More and more Americans believe that poverty is caused by circumstances that are beyond poor people's control, according to an NYC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
This shows a change in public opinion from 20 years ago, when the majority of poll respondents said that poverty was caused by “people not doing enough.” Now 47 percent of respondents say that poverty is due to other factors, out of the individual's control.
America's struggle to recover from the recession has dropped more people into poverty. Before the Great Recession in 2007, the poverty rate was 12.5. Now it's 15 percent, and 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as $23,850 for a family of four, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“In hard economic times, people become more sympathetic to the poor,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University, told NBC. “In 1995, we were in a period of economic expansion. Even the less well-off benefitted considerably. Now we’re in the most visible period of dire economic circumstances for Americans. If you look around and you see that there’s high unemployment and a generally poor economy, you’re more likely to explain poverty through those factors.”
A recent Pew Research study indicates that a majority of Americans believe that “today the rich really do get richer and the poor get poorer,” and 35 percent of Americans agreed that “hard work offers little guarantee of success.”
While attitudes are softening around the causes of poverty, they do break down differently by political affiliation and gender. In the Pew poll, Democrats were more than twice as likely to say that poverty is out of an individual's control — at more than 60 percent — while the same was true of 27 percent of Republicans. More than half of women said that poverty was due to outside forces, compared to under 40 percent for men.
White Republican men are still more likely to believe that poverty is due to lack of individual effort, but even that group is becoming more sympathetic, according to the poll results.
Interestingly, Pew results show little shift in public opinion about government spending on poverty and safety net programs. Instead, most respondents favored job creation and equal educational opportunity as ways to close the growing gap between rich and poor. Respondents also pointed to the minimum wage, which pays an annual salary of $15,000 a year for full-time workers — not enough to rise above the poverty level.
“Without a good education, and without family money to support young people, it’s hard to get ahead,” Donna Myers, 61, a conservative independent who works as an insurance agent in rural North Carolina and earned a college degree well into adulthood, told NBC. “If you are born into a social economic group, you pretty much maintain that.”