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Toops' Scoops: Are Americans Getting Dumber?

Jan. 3, 2011
Americans seem to know little about current events and economics.

There will be many challenges (and opportunities) for the food industry in 2011, but the problems America and the rest of the world face are unparalleled, to say the least. Amidst the many uncertainties and constant bickering about solutions, the findings of a recent survey to determine what the American public knows about current events and economics is somewhat disturbing.

Conducted in November by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, the survey of 1001 American adults found the public knows basic facts about politics and economics, but struggles with specifics even though they have access to reams of information and news on the Internet.

Pew acknowledges this was a difficult quiz, but Americans answered an average of only five out of the 12 questions correctly. That computes to fewer than half (42 percent) with the right answers; 4 percent missed them all. Fewer than 1 percent got them all right.

When it comes to the changing balance of power in Washington, 75 percent say the Republican Party did best in the recent midterm elections. But only 46 percent know the Republicans will have a majority only in the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January, and only 38 percent can identify John Boehner as the incoming House speaker. About one in seven think the GOP won both the House and Senate; 8 percent say they won just the Senate; 5 percent do not think they will have a majority in either chamber, and 27 percent do not know.

As to the federal budget deficit, 77 percent say correctly that it is larger than it was in the 1990s, and 64 percent know that in recent years the U.S. bought more foreign goods than it sold overseas. About half (53 percent) correctly estimate the current unemployment rate at about 10 percent.

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The public continues to struggle with questions about the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Just 16 percent say, correctly, that more than half of the loans made to banks under TARP have been paid back; and an identical percentage says that none has been paid back.

The new survey finds an overwhelming 88 percent identify BP as the company operating the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April last year. But the public shows little awareness of international developments: 41 percent say that relations between India and Pakistan are generally considered to be unfriendly; 12 percent say relations between the two long-time rivals are friendly; 20 percent say they are neutral and 27 percent do not know.

Even more surprising, just 15 percent know that David Cameron is the Prime Minister of Great Britain; about as many say it is Tony Hayward, the former chief executive of BP.

On a different subject, 26 percent know that Android is the name of the Google operating system for smartphones, but there is a sizable age gap in that awareness. Far more people younger than age 50 (37 percent) compared to those 50 and older (11 percent) correctly answered this question.

While three-quarters are aware of the large U.S. budget deficit, far fewer could identify what the government spends the most on: national defense, education, Medicare or interest on the national debt. Some 23 percent say it is interest payments and 15 percent on Medicare. Government accounting indicates the government spends about twice as much on defense than on Medicare, and more than four times as much on defense as on interest in the debt.

We grumble about the inability of our elected representatives to solve problems, but maybe they reflect the rest of us. Perhaps the government should spend more on education!

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