I   see lots of surveys in a year's time.

So I was surprised that I'd never heard of the NORC (National Opinion Research Center, headquartered at the University of Chicago) General Social Survey until its latest results were published last week.

It seems like a survey I'd have a lot of interest in.

And I do, just not 110 pages and $41 worth of interest in book form, or $460 for a CD-ROM. I could print it out on the office copy machine, I guess, but then I'd risk being taken to task for having wasted all that paper.

So I satisfied myself with reading a half-dozen news stories about the survey.

Here's what I learned: The General Social Survey is a sociological study on demographics, opinions and attitudes of American residents. Data is collected in face-to-face interviews of randomly chosen adults, age 18 and over. The survey has been taken every year from 1972 to 1994, or every other year since 1994, with the exception of 1979, 1981 and 1992.

In all, more than 3,000 American residents from one end of the country to the other are surveyed. And it's so wide-ranging, it takes 90 minutes to complete.

More than that we don't need to know, except that the survey seeks demographic information and opinions on issues ranging from government spending, race relations and questions of religion and education.

And then the federal government purchases the results so it can determine how to do what Americans want for the next couple of years.

Yeah, right. Like the feds actually care what people think. If that were true, we wouldn't be in the various messes -- financial and otherwise -- we find ourselves in today.

But let's assume the feds did care. And let's assume the feds cared enough to do what's right for the American people.

What would that mean?

Well, for one thing, it would mean an end to foreign aid. Americans are fed up with sending money and military aid to people who don't like us, don't defend us and sometimes even try to kill us.

But we've known that for 40 years, at least. Because foreign aid has placed last on the list of those things American taxpayers want to spend money on since 1972, the first year of the survey.

Last year, 65 percent of survey participants thought the U.S. spent "too much" on foreign aid. In 1972, it was 73 percent who felt it was money wasted.

So we've known how Americans have felt on this one issue for a very long time, and it doesn't seem to have made a hill-of-beans difference in how Congress and the president have responded.

We're talking $50 billion a year when you combine military and economic assistance to foreign countries.

Most people consider that "real" money.

But it goes in one ear and out the other in Washington, D.C.

According to the survey, Americans want to spend more money helping the poor (second on the list this year) and improving education, but less on traveling to outer space and national defense.

Americans want to protect Social Security and Medicare programs, but don't favor spending a lot of money on environmental issues. We're still not as "green" as some would like us to be.

Americans are less concerned about gun ownership than the NRA would have us believe, and they aren't all that worried about going to church, either -- 19 percent of Americans have no church affiliation.

The No. 1 priority for Americans is the economy. Hands down. No. 2 is higher non-welfare spending on the poor. Fighting crime is third and Social Security is fourth. Health care, however, is sixth on the list. The environment is eighth.

Like I said, it's not fun reading. And I say that mostly because it's almost a sure bet Congress isn't paying attention to what Americans care about anyway. If it were, it would factor those things into its federal budget decisions, and it doesn't.

Rightly or wrongly, if Americans were given their choice they'd like to see huge cuts in defense spending, space exploration, assistance to big cities, welfare and foreign aid.

Is there anyone out there who really believes that's going to happen anytime soon?

Of course not.

I don't want to suggest the General Social Survey was a waste of time.

But ... in Congress?

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.