A Poverty of Understanding

children in poverty thanks to the Great Recession civil rights

Pundits and scholars and public officials spend considerable time trying to determine the causes of poverty and advocating measures to alleviate it.

In contrast, they spend very little time examining public perceptions of those causes, and less still inquiring into the demographics of those holding very different opinions about the causes (and thus the cures) for poverty. But a recent survey did just that:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty; in comparison, only 29 percent of non-Christians attributed poverty to inadequate effort by the individual.

The survey found an even wider gulf between adherents of different Christian denominations: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances. Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claimed no particular affiliation responded– by an impressive margin of 65 to 31 percent– that difficult circumstances are more to blame for poverty than lack of effort.

This data is not just of academic interest; it is politically consequential. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

Although the Post’s article didn’t refer to it, these opinions reflect the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. Furthermore, although you could never be sure who the elect were, it was widely believed that earthly material success was a sign of God’s favor and signaled “elect” status. Whether or not this belief can fairly be attributed to Calvin himself, it was firmly ensconced in the Puritans’ popular understanding of the doctrine of predestination.

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by public policies and systemic influences.

These survey results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Doctors can’t decide what medicine to prescribe if they don’t know what ails you. Lawmakers can’t address economic disparities between the rich and the rest, or lessen the incidence of poverty, if they don’t understand the underlying reasons for economic hardship.

Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on August 6, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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