In this report, we look at a large body of public opinion research on American attitudes toward poverty and poor people. Because polling organizations have been asking many of the same questions about these issues over a period of decades, it is possible to examine long-range trends and identify areas where opinion appears to be shifting. What are the causes of poverty? Do people from humble beginnings still have a shot at the American Dream? What is the responsibility of government to ameliorate poverty’s effects? We wanted to understand how Americans’ answers to these questions have evolved, and whether people from different demographic groups tend to answer these questions differently. By analyzing and reporting the results, we hope to give those working to reduce poverty a roadmap for building public understanding and support.
Public opinion researchers have been probing Americans’ attitudes toward poverty, poor people, and government responsibility to assist the poor for more than 75 years. In 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, the first question in the very first Gallup Poll was, “Do you think expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or just about right?”31
Over these decades, opinion about poverty has largely been grounded in two competing sets of values: individualism and personal responsibility on the one hand, and equal opportunity and shared responsibility on the other. As political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro have described this dichotomy, Americans’ policy preferences in the area of social welfare:
reflect a fundamental individualism that esteems individual responsibility and individual initiative, and relies primarily upon free enterprise capitalism for economic production and distribution. Yet, they also reflect a sense of societal obligation, a strong commitment to government actions in order to smooth capitalism’s rough edges, to regulate its excesses, to protect the helpless, and to provide a substantial degree of equal opportunity for all.32
This duality leads to opinions that might seem to be in conflict. As shown below, a large majority of Americans, cutting across race, ethnicity, gender, and age, believe that poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.33 At the same time, an equally large majority is opposed to cutbacks in aid to poor people in order to reduce the federal deficit. 34
Individualism/personal responsibility/ small role for government
Most Americans think:
• It is possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich.
• Poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.
• It is not the responsibility of government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes.
• Poverty is an acceptable part of our economic system that does not need to be fixed.
Equal opportunity/shared fate/ government responsibility
Most Americans think:
• One of our nation’s big problems is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.
• Government programs serve as a critical safety net that helps people undergoing hard times get back on their feet.
• The government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
• Income and wealth inequality holds back economic growth.
Most Americans hold both of these sets of views simultaneously, but they are not always in equipoise. Two variables that we know influence opinions about poverty and poor people are the state of the economy and racial attitudes. During periods of economic prosperity, such as during the Clinton years, individualism and personal responsibility values tend to trump the belief in shared responsibility. When the economy worsens, a sense of shared responsibility typically increases and the public is more disposed to support spending on public assistance. As we will describe further in this report, since the beginning of the Great Recession, a growing majority believes the widening gap between rich and poor is a “very big problem,” and by a margin of two to one, Americans support the idea that the government should do more to reduce the gap. The effect of economic conditions is limited, however. Attitudes since 2008, for example, have not changed as much as one might expect. As two close observers of public opinion point out:
Although the Great Recession has shaken people’s confidence in the political and economic system and dampened their outlook on the nation’s future, most Americans remain optimistic. There is little indication that beliefs in individualism, the efficacy of hard work, and the potential for personal progress have been seriously eroded by the economic body blows the American public has absorbed over the past four years.35
A substantial body of social science literature demonstrates the important effect that racial attitudes have on the American public’s support for government assistance to poor people.36 A seminal study was done by political scientist Martin Gilens in which he analyzed responses from the 1990 and 1994 General Social Survey to questions about racial attitudes and about welfare. (A fierce national debate about welfare was taking place during those years, which culminated in the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act of 1996.)37 In both 1990 and 1994, the survey asked whether blacks tend to be hardworking or tend to be lazy, allowing respondents to choose any point along a seven-point spectrum. Forty-four percent of the respondents selected a point on the “lazy” side of the scale, while 20 percent chose the “hardworking” half. Significantly, perceptions of the work ethic of African Americans were strongly related to attitudes about welfare spending. Of those who most strongly viewed blacks as “hardworking,” only 34 percent wanted to decrease welfare spending, while 47 percent thought spending for welfare should be increased. By contrast, 63 percent of respondents who viewed blacks as “lazy” would have cut welfare spending, while only 15 percent felt that welfare spending should be increased. From this, Gilens concluded that welfare had become a “race-coded” issue: an issue on which race is used to influence attitudes on policy matters that are, on their face, race neutral.38
More recent research into whether the 1996 reform of “welfare as we know it” weakened the race– welfare connection indicates that racial bias still plays a significant role in the formation of opinion on social welfare spending and legislation. The race–welfare connection and the racialization of poverty continue to influence how Americans think about poor people and the kinds of programs and policies they are willing to support. From 1994 to recent times, for example, approximately 60 percent of Americans have believed that “Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.”39
The forecast, however, is not all bleak. As will be shown below in our summary of recent research, there are indications that Americans’ attitudes toward poverty and poor people are moving in an encouraging direction. First, disquiet is growing over the widening gap between rich and poor. The Great Recession, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 2012 Obama–Romney contest, and the accompanying media coverage have drawn attention to the issue of income and wealth inequality, and the American public believes this inequality gap is larger than ever. Furthermore, a majority of Americans thinks the government should do more to narrow the gap. Although narrowing the gap between rich and poor is not the same as addressing poverty or helping poor people, it still indicates an increasing sensitivity to the lack of equal economic opportunity in America and the desire to do something about it.
