Results Show that Voters are Supportive of Public, Humane Solutions in Mental Health and Affordable Housing
By Rob Schofield
- NC Policy Watch, North Carolina’s leading provider of commentary and analysis on state public policy issues, has added yet another feature to its fast growing menu of products and services – the “Carolina Issues Poll.”
- In the poll’s inaugural edition, Policy Watch sought to gauge the opinion of North Carolina registered voters on two timely and important policy topics: mental health and affordable housing.
- Results from the poll show that North Carolinians are broadly supportive of new publicly funded efforts to aid the mentally ill, oppose executing mentally ill persons convicted of murder and support more public efforts to ease the state’s affordable housing and foreclosure crises.
Public opinion polls are an indispensable component of modern day government policymaking. Unfortunately, too many polls confine themselves to a narrow band of “safe” issues and avoid questions that might lead policymakers to draw new and unconventional conclusions about voter attitudes and opinions. The Carolina Issues Poll is a new (and soon to be regular) voter survey conducted by NC Policy Watch that seeks to alter this pattern by asking new and different questions on topics of importance to North Carolinians and their elected officials.
For the inaugural edition of the Carolina Issues Poll , NC Policy Watch targeted two broad topics of real and immediate relevance to the state policy debates: mental health and affordable housing. Though timely and of obvious importance, public debate surrounding both of these topics has suffered in recent years because of the “conventional wisdom” that each was “settled” in the public mind – that is, the general perception seemed to be that voters had little or no interest in public solutions and were content to leave these difficult challenges to private actors. The poll also looked at the interrelation between mental health and the death penalty. North Carolina, of course, executes more people  than only a handful of states and nations and is widely accepted to be a “pro-death penalty” state.
Examining the Results
The results from the new poll cast doubt upon much of the conventional wisdom that surrounds these issues.
For many years, the policy trend in the area of mental health has been to de-emphasize public solutions. In general, policymakers have moved to privatize what were once publicly provided services and resisted efforts to impose new mandates for expanded private insurance coverage. According to the new poll results, however, these policies may be at odds with voter attitudes.
When asked if they supported a new state mandate that would require health insurance companies to cover the treatment of mental illness just like any other illness (a requirement commonly referred to as “mental health parity”), 79% said “yes” and only 14% said “no.” Voters were even roughly divided over the question of mandating insurance company coverage for persons with substance abuse problems. Here nearly two in five (38%) said “yes”, 44% said “no,” and 18% said they “don’t know.”
The support for public intervention was also strong when it comes to the provision of adequate public funding for housing mentally ill persons. According to the poll, more than two-thirds of voters (68%) said they favor additional taxpayer-provided funding to help assure that mentally ill persons are not housed with older, non-mentally ill persons as has been a common practice due to shortages of beds.
The disconnect between common wisdom and voter attitudes was further illustrated when the poll asked about the state’s application of the death penalty to mentally ill and disabled persons. As recently as last year, North Carolina was preparing to execute Guy LeGrande , a man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death despite his demonstrably unstable and disturbed personality. When asked in the new poll if they supported use of the death penalty against murderers who had a severe mental illness or disability at the time of the commission of the crime, voters disapproved by a wide margin – 52% to 30%. Eighteen percent said they didn’t know.
As with mental health, policymakers have long settled for a laissez faire approach toward the challenges the state faces in adequately housing its citizens. This hesitance to supplement the private housing market has been evident both in the level of direct state funding for the construction of affordable housing for households of modest incomes and in the unwillingness of policymakers to intervene on behalf of middle class families in the state’s mushrooming home foreclosure crisis. This year, Governor Easley’s 2007-’08 budget proposes what amounts to a 50% cut in support for the state’s award winning Housing Trust Fund and only a tiny appropriation for the Home Protection Pilot Program – the state’s only pot of money earmarked specifically for aiding families facing foreclosure.
As with mental health, however, public attitudes appear to be ahead of public policies. Respondents to the Carolina Issues Poll voiced strong support for increased public expenditures. For the Housing Trust Fund, voters were in favor of increased state appropriations by roughly a three to two margin (53% “yes” to 37% “no,” with 10% in the “don’t know” category. Almost identical numbers (54% in favor, 36% against) supported increased appropriations for the Home Protection Pilot Program, which provides loans to stave off home mortgage foreclosures.
The implications of these poll results for the 2007 session of the North Carolina General Assembly could be significant. Advocates for the highlighted issues and causes are certain make use of the results in support of legislative initiatives. These include:
Mental Health Parity – Senators Bob Atwater, Janet Cowell, Linda Garrou and Malcolm Graham are co-sponsoring legislation  this session that would require health insurers to provide this kind of coverage. In addition to the results highlighted in the Carolina Issues Poll, the sponsors seem sure to point out that 37 states already have a similar law on the books.
Mental Health Reform – As described on several occasions in the NC Policy Watch feature, the Fitzsimon File , North Carolina’s mental health system is broken and badly in need of an overhaul. Despite the repeated documentation of large and unmet needs  that include inadequate institutional and community-based housing and other facilities, over-worked caseworkers, and lack of overall vision and commitment, North Carolina continues to muddle along with little apparent commitment significant change. Governor Easley’s proposed budget offers little, if anything, in the way of the kind of resources that will be necessary for real reform.
The Death Penalty – As with mental health parity, lawmakers have introduced specific legislation that would address the concerns of poll respondents about the execution of mentally disabled persons. According to the companion bills , a defendant would have the burden of proving to the jury that he or she suffered from a severe mental disability at the time of the commission of the crime. At present, neither bill has been heard in committee.
Affordable Housing and Foreclosures – Despite the relatively small proposed appropriations for the state Housing Trust Fund  and the Home Protection Pilot Program  contained in the Governor’s budget, advocates remain optimistic that legislative budget makers will find additional funds. Given the strong and broad-based support  enjoyed by the Trust Fund and the state’s mushrooming foreclosure problem as documented in a recent Charlotte Observer series , it seems possible that the new polling data could provide added impetus to successful efforts.
The Carolina Issues Poll was conducted by the private firm of Public Policy Polling. 574 North Carolina voters were surveyed on March 29 and 30. The survey has a margin of error of ± 4.1%. Complete results are attached and can be found here. These include exact question wording and “crosstabs” broken down by gender, party affiliation, race, and age. ~
Click here for the poll results .
Click here for the press release .