Poll Finds Jobs, Environment Are Top Priority for Americans

...but so is almost everything else.

When times get tough, the tough stop sorting their recycling. Or rather, they stop asking their elected officials to yell at them about sorting their recycling.

From January 2008 to January 2009, the percentage of people who called environmental protection a "top priority" dropped 15 percentage points, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. The folks at Pew call this drop "steep, but not unprecedented." Indeed, pretty much every time Americans get distracted by a big-ticket political priority, environmentalism gets the shaft.

At the beginning of 2001, 63 percent of Americans rated the environment as a top priority. By the end of the year, with the attacks of September 11 intervening, that figure dropped to 44 percent. As the Bush administration whimpered and banged to a close, people got pumped on green again. But the current economic crisis has driven that figure back down: Only 41 percent of Americans say that President Barack Obama and Congress should make protecting the environment a top priority.

You might think that figure still sounds plenty high. After all, if more than 40 percent of Americans think something should be a top priority for the president, our democratically-elected P.O.T.U.S. had better get cracking, right?

Wrong. Americans are mind-blowingly bad at prioritizing—especially in polls that ask about priorities but allow the respondent to list as many "top priorities" as he likes. The Pew poll [PDF] inquired about 20 different issue areas, ranging from "dealing with the problems of the poor," to "strengthening the military," to "reducing the budget deficit." For virtually every issue, the combined total of people who chose "top priority" or the second-highest option—"important"—approached 95 percent. Just take a minute to think about that: In January, a bunch of Pew pollsters asked a solid sample of 1,503 people about what their elected officials should select as top priorities, and those people essentially responded by saying, "Gee, it all sounds really, really important to us."

There are a few notable exceptions. People are not quite so pumped on "reducing the influence of lobbyists," "dealing with the moral breakdown in the country," "global trade," and "dealing with the issue of illegal immigration." But even for the least popular choice, global warming, 67 percent of people still said they thought it was either a top priority or important.

Those results put other figures in perspective, too. In 2009, 82 percent listed "improving the job situation" as a top priority they would like to see tackled by Obama and Congress. Fair enough, right? Unemployment is up, these are uncertain times. The "job situation," whatever that is, could probably be better. But then there's this: Back in January 2001, after more than a year of super low 4 percent unemployment, 60 percent of Americans still wanted the president to make "improving the job situation" a priority. And in both cases, nearly everyone who didn't say that improving the job situation was a top priority said it was "important." In 2009, only 1 percent said it was "not too important" and 1 percent said the administration should do nothing.

There are some pairings that seem to move together. For instance, a slight preference for increased defense spending and military preparedness seems to accompany a shift to priorities that reflect economic insecurity. Apparently a sense of economic insecurity and the desire to be heavily armed go together, and not just for guys in Detroit.

The Pew survey asks about global warming as a separate issue from the "protecting the environment" category. This year, global warming came in dead last in the list of priorities, with only 30 percent saying that it should be a "top priority" for the Obama administration. This matches up nicely with the Copenhagen Consensus, an experiment conducted by Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. He got a bunch of economists together and asked them to give priority rankings to various projects designed to improve global welfare. Global warming came in last on that list as well. For once, the American people and a group of economists are on the same wavelength!

In summary: When practically every issue is a top priority, and almost everything else is important, Americans still agree that we probably shouldn't do too much about global warming, and when something big and bad happens, Americans agree that protecting the environment should be the first thing to go.

Perhaps this will be enough to make environmentalists wary of claiming any popular mandate via poll results. And for those of you who think that the results of polls do matter, I hope you aren't still sorting your bottles from your cans. Haven't you heard? It doesn't matter this year. It's not a top priority.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • TofuSushi||

    This is a prime example of why we need the right people in power. The environment is sacred and must be protected from the selfish masses who wish to harm her.

  • economist||

    If everything is your top priority, then nothing is. Here's mine:
    1.NOT SCREWING UP THE ECONOMY
    2.Declaring me god-dictator-for-life.

  • economist||

    TofuSushi,
    Your statements are mostly sarcastic, right?

  • TofuSushi||

    economist,

    With a handle like mine why would you think that?

  • Adam||

    We definitely need the right people to fix that link so I don't get a 404 error!

  • ||

    It looks like someone "SugarFreed" the link to the story...

    Try http://www.reason.com/news/show/132175.html instead!

  • ||

    someone "SugarFreed" the link

    I am so loving this.

  • ||

    The link has been un-NutraSweeted.

  • ||

    How many times did he improperly link yesterday--three?

  • TofuSushi||

    PL, that is creative linking. Why do you hate alternative art?

  • Dello||

    "And for those of you who think that the results of polls do matter, I hope you aren't still sorting your bottles from your cans. Haven't you heard? It doesn't matter this year. It's not a top priority."

