The center surveyed a nationally representative group of people this past fall, and found that the majority of the country’s most financially secure citizens (54 percent at the very top, and 57 percent just below) believe the “poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” America’s least financially secure, meanwhile, vehemently disagree — nearly 70 percent say the poor have hard lives because the benefits “don’t go far enough.” Nationally, the population is almost evenly split.
Here are the results in visual form; note the large minorities of poor and middle-class people that agree with this view.
Unsurprisingly, the report also found that those who identify as conservatives — around 40 percent of the most financially secure groups — are more likely to believe the poor have it good thanks to the government, and that the poor do not work hard enough. Another Pew report confirmed that around 75 percent of conservatives in general feel this way about the poor, regardless of income.
So in essence, if you are wealthy or conservative — but especially both — you are likely to take a dim view of America’s least fortunate — and conversely, to believe that wealthy people have it harder, due to perceived higher taxes, onerous government regulations, and the usual bugbears of the right.
As columnist Christopher Ingraham points out, such a perception of America’s poor is greatly at odds with reality:
But I have a hard time understanding how you could read about the experience of families relying on food stamps to eat, or those trying tomanage chronic conditions with Medicaid, and conclude that these people somehow have it easy. For context, here is a brief and wildly incomplete list of the ways life is “easy” when you’re poor:
- Compared to middle and upper-income Americans, the poor are three times less likely to have health insurance coverage, and more likely to put off or skip necessary medical treatment as a result;
- They are three times more likely to be victimized by crime;
- The daily stresses of living under poverty impose a cognitive burden equivalent to losing 13 IQ points;
- Poor children are three times more likely to be affected by food scarcity and obesity;
- Poor children receive a lower quality education in public school, and the ones who make it to college are more likely to drop out;
- Poorer Americans breathe dirtier air, they sleep less, and the even have less sex;
- And in the end all this “easy living” literally shaves decades off their lives.
Of course, it is no coincidence that those who think the poor have it easy also think the poor do not work hard enough and just live off the government (and by extension, live off the hardworking taxpayer). If you think that poor people get what they deserve for their laziness and irresponsibility, no amount of data demonstrating their difficult circumstances — and by contrast how much better the wealthy are doing — will sway the wealthy’s sympathy; nor will any of the evidence showing the role that external factors — from low wages to unstable business cycles — have contributed to growing and persistent poverty.
Moreover, with many of these same wealthy Americans having a disproportionate influence on our media and politics, it is little wonder that more is not being done to address the mounting socioeconomic conditions faced by a growing proportion of Americans.
As for how so many wealthy people can retain such callous views of the nation’s poor, that can be attributed to a range of factors. Richer people are increasingly holing up in gated communities or gentrified areas where poor people are largely absent. They are more likely to interact with and know only other well off or at least middle-class people. Some evidence even suggests that wealth accumulation itself contributes to an empathy gap with those who are not rich.
Whatever the cause, it goes without saying that this arrangement is not sustainable. No society has ever endured such a wide and growing gap between rich and poor without ultimately subsiding into sociopolitical instability — including revolution. While the U.S. may not necessarily go the way of 18th century France or Bolshevik Russia, it will certainly experience the same sort of underlying tensions and political problems that tend to bode ill for long-term prosperity.
It is time we start caring about the least vulnerable in America and doing more to help them, namely by promoting a more sustainable and equitable economic system. If more companies paid their employees better (perhaps by tapping into those record-breaking profits), that alone would go a long way. Of course, viewing the poor as people that deserve dignified wages and treatment would be the natural place to start — it is a shame that even needs to be a lesson to learn.