Second, there have been some changes in how poor people are perceived. According to a survey conducted in 2012, a majority (65 percent) of Americans define a poor person as someone who works, but can’t earn enough money to rise out of poverty. This represents a 16-point shift since 1994, when only 49 percent thought so, and 44 percent thought most poor people did not work.40 It demonstrates a growing consciousness about the prevalence and consequences of low-wage jobs in this country and explains the near-universal support for increasing the minimum wage. It also cuts against the perception that poor people are “lazy” and “undeserving.” This might explain the fact that there has also been a favorable shift in how Americans view poor people’s moral values; more now believe that poor people have the same moral values as other Americans.
Third, there are hopeful signs that the Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2001) may not be saddled with the same conscious or unconscious racial biases as their parents and grandparents. Millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history and their experiences with people of different races is different from earlier generations. In 1972, nearly 9 in 10 young adults ages 18–24 (87 percent) were non-Hispanic whites. Now, just about 6 in 10 are white. Sixty-seven percent of 18-to-29-year-olds agree that increasing ethnic and racial diversity is a good thing, compared to 61 percent of the population overall who think so. And 77 percent “completely agree” that “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other” compared to 64 percent of the population overall. Millennials are also more likely than other age groups to believe that the government should do more to solve problems; 59 percent of Millennials think so compared to only 45 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 49.41
Finally, support for government safety net programs in general and for several specific anti-poverty programs is fairly strong, and 65 percent of the public believe that reducing poverty and inequality should be a “top” or “high” priority for Congress and the president.42 Fifty-nine percent reject the idea of cutting “programs that help the poor and needy” in order to reduce the federal deficit.43 These trends indicate that there are opportunities for promoting a constructive public discourse about poverty that elevates community values over individualism and builds support for solutions.
The public opinion section of this report is based on a meta-analysis of attitudinal tracking surveys and recent public opinion studies by nationally known and reputable research organizations, media outlets, and issue groups. Most of the data examined are publicly available; some come from proprietary research that was made available to The Opportunity Agenda for the purposes of this report. We reviewed original data from more than 50 public opinion studies (listed in the appendix). These studies meet The Opportunity Agenda’s standards and best practices for quality and objective public opinion research, including appropriate sample size and a methodologically sound design.
Because this scan investigates existing opinion research, we are limited by the data in our ability to analyze the views of all demographic groups on all issues. Whereas surveys often include adequate samples of African Americans and, more recently, Latinos, to disaggregate their views, this is generally not the case with Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other groups. Wherever the data allowed, we have analyzed separately and together the views of each identifiable demographic group for this report.
Since opinion research has largely adopted racial categories utilized by the federal government, this report uses these categories as appropriate. The categories are defined as follows:
- White: any person who self-identifies as white only and non-Hispanic
- Black: any person who self-identifies as black only
- Hispanic: any person of any race who self-identifies as Hispanic
- Asian: any person who self-identifies as Asian only
31 Sixty percent said “too great,” nine percent said “too little.” Cited in Robert Y. Shapiro, “From Depression to Depression? Seventy-Five Years of Public Opinion toward Welfare,” unpublished paper on file with The Opportunity Agenda, October 25, 2009, p.9.
32 Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, “The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences,” University of Chicago Press, 1992, cited in Robert Y. Shapiro, “From Depression to Depression? Seventy-five Years of Public Opinion Toward Welfare,” p. 6.
33 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Values Survey, April 2012, http://www.people-press.org/2012/04/15/april-2012-values-survey/.
34 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, December 2013 Political Survey, http://www.people-press.org/files/legacyquestionnaires/12-19-13%20Deficit%20topline%20for%20release.pdf.
35 Andrew Kohut and Michael Dimock, “Resilient American Values: Optimism in an Era of Growing Inequality and Economic Difficulty,” The Renewing America Initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations, May 2013, pp. 2–3.
36 See, for example, Martin Gilens, “Racial Attitudes and Opposition to Welfare,” Journal of Politics, 57 (1995): 994-1014; M. Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy, University of Chicago Press, 1999; F.D. Gilliam, “The ‘Welfare Queen’ Experiment,” Nieman Reports 53, no. 2 (1999); Joy Moses, “Moving Away from Racial Stereotypes in Poverty Policy,” Center for American Progress, February 2012; Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave, Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America’s Poor, Routledge, 2001.
37 The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, added a workforce development component to welfare legislation, encouraging employment among the poor.
38 Martin Gilens, “’Race Coding’ and White Opposition to Welfare,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 90, No. 3, September 1996. See also James M. Avery and Mark Peffley, “Race Matters: The Impact of News Coverage of Welfare Reform on Public Opinion,” in Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform, eds. S. F. Schram, J. Soss and R.C. Fording, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
39 See Times Mirror, People, The Press & Politics Poll, July 1994, http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/19941028.pdf; Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Trust in Government Survey, September 1997, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Opinion Poll Experiment Survey, June 1997; Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Methodology Survey, June 2003; Princeton Survey Research Associates International/Newsweek Poll, May 2008; Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Methodology Survey, January 2012, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Political Communications & Methods Survey, Jan, 2012, retrieved April 30, 2014, from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.
40 Pew Research Center for the People & and Press Values Survey, April 2012, http://www.people-press.org/2012/04/15/april-2012-values-survey/; Kaiser/Harvard Survey on Welfare Reform, December 1994, http://kff.org/medicaid/poll-finding/national-surveyof-public-knowledge-of-welfare/.
41 David Madland and Ruy Teixeira, New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation, Center for American Progress, May 2009.
42 Gallup Poll, May, 2013. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.
43 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, December 2013 Political Survey, http://www.people-press.org/files/legacyquestionnaires/12-19-13%20Deficit%20topline%20for%20release.pdf.