Race tolerance, death penalty are said to gain On many issues, opinion is stable over past 20 years


CHICAGO -- Over the past 20 years, Americans have become more racially tolerant, more supportive of capital punishment, and more willing to fund education.

But on many social issues, from abortion to welfare spending, public opinion has been remarkably stable over the past two decades, a University of Chicago study shows.

"What Americans Think: A Guide to 20 Years of Trends in Public Opinion" counters notions that public opinion is as volatile as world events seem to be.

It suggests that "changes are small and gradual," says Tom W. Smith, director of the annual social survey by the university's National Opinion Research Center. "It's not like we woke up in 1975 and all of a sudden accepted racial equality. We've been slowly nudging in the direction of certain things."

The study, based on 28,000 interviews since 1972, shows, for example, that support for abortion has remained nearly constant since 1973.

About 45 percent of people believe a woman should be able to have an abortion if her family doesn't want another child. In 1973, the figure was 48 percent.

Support for abortion on demand has risen only 5 percent, to 43 percent in 1991 from 38 percent in 1977.

"Abortion attitudes have been completely stable," Mr. Smith says. "Despite all the demonstrations and debates, public opinion hasn't changed at all."

Support for spending on big cities, the environment, health care and aid to the poor also has risen very slowly, while support for funding to fight crime and maintain roads and bridges has slowly declined, the study shows.

Support for welfare spending has remained steady, as has ownership of handguns.

The biggest change comes on the question of racial tolerance. In 1972, 44 percent thought whites had some right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. The figure today is 20 percent.

Support for capital punishment, on the other hand, has risen steadily. In 1973, 60 percent supported the death penalty. Now 72 percent do. The climb was steepest in the black community, where it rose to 60 percent from 40 percent. Support among whites rose to 79 percent from 70 percent.

Support for education also is up.

In 1973, 61 percent of city dwellers, 50 percent of suburbanites, and 42 percent of non-metropolitan dwellers thought more money should be spent on education. The figures today are 69 percent, 67 percent and 73 percent. Women also have made slow strides.

In 1977, 65.5 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: "It is better for a man to work and a woman to stay home." Now only 42.5 percent agree. And 57 percent agreed in 1977 that a wife should help her husband's career rather than pursuing her own. Now only 29 percent agree.

"The trend is very stable and very real," Mr. Smith says. "It all shows uniform growth in acceptance of modern, nontraditional roles for women."

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