What Americans Think of the Poor

The Pew Research Center has released one of their periodic Political Typology studies, and as usual it contains a wealth of fascinating data on what people think about a whole range of issues. One of the most useful things about it is that instead of just asking people whether they consider themselves liberals or conservatives, it constructs a typology based on a series of questions, enabling them to divide people in a more fine-grained way that doesn't rely solely on self-identification (they divide Americans into two strongly conservative groups, one mostly conservative group, one mostly liberal group, and three more strongly liberal groups).

When I went through the survey, one question jumped out at me, the one represented here:

Those of you who read my writing regularly know that I make an effort to understand where people who disagree with me are coming from. That doesn't mean I'm any less likely to disagree with them, or even that I don't use barbed language sometimes in describing them. But I think it's important to know why people believe what they do and not to settle into comforting but ridiculous caricatures of your opponents.

But the belief that "poor people have it easy" is just insane. It serves a psychological function—if you can convince yourself that poor people are living it up, then you can assuage whatever pangs of conscience you might feel for advocating that we cut food stamps or keep the minimum wage low or move heaven and earth to keep them from getting health insurance. It's one thing to say that poverty in America today isn't quite as miserable as in years past, because even if you're poor you probably still have running water, a fridge, and a TV (this is a common argument conservatives make). But to actually believe they have it easy? What kind of person would agree to that?

So that's what I thought when I first read it. But then I looked closer at the question, and now I'm having some doubts. First, this is a forced-choice question, where you have to pick one or the other (you can say both or neither, but you have to volunteer it—the interviewer doesn't present that as an option). And you'll notice that each option contains two separate ideas, one a statement about the world ("Poor people today have it easy") and one an explanation for that supposed condition ("because they can get government benefits without getting anything in return"). So what if you as a respondent agree with one but not the other? And since each option has two ideas, you might agree with one part of one and another part of the other. You might, for instance, think that poor people do have hard lives, and they certainly don't have it easy, but also that government should only provide limited benefits to help them.  

But all that being said, there isn't a lot of ambivalence in the responses. All the conservative groups are nearly unanimous in choosing the "poor people have it easy" option, while all the liberal groups are equally united in choosing "poor people have hard lives." But let me point to one more result: the group called "Business Conservatives" is pretty much the only one whose members think that the American economic system is fair:

So even many people who think the poor are a bunch of lucky duckies also believe that the system is rigged against regular people. Something to consider.

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