    In several cities in the the Northwest (well known for its Eco leanings) they just did away with seperate glass bins, instead telling us to put them in with the cardboard.

  • ||

    If everything is your top priority, then nothing is. Here's mine:
    1.NOT SCREWING UP THE ECONOMY
    2.Declaring me god-dictator-for-life.


    Sorry economist, recent H&R polling has ne in the lead for the god dictator for life position.

  • ||

    Perhaps this will be enough to make environmentalists wary of claiming any popular mandate via poll results

    And wouldn't that be neat!

    I don't care if 2% think it's a top priority. It is.

  • ||

    So there are polls that ask people to choose from a list of goodies and indicate which are "priorities". Of course, with Il Duce now being Santa Claus incarnate, the list of "priorities" will look suspiciously like a Christmas list.

  • Kilroy||

    Dello's right, here in the PacNW we have these nice big blue bins that you can just dump all of your cardboard, plastic, etc into.

    I actually recycle far more because of this than I ever used to, which I guess makes "convenience" a top priority.

    Unfortunately they don't want to allow plastic shopping bags (because they clog the sorting machines) so some politicians-who-I-won't-name-but-who-happen-to-be-named-after-a-beer-(and historical figure)-and-are-currently-under-investigation-and-potential-recall-for-making-out-with-an-underage-boy-in-the-city-hall-bathroom-and-lying-about-it-to-get-elected want to impose a tax on plastic bags at grocery stores.

  • ||

    With the right people in charge, poll questions will be worded in such a way that they will produce survey results I can believe in.

  • ||

    With a handle like mine why would you think that?



    Because if you didn't want to let people in on the joke you'd call yourself InariZushi. Or possibly 稲荷寿司 if you really wanted to go overboard.

  • Paul||

    only 1 percent said it was "not too important" and 1 percent said the administration should do nothing.

    Guilty as charged... that was me.

  • ||

    "I said it's your top priority. I still don't care about it."

  • Jeff||

    The top issues by a substantial margin are Economy, Jobs, Terrorism. I guess propaganda coming from Washington is proving effective.

  • ||

    A new poll finds that Americans think everything should be a "top priority" for the Obama administration

    What better excuse to trot out RC'z Third Iron Law:

    If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

    Yeah, I know economist beat me to it.

  • 豚の精子||

    I love you 稲荷寿司

  • Gilbert Martin||

    I think polls are pretty much BS anyway when it comes to gauging peoples support for things like the environment.

    I say follow the money trail instead.

    It's real easy for people to say what they think is popular or trendy or the "correct" response in polls.

    When it comes down to what they would actually care about based on what they do, what they buy and what they WOULD support based on what it would actually cost THEM, it's a whole nother ball game.

    Just recall how much agitation there was about high gas prices last year. Ask someone in a poll if they support "fixing" global warming at the cost of them paying $10 a gallon for gas and see what their answer is.

  • Average American Straight Guy||

    My top priority for the government is getting Scarlett Johanssen to give me a blowjob. And yes, I am willing to pay for it, so pipe down Gilbert.

  • ||

    More importantly though, do we have Top Men™ working on our top priorities?

    Yeah, you heard me. Top. Men.

  • the innominate one||

    Average American Straight Guy:

    I recommend watching The Man Who Wasn't There, wherein you can see Billy Bob Thornton drive off the road while resisting a bj from an underage Ms. Johanssen. Yes, it's fictional. No man would resist that.

  • the innominate one||

    "Perhaps this will be enough to make environmentalists wary of claiming any popular mandate via poll results."

    Why just environmentalists? Apparently, no issue has a top mandate.

  • 豚の精子||

    "an underage Ms. Johanssen. Yes"

    I fell for her hard in Mannie and Lo.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116985/

  • Average American Straight Guy||

    innominate: Already got as much mileage from that scene as I could. I need the real thing. But I think even I might refuse the "Driving While Fellated" arrangement...my car size to penis size ratio is unusually low, and I wouldn't want her to hit her head on the steering wheel. Plus, what happens if the airbag goes off?

  • Creepy McPervert||

    Is it considered pedophilia if you want to have sex with an currently eight-year-old girl ten years from now? Hypothetically speaking of course.

  • ||

    Top. Men.

    They're studying the Ark's secrets as we speak.

  • LarryA||

    and 1 percent said the administration should do nothing.

    Unfortunately that's usually listed as one of the options to each question. I think it should be the first question. As in "How important is it that the administration should do nothing."

    After all, if more than 40 percent of Americans think something should be a top priority for the president, our democratically-elected P.O.T.U.S. had better get cracking, right?

    The other problem is that the 40 percent may be split into groups who want mutually exclusive solutions. For instance, Sarah Brady and I have rather different ideas on how to solve "crime."

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • changqin||

    good

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