From a little college in the far northwest corner of the state come new measurements of something large: the impact of hard times on ordinary Pennsylvanians.
In just their second year of polling, researchers at Mercyhurst College, a Catholic liberal arts school in Erie, came up with questions meant to gauge the recession's kitchen-table impact.
The findings of the college's first statewide poll, to be published this week but made available Monday to The Inquirer, offer fresh evidence that the nation's economic crisis is hitting not just close to home but inside.
The survey found blame to go around: about half said steps taken by President Obama and both parties in Congress had made things "somewhat worse" or "much worse." Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, fared even worse on this question.
The poll found that one in four Pennsylvania residents has had someone living in his or her household lose a job or be laid off in the last 12 months - and two out of three had close friends or family members who were put out of work in that time.
More than three out of every four Pennsylvanians said they knew individuals or families who struggle every month to afford basic needs such as rent, utilities, health care, clothes, or food.
"The poverty question was startling," said Joseph Morris, a professor and director of the college's Center for Applied Politics, which conducted the poll, "as was the fact that a strong majority of Pennsylvanians have had to make lifestyle changes because of the economy."
More than half of respondents said they had had to alter their lifestyles in some way because of the economy.
The pollsters also tested opinions on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale - "because it is the most pressing issue in the state right now," Morris said.
Pennsylvanians are conflicted over the drilling, the poll found: While most recognize the economic benefit of increased hiring and payments to lease land, along with less reliance on foreign oil, those surveyed were evenly divided on the potential costs of the activity for the environment and human health.
Morris said he believed the poll contained the most extensive battery of shale-related questions to date, emphasizing the extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The process involves using large amounts of water and sand filled with chemicals that are blasted deep underground to break apart rock and release gas.
"We asked not only about opinions on shale, but their perception of economic impact on state forests and parks, the trade-offs vs. the costs," said Morris. "Generally, people approve of fracking to extract gas and they see the economic benefits, but at the same time they are concerned about uncertainties in the end."
The poll results are based on interviews with 426 adult residents of Pennsylvania conducted between Sept. 19 and Friday. The findings have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.75 percentage points.
The survey represents a big step for Mercyhurst, which has 3,226 students. Morris said the college was motivated to expand its polling to the statewide level after a poll it conducted last year on a local congressional race accurately predicted that Republican Mike Kelly would oust an incumbent Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper.
Beginning in 2012, Morris said, the college hopes to produce as many as eight polls a year, mixing election politics and opinion polling on the general themes of economy and poverty, the environment, society and education, and crime and justice.
The goal is twofold, he said: to raise the level of discourse on important civic issues, and to provide real-life experience for students in the college's political science program. He likened it to the experience students gain in the college's forensic sciences program, which assists the FBI and local police in criminal investigations.
Two other Pennsylvania colleges conduct regular statewide polling: Franklin and Marshall's Center for Opinion Research and Muhlenberg's Polling Institute.