Americans Are Deeply Divided Over What Causes Poverty in the First Place

Which makes doing something about it all the more difficult.

Image
Reuters

Barack Obama is expected to devote much of his State of the Union address next Tuesday to poverty and inequality, themes that will no doubt bring to the fore broad differences in how Americans think the government should tackle both issues. The Pew Research Center has a new survey out today, in partnership with USA Today, confirming what you may already suspect: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to believe the government should try hard to reduce both problems.

Part of this gap is explained by basic differences of belief in what the government can do (never mind what it should do). If you don't believe Washington is very effective at a lot of what it tries to accomplish, then you're not likely to think it can pull many impoverished families into the middle class, or lift up the entire bottom end of the income spectrum.

But there's another underlying difference of opinion here, too, not over the competence of government but the causes of poverty itself. Here is another set of questions posed by the Pew survey:

Here is a breakdown of the answers by political leaning:

And by income:

The belief that people are poor more through their own lack of effort than their circumstances is widely held by large segments of the population, including 51 percent of Republicans, and 46 percent of people in the highest income group (which is not that high). If you fall into this category, then it clearly doesn't make sense for society to try to solve a problem that it had little hand in creating.

This difference is important, although the survey question itself feels unsatisfying. I'd love to see a survey that gets much more specific about what those circumstances might be: If a child born into poverty remains poor as an adult, how much do you believe failing schools, neighborhood crime, and poor job access contributed to that outcome? I wonder if the answer would change for some people if the concept of "circumstances" weren't quite so abstract, if it weren't posed simply as the alternative to personal responsibility. Surely Obama is choosing his words very carefully right now.

Top image from Lynn, Massachusetts earlier this month: Brian Snyder/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.