Crime rises on list of top U.S. concerns

January 23, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Crime now rivals the economy in the eyes of Americans as the single most important problem facing the country, but they are divided over whether Republicans or Democrats are best able to do something about it, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The sharp rise in concern about crime helps assure that it will be a front-line issue in this election year. But there is also a widespread sense that the country is powerless to deal with it, with most Americans saying they do not expect violence to decline significantly in the next few years.

The poll also found that many Americans seemed to question President Clinton's assertion that the health care system was in such a state of crisis that he must begin addressing it before coming forward with his welfare reform plan.

Asked which issue the government should concentrate on first, 43 percent chose health care and 49 percent welfare reform.

While people put the economy at the top of the agenda for years, anxieties about the economy have diminished in recent months, and crime has filled the vacuum.

Asked to cite the single biggest problem facing the nation, 19 percent said crime or violence, and 3 percent said drug abuse. Fifteen percent cited health care.

Among economic issues, 14 percent said the economy concerned them most, and 12 percent unemployment or jobs. Five percent cited the deficit, a major issue in the 1992 campaign.

The telephone poll of 1,146 adults nationwide underscores why the political parties are battling so intensely to claim the crime issue as their own: Republicans may have lost the edge as the party seen as best poised to preserve law and order, leaving the potent political issue up for grabs.

Thirty-one percent said the Democrats had an advantage in dealing with crime, while a group of identical size cited the Republicans. The poll, conducted Jan. 15 to 17, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The failure of either party to make itself the clear law-and-order champion helps explain why fighting crime was emphasized last week in speeches at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington.

Acknowledging the Democrats' inroads, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole said yesterday that Mr. Clinton had "a big advantage" in the public relations battle over crime.

"They go out in the Rose Garden and it's on the nightly news, in all the papers," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton is expected to make crime a theme of his State of the Union message Tuesday, speaking to the importance of the crime bill that has passed the Senate but awaits House action.

The proportion of Americans who mention economic issues as the single most important ones before the nation is only about half the 54 percent who cited them in January 1992.

Over the same period, the combined number of people who cited crime, violence or guns as the top problems has risen from 2 percent to 20 percent. The 15 percent who now cite health care also represent a major increase, from 3 percent two years ago.

Unlike their feelings on crime, Americans have clear beliefs about which party is better able to handle health care and economic matters.

Fifty-nine percent said the Democrats were more likely to improve the health care system, and 20 percent said the Republicans. On economic questions, Americans expressed the view that the Democrats were better able to handle unemployment, while the Republicans were more likely to make sure the country is prosperous.

On the welfare issue, 61 percent of the people surveyed said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to provide job training and public service jobs to help people get off welfare.

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