were asked about their concern about air and water pollution. They were then asked how much they would be willing to pay in taxes, utility rates, or other prices to do something about the problems. In the last year of the survey, a near majority said they would pay $5.00 to do something about air pollution, 27 percent indicated that they would be willing to pay $50.00, and only 6 percent said they would be willing to pay $500.00. The results were similar for water pollution. Since the question did not specify a yearly appropriation and seems to indicate as well a one-time assessment, the public was clearly setting very tight limits on environmental spending.
Throughout the health care debate, pollsters probed the dollar amount Americans would be willing to pay for health care for the uninsured. The responses varied considerably for something Americans care deeply about, but the overwhelming impression conveyed by these questions was much like the impressions gleaned from the GE data. We are not willing to spend much at all.
Americans are willing to pay only small amounts for things they care deeply about not because they are not generous. Incomes are modest and many people feel strapped, and there are so many problems to solve. Unless survey questions of this sort are carefully designed, asked over a long period, and provide comparative perspectives we will never know how much Americans are willing to spend.
We tell the pollsters we are sympathetic to the environmental movement and a plethora of questions show that we remain committed to the environment even if it is less urgent than in the past. We are thinking twice about additional spending. Other types of questions exploring actual behavior on environment-related matters generally show a public not inclined to do much to advance the cause. We have become Lite Greens.
Recycling is a relatively painless exercise, and the number of Americans who say they have sorted newspapers or bottles for recycling has risen considerably since 1980. We are also recycling at work. Far fewer say they have reduced the amount of their driving or boycotted a company's products because of its environmental record.
Roper has asked the public twice since 1989 whether the respondent or someone in the household makes a real effort to do a list of things about the environment on a regular basis, does these from time to time when it is convenient, or does not bother about it. Solid majorities said they did not really bother about doing volunteer work for local environmental groups, writing letters, not patronizing restaurants that put take-out food in Styrofoam containers, not cutting down on the use of their car by using public transportation, etc. Majorities did a few things on a regular basis from time to time such as returning beer or soda bottles, recycling newspapers, sorting trash, buying products in pumps, and using biodegradable soaps.