Poverty, Perceptions, and Politics

January 9, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

My mother used to tell the joke about the story written by a girl from a rich family, a third grader at a fancy private school: “Once upon a time there was a very poor family. Everybody was poor. The mommy was poor, the daddy was poor, the butler was poor, the maid was poor . . . “

The recent Pew survey (here) doesn’t use the words rich or poor. Instead it talks about “financial security,” a new measure of the same concept. The financially secure have bank accounts and IRAs; the financially insecure have food stamps and Medicaid. 

The basic finding is that the well-off have no idea what it’s like to be poor. More than half of the financially secure think that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I’m curious about the 29% of the least financially secure who also agree with that statement, but Pew provides only the basic statistical breakdown.

If you have that perception of poor people and government, the policy question is a no-brainer: Don’t spend any more government money on the poor.

The top two groups* are far more likely say that the US government can’t afford to do more for the needy.  A Washington Post writer, Roberto Ferdman (here) looks at the data and asks, “Why the surprising lack of compassion?”

Lack of compassion, yes. But surprising? Don’t WaPo writers know about the Tea Party? Or the GOP victory two months ago? Much of that success was based on the idea that the government should do less for the poor in order to reduce taxes on income for the non-poor. (The biggest tax breaks in the actual proposals would go to the very richest, though the GOP doesn’t advertise that in its public statements.)  The poor often have incomes that, after deductions and credits, are so low that they fall below the threshold for the income tax.  The Wall Street Journal famously referred to these poor people as “lucky duckies.”

We choose perceptions that fit with our ideologies. WSJ sees the poor as lucky, the Tea Party sees them as moochers. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for compassion.

It’s hardly surprising that the financially secure** have no idea of what it’s like to be poor. The lives of the different social classes rarely intersect, and even when they do, it’s unlikely that the relationships are close enough that people would talk about their financial problems. Instead, we get a TV news reporter showing that he can buy caviar and lobster with food stamps.

Maybe what’s surprising is that aid to the poor has survived at all.  Policy is up to politicians, and politicians get far more votes from the financially secure than from the insecure. The Pew report is called “The Politics of Financial Insecurity,” and one of the basic political facts is that poor people don’t vote. 

The poor also do not think much about political issues, so they do not have much of a coherent political ideology. 

The financially secure were nearly three times as likely to have a firm political viewpoint -- 32-33% compared with only 12% among the financially insecure.

If politics and voting are ways of securing interests and ideas, those who have no firm point of view will give politics and voting a low priority (unless there is some single issue that stirs them).  The financially insecure have little motivation to sense of connection to electoral politics. Asked which party they support, they are more likely to say they’re “unsure” than to pick the Democrats or Republicans.

I had just been reading Alice Goffman’s On the Run, and when I saw the Pew report, I remembered something she says in her methodological (and autobiographical) note. She had spent years living among poor Black people in Philadelphia. Her book is mostly about the young men in trouble with the law, but she also hung out with “clean” people. When she steps out of that world to enter graduate school at Princeton, she is a cultural and political fish out of water.

Since I’d been restricting my media only to what Mike and his friends read and watched and heard, I couldn’t follow conversations about current events, and learned to be silent during any political discussions lest I embarrass myself.

Goffman is educated (very well educated), White, and financially secure. Yet living in the world of the insecure, she gradually acquired their view of politics, which is almost no view at all. In that world, politics is unknown and unseen.


* The top two levels comprise perhaps 35-40% of the population. That’s a guess because the Pew report gives no information on the middle groups. It says only that the top group is about 25% and the bottom group 20%.

** In the 2012 presidential campaign, Anne Romney in an interview talked about her and Mitt being poor in the years as young marrieds, this despite Mitt’s wealthy father. My mother must have been looking down from above and remembering her joke. In any case, the advantage of Pew’s variable is that it distinguishes between income and financial security. The young Romneys may have had a low income, but they were not financially insecure.


Unknown said...

Thank you for the Insights. It is said, "A Rising Tide lifts all Boats", ...but if your in the Safety-Net it is always "Sink or Swim"(?)

Capitalism has 'lifted the ladders' of Opportunity, while shrinking the Middle-Class. Productivity is no longer a Function of Work. We have Monetarized Humanity; you are worth-less so you get-less{...nothing would be fine for some hard-hearted souls?}. 21st-Century Feudalism: Indentured-Servitude & Elitism, Blood & Treasure; the Struggle to Banish Ignorance(!)

Moskos said...

I'm not surprised by the 29% of poor people who agree with that statement. That's about what I find from the students in my class. There's a lot of resentment (some of it justified) among the hard working poor for their non-working neighbors who get the same or more benefits than they do. And when they hear "poor," they're thinking of their lazy drunk neighbor rather than themselves.

Of course their resentment is based on their living experience, unlike the resentment of the rich, which really is clueless.

Andrew Gelman said...


I'm not so thrilled with the first survey question above. What if you're a survey respondent who doesn't think that the poor have it easy, but who thinks that government benefits are counterproductive? This is not a view that I have--as a recipient of millions of dollars of NSF government benefits, I could hardly believe such a thing--but bear with me on this. If someone has this feeling, it's hard to answer the question, but I could see such a person responding in the "Poor people have it easy..." direction.

This seems to me to be an example of the "double-barreled question" which is a notorious problem in survey research. When we teach survey sampling, we warn people against this sort of question that asks two things at once.

Jay Livingston said...

Andrew: You’re absolutely right, and Pew should know better. My guess is that they’re trying to tap feelings of prejudice rather than policy views. The question reminds of one of those F-scale items: “The trouble with letting Jews into a nice neighborhood is that they gradually give it a typical Jewish atmosphere.” I remember Roger Brown parsing this in his Social Psychology textbook. Of course, Jews give a neighborhood a “Jewish atmosphere.” So it’s not really a fair question. But it might work for getting at prejudice. Words like “trouble” and “letting Jews into a nice neighborhood” are directional signs saying, “Anti-Semites this way.”

There’s also the point that Peter makes: a “have it easy” response from the comfortable may reveal an underlying prejudice, but the same response from someone in that lowest category may mean something else.