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    What America Thinks
    Judging Ourselves Harshly

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Jan. 5, 1998

    Suppose Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and presumably the Founding Mothers) visited the United States today. How would they judge the country they had created more than two centuries ago?

    Rather harshly, say Americans interviewed in a new national survey conducted by political pollster Peter Hart for Human Rights U.S.A.

    Three in four said Jefferson, Washington et al. would be "disappointed" with the "way things are going in the country," while just one out of six said they would approve, according to the survey of 1,004 adults conducted in November.

    "To look at American society at the close of the 20th Century through the eyes of most Americans is to see a nation that is not living up to the ideals and principles on which it was founded," Hart analysts wrote in a summary of the survey results.

    America's troubled image of itself is most clearly seen in a series of questions that asked survey respondents to give letter grades to summarize how well they thought the country was doing in several key areas of life.

    The resulting report card suggests that America needs to hit the books: "The country earns only a C or C- average on all of the attributes tested, and F's are as frequent as A's for several criteria on this report card," researchers reported.

    In some areas, the poll found that D and F grades far outnumbered A's and B's. When asked to grade the job Americans were doing in "respecting one another," four in 10 gave the country a D (23 percent) or F (15 percent), while one in five awarded an A (3 percent) or B (17 percent).

    Similarly, survey respondents were more likely to give D and F grades than A's or B's to the country for "combating racism and prejudice," "providing access to affordable health care" and "protecting the environment." Respondents said the country was doing a relatively better job providing "young people with a quality education," "ensuring equal treatment and equal pay for women in the workplace" and "helping poor people." Still, the majority gave the country no better than a C grade in each of these areas of American life.

    The survey also found that discrimination is not limited to racial or ethnic groups. Nearly half of those interviewed said they had experienced some form of discrimination sometime in their lives. Nineteen percent said they had been discriminated against as a result of their racial or ethnic background, 18 percent said they had faced discrimination because of their gender, and similar percentages reported they had been discriminated against because of their age or economic status.

    Personal experience with actual acts of discrimination were more likely to be reported by black and Hispanic respondents than by whites. Three out of four African Americans interviewed and nearly two in three Latinos reported that they had been the victim of discrimination sometime in their lives. But racial bigotry didn't explain all of the instances of reported discrimination: More than four in 10 African Americans and a majority of Latinos said they had been the victim of some other form of prjudice.

    The survey also found that Americans remain divided over the causes of poverty. Half of those interviewed – 49 percent – agreed that poor people were disadvantaged because they "just don't do enough to take responsibility and help themselves." More than a third – 35 percent – disagreed, saying poverty was the consequence of a system that "is stacked against some people, and it's not their fault that they end up living in poverty." Another 12 percent said both reasons explained why some people continued to live in poverty, while the remainder said neither reason was true, or expressed no opinion.

    The Folly of Youth

    Nearly nine out of 10 younger Americans believe they're "invulnerable" to the virus that causes AIDS – even though one out of five say they have had a friend or acquaintance die of the disease, according to a national survey conducted by MTV and Yale University.

    Only 2 percent of all whites surveyed considered themselves vulnerable to getting the AIDS virus, compared with 16 percent of all Latinos and 11 percent of African Americans, according to the survey of 770 young people between the ages of 12 and 34 conducted in June.

    Nine out of 10 said they are not engaging in any behavior that would put them at risk for AIDS – even though slightly more than half (53 percent) of all unmarried respondents said they had not used a condom the last time they had sex.

    "This study is important because it tells us that, despite the information that's out there, young people have not internalized the dangers of AIDS, drugs, alcohol and other health-related risks," says Michael H. Merson, dean of public health at the Yale University School of Medicine.

    One out of four young people said television was their "main source" of information on health-related issues, including facts on drinking, drugs, sex, AIDS, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Majorities said TV wasn't doing enough to inform young people about pregnancy prevention, the dangers of unprotected sex, AIDS, drug abuse and violence.

    "As a network built on knowing everything about our viewers, these findings reinforce what we've observed over the past year – young people want answers to tough questions about sex, health and AIDS," says Todd Cunningham, MTV vice president of research and planning.

    Shopping on the 'Net: Not Yet

    Just 4 percent of Americans interviewed in a national survey conducted in mid-November by Wirthlin Worldwide said they had bought something over the Internet during the previous 30 days – the same percentage as reported ordering something through a cable TV home shopping club.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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