There is concern in the United States that the public worries about trivial risks while ignoring larger ones. Even more troubling is the fact that large amounts of money are spent on programs that reduce trivial risks while programs that are more cost-effective and address more serious risks are ignored. An example that is often cited to substantiate this view is that many public health programs with a low cost-per-life saved are underfunded, while many environmental regulations with a high cost-per-life saved are issued each year. Analysts such as Chauncy Starr and Kip Viscusi conclude that resources are misallocated and that this misallocation exists because people are irrational in their desires for risk reduction.
In this paper, which presents the results of a survey of 1000 randomly-selected U.S. households asked to make the choice between environmental health and public health programs, the authors examine the qualitative and quantitative factors that appear to influence those choices, and report their findings regarding a number of questions: (1) When environmental and public health programs save the same number of lives for the same cost, does the public have a greater preference for environmental health programs? (2) Which qualitative risk and program characteristics are important in explaining people's choices among programs? (3) Do lives saved matter in choices among programs? (4) How important are the risk and program characteristics in relation to the number of lives saved by a program? Equivalently, what is the percentage change in lives saved corresponding to a given percentage change in each qualitative characteristic that will keep respondents equally happy? (5) Given a vector of qualitative characteristics describing each program, how many more lives would one program have to save compared to another to make the median respondent indifferent between them?