STATS Spotlight

Do We Care About the World? Definitely Maybe.

by Howard Fienberg
March 2001

Do Americans care about the rest of the globe? Surveys give us mixed results. A recently released poll showed we do indeed care about “world hunger.” But deciphering what Americans think about intervention in foreign affairs is much more difficult.

“Compassion is not a conservative or a liberal value - it's an American value,” said David Beckmann, president of the nonprofit organization Bread for the World, which released the poll on world hunger. He insisted that “Americans do care about world hunger, and we want our government to do its part.” Of course, the work of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which conducted the poll, demonstrates something else: while we do seem to care, when it comes to international affairs we haven’t got a clue. PIPA discovered two important nuggets of information: most Americans mistakenly believe that global hunger has increased over the last few decades; and they wildly overestimate the amount of U.S. money spent on foreign aid.

Mind you, that most of us want a drastic cut in aid outlays is not because we do not care about starving Sudanese or war-torn Congolese. It is because polling cannot easily nail down public attitudes on policies requiring extensive knowledge that the average Joe does not have.

Polling methods are excellent at ferreting out public positions on matters of principle: “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” or “Should creationism be taught in public schools?” Such questions are simple and easy to answer, since most people have reasonably strong opinions on matters of principle. But ask them about the intricacies of the latest plans for welfare reform and watch their eyes glaze over. Joe American simply does not carry many significant opinions about policy matters because he does not have much understanding of them. Survey questions then inadvertently force Joe to make uninformed choices.

This is no put down to Joe. Chances are he has a fair understanding of several policy issues. He is just unlikely to have a deep understanding of a lot of them and foreign policy is not high on his list of priorities. If policy decisions were simple, Joe would have strong opinions. If dropping some bombs on Sadaam Hussein were all it took to turn Iraq into a peaceful democratic state, Joe would probably shout: “Go get ‘em.”

But back to opinion polling. Because Joe likely knows little about foreign policy, pollsters must tweak their questionnaires to uncover any serious opinion. PIPA would not have received a very useful answer if they had asked simply: “Are you in favor of giving lots of money to alleviate hunger in poor countries, yes or no?” Yes and no questions just won’t cut it. Instead, PIPA asked many more intricate questions and allowed respondents to answer based on sliding scales which offer greater flexibility in their answers. For instance, PIPA asked respondents their opinion of the following statement: “The U.S. should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need.” Answers were taken in the categories of “Agree strongly,” “Agree somewhat,” “Disagree somewhat” or “Disagree strongly.” This allowed PIPA to total the numbers of us who “agree” with the statement at 64.5 percent. But 36 percent of respondents only agreed “somewhat.”

What on earth does Joe really think and how strongly does he feel about it? Hard to say. Even once we have decided what he means, that opinion could easily change. For while Joe’s principles are firm, his policy opinions are usually fluid.

International affairs do not rank highly on Americans’ list of priorities. PIPA found that 65.1 percent of their respondents agreed strongly that “Taking care of problems at home is more important than giving aid to foreign countries.” Do we care about hunger in foreign lands? Yes, we’re only human. We may even want our government to spend more on hunger relief abroad. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for certain, to accurately measure how much more money we are willing to contribute or in what manner, or what other measures we want our nation take.

Politicians often lean on polls like a crutch when making decisions. But when it comes to foreign policy, they might need to look elsewhere for support.

return to Howard Fienberg's page