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    What America Thinks
    Blue Sky Ahead

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, August 23, 1999

    There's finally some good news about the state of America's civic health: A leading indicator suggests that America has turned the corner on pessimism and is beginning to feel good about itself.

    Data collected by the National Commission on Civic Renewal (NCCR) suggests that in nearly every category – political participation, trust, group membership, personal security and family strength – America is stronger today than it's been in nearly 25 years. "America's civic health has improved substantially from its low point in 1994, reversing much of the decline experienced between 1984 and 1994," NCCR researchers concluded.

    To measure civic health, NCCR constructed an index composed of 22 separate variables. The factors include census measures of divorce per 1,000 married women, and births to married women as a percentage of all births. The index also includes the results of surveys conducted by Roper Starch International since 1974 that measured how much people trusted government and each other, as well as the percentage of people who say they belong to civic, political or social groups.

    Some of the changes since 1994 have been nothing short of astonishing. Five years ago, Roper Starch polltakers found that barely a third – 34 percent – of all adults said they trusted other people. In 1997, the last year for which data was available, more than half – 53 percent – said they trusted others. Likewise, the percentage of people in 1997 who said they trusted the government increased from 29 percent to 38 percent between 1994 and 1997, and it continues to trend upward in other polls.

    At the same time, the percentage of Americans who say they're afraid to walk home at night fell from 47 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 1997, and has fallen even further in the past two years in other surveys. No wonder: During that time, the reported crimes per 1,000 persons dropped from 51.2 to 38.8.

    Not all individual measures have gone up. Notably, the proportion of Americans who voted in elections fell from an average of 46.9 percent in 1992 and 1994 to 42.6 percent in 1996 and 1998. (This measure is an average of the official turnout figures for the nearest presidential and off-year elections.)

    Still, these reassuring numbers are less impressive when viewed in perspective. While America has made up much of what political scientists call its "rosy glow" lost since the mid-1970s, we're still far from the peak years of national optimism in the early 1960s when, for example, overwhelming majorities of Americans said they trusted the federal government and that they trusted each other.

    Scary Things

    Forget the storybook image of a smiling, bountiful and benign Mother Nature. Many of nature's little creatures, give Americans the willies. A majority of adults even admit they're scared to venture into the woods by themselves, according to a new Harris Poll.

    But few Americans say they're frightened by thunder and lightning, being alone at home at night or being in a crowd, according to the survey of 1,015 randomly selected adults. Once again, snakes lead the list of things that scare Americans. More than a third of those interviewed – 36 percent – said they were "very afraid" of snakes and another 63 percent said they were somewhat spooked by these slithery reptiles.

    But other life forms are nearly as frightening, the poll suggests. Nearly half of those interviewed said they were at least somewhat afraid of spiders and insects, and more than a third were frightened by mice.

    One in eight – 13 percent – said they were "very frightened" to be alone in a forest, while another 41 percent confessed that they were at least somewhat frightened to be out in the woods by themselves. But there's one creature that frightens few Americans: man's best friend. Barely one in five said they were afraid of dogs, even though dogs account for far more injuries to humans than any other animal.

    But nature isn't the only thing America fears. Nearly eight in 10 say they're at least somewhat afraid to look down from a great height. And about half – 49 percent – report they are squeamish about flying on an airplane, up 5 percentage points from a similar survey conducted in 1992. (Researchers note, however, that the poll was conducted immediately after John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in the crash of his plane.)

    Women Executives Abroad

    About half the nation's work force and nearly a third of all current MBA students are women. So why do women constitute just 14 percent of all workers chosen for foreign assignments?

    For years, the answer from corporate America has been that foreign executives were biased against females and simply wouldn't do business with American women. Now a survey of foreign and American executives by business professors at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles turns that conventional wisdom on its head: Managers in Mexico and Germany were less likely than American managers to express negative views about female American executives. And while men in foreign countries may have different views of the role of women in their culture, they do not apply these beliefs to American female executives, reported Charles Vance, Yongsun Paik and William Semos in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management.

    "Contrary to what American managers believe, business managers in the assigned countries do not hold American women to the same gender role norms and expectations that they do for women in their own country," they wrote – a finding that supports "a more impartial selection process" for deciding who goes abroad.

    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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