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    What America Thinks
    Not a Clue

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, June 14, 1999

    Despite a booming economy that just won't quit growing, many Americans are misinformed or simply clueless about the country's good economic times.

    Violent crime, too, is down. But many Americans doubt it.

    Teen pregnancy rates are lower than they've been at any time since 1986. That couldn't be true, say a majority of Americans.

    "Most people don't get it," says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris & Associates. "They underestimate, deny or disbelieve these positive trends."

    Taylor's claim that we're a nation of naysayers and deniers is based on the startling results of a Harris national survey of 1,010 randomly selected adults conducted in mid-May.

    Nearly half the country doesn't know the economy is growing, reports Taylor. The good news is that few Americans – only 7 percent in the Harris poll – believe the economy is shrinking, while 37 percent say it's "staying about the same."

    A majority of Americans – 55 percent – realize that the economy is creating jobs. But only one in seven knows that the number of jobs has increased by "several million a year" (the approximate rate of growth in recent years), while four in 10 think we're "growing by less than that."

    Remarkably, one in five – 21 percent – say the economy actually is shedding jobs, while 17 percent say the number of jobs isn't changing.

    To the public's credit, most have a general sense of how the economy is performing: 73 percent knew the economy has experienced seven consecutive years of growth; and 71 percent agreed that unemployment is lower today than at any time since 1980. (And maybe that's as much as they really need to know about the overall health of the economy.)

    "If the public underestimates the strength of the economy, their ignorance of crime rate societal trends is even worse," Taylor wrote. "Only 2 percent – one in every 50 – of adults believe that rates of violent crime are decreasing 'a lot' – which all the statistics certainly say they are – and fully 60 percent believe violent crime is still increasing, something that has not been true in a long time."

    Many Americans also don't know the good news about teen pregnancy. When asked if this statement were true or false: "Teen pregnancy rates are lower today than at any time since 1986," 54 percent said false.

    Why are people unaware that the country's awash in good news and positive social trends? Taylor fingers local TV news as the culprit.

    He says Harris researchers have shown that more people get their news from local TV than from national TV or newspapers. Research also reveals that people who get news from newspapers are better informed than those who get news from national TV, and that both are better informed than those who depend on local TV news, Taylor says.

    "A nightly diet of crime and other bad news on local TV has created a badly misinformed public who just do not recognize how good these times are."

    The Retiring Type

    Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, has retired from the Roper Center and from his teaching position in the political science department.

    The surprise announcement came as the Roper Center was in the midst of a national search to replace Ladd, who announced last year that he intended to give up leadership of the center after 22 years as executive director. He has taught at the university for 35 years.

    Lois Timms-Ferrara, associate director of the center for the past two years, has agreed to serve as interim director until a permanent director has been selected. Timms-Ferrara joined the center as an analyst in 1982.

    Not Leaving Anytime Soon

    Good news, we think: The South isn't planning to secede. Eighty-four percent of all adults living in the South agree that the region "is better off as part of the United States than it would be as a separate country," while 7 percent disagree, according to the latest Southern Focus Poll sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina.

    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 morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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