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The Numbers Game

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 06, 2009

Here are some interesting numbers for you, taken from Newsweek back in January, and presented after sitting at the bottom of a pile on my desk for more than a month. The statistics come variously from the Pew Research Center, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the United States Elections Project at George Mason University, the Brookings Institution, and the U. S. Census Bureau.

Looking at a period from 1987 to 2007, we find that Americans are two percent less likely to approve the statement that government should care for those who cannot care for themselves, but the low was 64% in favor back in 1994, and the numbers have been up and down between 64% and 71%. The desire to put more restrictions on immigrants coming into the United States has varied consistently between 74 and 79 percent during this same period. Agreement that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength has waned by 5% over the past twenty years to 49%, but it was actually 12% higher as recently as 2002. The swings in all these numbers have been erratic, up and down, not consistently in any direction.

Approval for interracial dating has increased by 35% to 83% in the past twenty years, the only large and completely consistent trend of those reported here. Support for affirmative action has increased by 10% but there is no trend. In fact it increased by 10% between 1987 and 1992, dropped by 10% between 1993 and 2002, and then moved back up. Support has never been higher than 34%.

The idea that when government runs things, it is usually inefficient and wasteful has had a similar history of vacillation, with 63% in support in 1987, peaking at nearly 66% in 1992, dropping to 59% eight years later, and rebounding to 62% in 2007. Similarly, the statement that corporations generally strike a fair balance between profits and public interest has been up and down between 38% and 43%, and is now understandably at the lower figure. In other words, the number of people who distrust government and distrust corporations is fairly similar, hovering between 57% and 66%. Personally, I don’t trust either, and one rather suspects that the same people are lining up the same way on both questions.

As for clear moral choices, support for gay and lesbian marriage is up 10% to 37%, a significant change, but it was actually higher (39%) three years earlier. Still, the trend is obvious. But a slight opposite trend seems to be at work concerning the idea that women should have the choice to abort. The high of 59% agreeing was in 1995, the first year the question was asked; the low was 49% in 2001. Support has never gotten higher than about 57% since that time, and it was 54% in 2007, the last year reported.

Finally, the correlation between religious commitment and presidential voting in the 2004 and 2008 elections is interesting. In 2004, those who attended church at least once a week supported Bush by a margin of between 17% and 29% (the more frequent the attendance, the higher the margin); in 2008 the same group supported McCain by a substantially lower and more even margin of 12%, showing either the disgust of the religious electorate, or Obama’s charismatic power, or both, or something else entirely. But the two largest electoral percentages cited were these: 64% of more-than-weekly church-goers supported Bush in 2004; 67% of those who never attend church supported Obama in 2008.

The numbers look prettier, and are more intelligible, with the accompanying graphs and charts, but they may still provide some food for thought.

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