven Thanksgiving dinner distribution on Friday, Nov. 18, behind St. Stephen’s Church. Of the 600 Hoosiers interviewed for the Hoosier Survey, 38% think people like them have only a small impact, or none at all, in making their community a better place to live. Of course, most nonprofits that serve children, the elderly, poor or homeless would disagree.

A long-debated question about folks who live in Indiana just got more befuddling.

The annual Hoosier Survey — a project by Indiana Public Broadcasting and the Ball State University Bowen Center for Public Affairs, now in its 14th year — has painted an updated picture of Hoosiers in 2022. Six-hundred Hoosiers were interviewed by phone and online this fall.

Its results make it harder to specifically respond to the question, “What’s a Hoosier?”

The most accurate answer is — a resident of Indiana. A social-media phrase more precisely sums up the definition — it’s complicated.

Most of us (76%) believe our local community is a good, very good or excellent place to live. Yet, we’re not inclined to interact with that community too often. A surprising 41% of Hoosiers talk with their neighbors only once a month or not at all. In fact, 15.7% of the survey respondents never converse with a neighbor. Two out of every three don’t belong to any groups or organizations. Nearly the same amount, 61%, didn’t volunteer in the previous year.

And, 38% think people like them have only a small impact, or none at all, in making their community a better place to live. Of course, most nonprofits that serve children, the elderly, poor or homeless would disagree. Those organizations would welcome more volunteers and support, and can readily show the impact each set of extra hands can make.

So, are the people known for “Hoosier hospitality” becoming recluses in hometowns they actually like? Not quite.

There’s an underlying cause that, most likely, explains at least part of the apparent spread of introverted behavior across Indiana, according to the Hoosier Survey’s lead researcher, Chad Kinsella, director of Ball State’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs. It’s no surprise.

Chad Kinsella of Bowen Center for Public Affairs

KINSELLA

The pandemic.

As COVID-19 threatened the health and lives of people across the globe, especially before vaccines became available, public health officials appropriately cautioned people to limit face-to-face interactions and to avoid large gatherings. A swath of the population didn’t abide by health experts’ advise to mask up, causing others to recede even further from social situations.

Coupled with that atmosphere, the “Bowling Alone” effect also might be playing out, Kinsella said Tuesday. It’s a reference to the 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Harvard University sociologist Robert D. Putnam. The book described the impact of television, suburbanization, people building decks rather than porches on their houses, crime and the perception of crime as causes of people interacting less.

“Essentially, the title is about the fact that the number of people who bowl has not declined, but the number of bowling leagues has declined to pretty much nonexistent,” Kinsella said of the book’s upshot. “Perhaps, post-COVID, we are back to this.”

About half of the 600 interviews of Indiana residents for the Hoosier Survey were collected online, with the other half via telephone (42 on landlines and 257 by cellphone), according to Indiana Public Media. Kinsella said the online respondents were “less likely than telephone respondents to talk to their neighbor, volunteer or join groups.”

Thus, the “Bowling Alone” effect may be compounded by the predominance of communicating through screens and digital devices.

“Now, televisions are just part of the story,” Kinsella said. “We all have phones that have games, apps, ‘television,’ and internet access, which means we can be next to someone and totally ignore them.”

It’s obvious in many ways. Go to any restaurant and scan the room. It’s not hard to spot couples, even entire families or groups of people sitting together but looking down at their cellphones. It’s no shock, then, that people are less inclined to walk outside to the fence row for a conversation with a neighbor.

“It may be that we have achieved new lows in interactions, given technology and our experience with COVID, that may surpass the findings in ‘Bowling Alone,’” Kinsella said.

Other forces, such as political divisions, also are influencing Hoosiers’ willingness to interact, according to the survey results.

Forty-two percent of those responding said it is somewhat or extremely important that friends have similar political views. And, 45% said it is somewhat or extremely important to live in a place where most other people hold similar political views.

Regardless of Hoosiers’ proximity to one another, the survey illuminated Indiana residents’ priorities on a gamut of subjects, just as it has since 2008.

More than 56% of the respondents said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, compared to 35.6% who said it should be illegal most or all cases. Eighty-two percent said their local public health department was important in creating a healthy community. Fifty-six percent said marijuana should be legal for personal use, and another 29% said it should be legal for medicinal use only. Fifty-one percent said protection of the environment should be given priority, even if it meant curbing economic growth. Fifty-eight percent said the state government is doing too little to protect the environment.

“The goal [of the survey] is to inform the public and inform the state legislature on where Hoosiers stand on a number of different topics — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Kinsella said.

Despite those majority opinions, the Indiana General Assembly — the state’s legislature — will most likely continue governing the state from its own, very different viewpoint on each of those issues. That reality also defines the Hoosier state.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.