Looking at the Lighter Side of Life
By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, March 8, 1999
By now readers of this column know I'm in the tank for Public Perspective, the magazine-cum-academic journal devoted to public opinion and polls that's published by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
Well, once again Public Perspective is making news, zigging from the beaten path with a special issue devoted to a topic often ignored by America's pollsters: everyday life.
"Public opinion surveys (as opposed to market research) focus disproportionately on politics and public policy," writes political scientist Everett Carll Ladd, editor of Public Perspective, in the lead essay of the latest edition. But most Americans "spend most of their everyday lives thinking about and participating in activities outside politics: their families and churches, the sports and the television they watch, their efforts to maintain good health, their sense of what constitutes proper behavior for themselves and their fellow citizens."
Ladd says the magazine will regularly look at the "lighter side" of people's lives: "By 'lighter' I don't mean just the odd or whimsical in our experience, or trends in pop culture." Well, what exactly does he mean? A peek inside the latest issue provides the answer, as well as some unexpected answers to basic questions about everyday life. A few examples:
Where do we want to live? Remarkably, Perspective editors found America's ideal place to live has changed little over the past 60 years. A Gallup survey in 1937 found that 58 percent of those interviewed said they wanted to live on a farm (30 percent) or in a small town (28 percent). In a Gallup survey conducted last November, just as many 60 percent expressed similar preferences, with 24 percent of those questioned saying that farm living was the life for them and 36 percent preferring small-town life.
How do we get to work? In 1942, 41 percent of all workers interviewed in a Gallup survey said they walked or rode a bicycle to work, while just over a third 36 percent said they drove. Today, nine out of 10 workers say they drive or go in vans or car pools to work; 5 percent walk or ride a bike. Also out of fashion: public transportation. A half-century ago, 23 percent said they relied on buses, trolleys or trains to take them to work; today, just 9 percent take public transportation to their jobs, according to a survey by Chilton Research Services.
How do we stay fit? Few Americans may walk to work anymore, but more of us are walking for exercise. According to surveys conducted by the Roper Organization, nearly half 46 percent of those surveyed nationally in 1998 say they walked a mile or more "fairly regularly," up from 33 percent in 1982. Incidentally, walking remains the country's favorite exercise, ranking well ahead of working out (22 percent), swimming (12 percent) or jogging (10 percent) as something Americans do fairly often.
What do we want to be called? Two-thirds of all women still want to be called "Miss" or "Mrs.," while barely one in five 22 percent say they'd like to be called "Ms.," according to a September 1997 survey by CBS News. In a 1973 Gallup poll, 9 percent said they preferred to be called "Ms." About a third of all blacks interviewed in 1997 by NBC News-The Wall Street Journal said they wanted to be called blacks, while a third said it didn't matter and slightly fewer preferred to be called "African Americans."
What's with the funny money? Don't mess with our money, Americans consistently say. Nearly two in three 64 percent told Gallup poll-takers last year that "the new $20 bill doesn't look like real American money." Likewise, two in three in a CBS poll in 1997 said that the U.S. Treasury should continue to make pennies. Eight in 10 in a 1995 Gallup survey opposed replacing the $1 bill with a $1 coin. And don't even mention the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Two-thirds of those interviewed by Gallup after it was put in circulation in 1979 said they "mostly disliked" it.
What's our favorite sport? In the mid-1960s, football passed baseball as America's favorite spectator sport. Currently, about 30 percent of all Americans say football is their favorite sport to watch, according to Gallup polls. Basketball is the choice of 17 percent, while 14 percent prefer to watch baseball. Still, more than 61 million Americans attended major league baseball games in 1996, more than three times the number that went to a pro football or basketball game.
Who's our pal? A majority of Americans 56 percent say they have a pet dog or cat. That's up from 48 percent in 1952 but down from 1995, when 61 percent of those interviewed by Gallup said they had a pet pooch or kitty. Men are no more or less likely than women to have a pet, while thirtysomethings and middle-age Americans as a group are more likely to have a pet than older Americans. And here's news: Republicans (60 percent) and political independents (61 percent) are much more likely than Democrats (49 percent) to have a pet animal.
Hey, I love this stuff. Keep it coming. And they will. The next issue of Public Perspective will compare how America's core beliefs and values have and have not changed over the years. I can't wait.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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