Twenty years ago when Americans were asked why people were in poverty, a third of those asked pointed to issues such as lack of initiative. Today, a growing portion of the nation thinks poverty is caused by circumstances beyond a person’s control (i.e., the economy).
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 47 percent of Americans attribute poverty to factors other than individual effort. That’s a significant although not surprising shift as we consider the weak economic recovery that left jobs behind. It’s no longer the case that the unemployed don’t want a job. Millions of Americans can’t find a job and for many that's a protracted struggle with no end in sight.
NBC News reports:
Though opinion shifts on the causes of poverty cross demographic lines, major divides remain. More than 60 percent of Democrats said forces outside of an individual’s control are the most significant cause of poverty. The same was true of just 27 percent of Republicans.
Men and women were also split: over half of women said poverty is structural, compared to just under forty percent of men.
A slight majority of white respondents still said that poverty was mainly a result of individual failings. But the number of whites who believe poverty is primarily caused by outside forces rose from 27 percent to 44 percent between 1995 and 2014. Among black respondents, 59 percent said poverty is caused in greater part by factors other than personal choice, compared to 45 percent in 1995.
Even among white Republican men, who are still more likely to believe that poverty is mostly a result of individual failure to try hard enough (38 percent percent of white men and 27 percent of Republicans said poverty was caused by factors outside individual control), the poll reveals a softening of opinion.
The Pew Center for People and the Press also recently found similar trends. Americans are now significantly more likely than they were in the mid-90s to say that life is hard for the poor.
Both polls were initially undertaken during an interesting time in our nation’s history. The '90s were marked by economic growth and relative prosperity. It was an opportunity for former president Bill Clinton to lead a bipartisan effort of welfare reform. The perception of welfare recipients –especially women- was that they were lazy and didn’t want work. With jobs plentiful and the nation booming economically, there was little room for excuse but great opportunity to shift Americans from government reliance to self-reliance.
What a difference two decades have made. As we continue to struggle with unacceptably high unemployment and the private sector learns to adapt to producing the same amount with fewer workers, we’ll likely continue to see this shift in trends.
However, Americans still hold onto the belief that too much government welfare prevents initiative. The Pew poll shows very little change in opinion about spending on government programs traditionally associated with poverty and a 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Americans attribute "too much government welfare that prevents initiative” as the leading cause of poverty than any other factor.
There is a spirit of private initiative and personal responsibility that overwhelmingly inspires Americans. Most want to earn their own living rather than wait for government to hand them a present and dictate their future.