Oct. 24, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 4

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    What Americans think: Less money for welfare, more for education

    Americans have become less charitable in their attitudes toward welfare, while they are more interested in spending money to fight crime and support education, according to the latest General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University.

    They are also becoming less willing to support spending on the environment, more tolerant of homosexuality and increasingly distrustful of television and the print media, according to the 1996 survey.

    The General Social Survey, conducted since 1972, annually polls a broad cross-section of about 3,000 Americans; the same questions are asked every year. The survey has become one of the most reliable gauges of public opinion in the nation and is frequently used by social scientists in their work, said survey director Tom Smith.

    Support for spending on welfare has plummeted during the past six years, even among respondents living in urban areas, the survey found. In 1990, 35 percent of the respondents living in cities supported spending more money on welfare, but by 1996, that support had fallen to 19 percent. This year support also diminished in suburbs and non-metropolitan areas, where welfare has never been strongly supported.

    Susan Mayer, Associate Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, said, "This trend shouldn't be regarded as a permanent shift. It doesn't mean people are being mean-spirited, it just means people aren't happy with the programs that are in place.

    "People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the programs, but it doesn't mean they don't want to help the poor. Legislators would be sadly mistaken if they think this gives them license to cut back on all social programs."

    Spending to fight crime has gained popularity, however. In 1996, 71 percent of the people in cities, 67 percent of the people in suburbs and 69 percent of the people in non-metropolitan areas thought more money should be spent on fighting crime.

    Robert Sampson, Professor in Sociology, said, "People continue to want to spend money on fighting crime because they are worried and want to do something about it. The recent reports of drops in crime rates haven't changed people's apprehensions. Crime still remains at high levels, especially when compared to other modern industrialized countries."

    Support for education spending is also high. In the latest survey, 74 percent of the people in cities, 69 percent of the people in suburbs and 68 percent of the people in non-metropolitan areas support more spending on education. Those figures have increased dramatically since 1972, when only 40 percent of the people in non-metropolitan areas, for example, said more money should be spent on education.

    Kenneth Wong, Associate Professor of Education, said support is strong for education because "many people still consider education as the means to getting a good job. They realize that their children need to do better in school in order to move ahead in a global economy. Parents feel that children can benefit from smaller classes, more library resources and better science labs.

    "In recent years, we are seeing a convergence of interest in spending on education among people in the central cities, in the suburbs and in the rural areas. In general, people feel that our educational standards are too low when compared with other industrialized nations and that schools need to be improved."

    Interest in environmental spending peaked in 1989 and has been declining steadily, the survey shows. Regardless of where people live, Americans have become less inclined to support expenditures to protect the environment. In 1989, for instance, 75 percent of the people living in cities felt that more money should be spent on the environment; that number dropped to 63 percent in 1996.

    "Two main factors explain the fall in environmental initiatives and spending," said Don Coursey, the Ameritech Professor and Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. "First, because environmental spending increases are largely driven by increases in per-capita incomes and for many, per-capita income has fallen or become more uncertain, people are less willing to pay more for environmental improvements.

    "Second, the environmental agenda has largely been guided at the federal policy level. Increasingly, this agenda is clashing with what people perceive to be an appropriate agenda for their community."

    The AIDS crisis has had a major impact on people's attitudes toward homosexuality, but not in the way many people might think. In the past five years, people have gradually become more tolerant of homosexuality. In 1991, 76 percent of the people surveyed -- a figure that remained constant for almost two decades -- pronounced homosexual relations "always wrong." By 1996, the number of people who held that view had fallen to 61 percent.

    Stuart Michaels, Project Director of the National Health and Social Life Survey at the University and NORC, said, "AIDS has brought homosexuality more and more into the public eye and provided people with a multiplicity of views on gay life and gay people. One side of this is that AIDS evokes compassion, because in the process of learning who has AIDS, we learn that people with AIDS have lovers, mothers and fathers, and some have children. As more and more people come to know people who are gay, they begin to give up their old stereotypes and become more tolerant."

    Since the survey's inception, confidence in institutions has steadily fallen. The percentage of people who say they have hardly any confidence in television has increased from 22 percent in 1973 to 40 percent in 1996; the percentage of people who say they have hardly any confidence in print media has increased from 15 percent to 40 percent during the same period.

    "Politicians and other national leaders have continued to act in ways that undermine public confidence," said Smith. "The Whitewater scandal is the most recent case in point. As a result, people distrust institutions and this distrust leads to skepticism in what people see and read in the media."

    -- William Harms