Are Poor People More Optimistic Than Others About Their Futures?
Poor people are more likely than non-poor people to think that they will be able to pull themselves out of poverty. Forty-eight percent of the poor say most poor people will remain poor for a long time while 41 percent say poverty is a temporary condition. That compares to 60 percent of people who said that the poor will remain poor for some time.
Meanwhile, 61 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Americans living in poverty, say that most poor people who receive welfare benefits would rather earn their own living instead of staying on welfare.
Those are some of the findings from a new Los Angeles Times poll, conducted in partnership with The American Enterprise Institute, a top Washington think tank. The poll provides other stark findings about how Americans think about people in poverty.
America’s political parties may want to take note of those findings, particularly because 37 percent of people living in poverty defined themselves as somewhat or very conservative while only 31 percent defined themselves as liberals. Another 24 percent declared themselves moderate.
Only 27 percent of Americans said they believe that conditions for poor people have improved in the last 10 or 15 years while 42 percent say it has gotten worse for poor Americans. Only 13 percent said they believe that the poverty rate has declined in 30 years.
In reality, 14.8 percent of people were living beneath the official poverty line in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3 points below the rate that lived in poverty in 1965, the year that President Johnson’s War on Poverty programs began, and 3.3 percentage points higher than in 1985, when the AEI-LA Times study was first conducted.
The 2016 survey mimicked the 1985 survey and demonstrates how (little) opinion has changed over 30 years. The seemingly small differences over that time frame may be due to the fact that little has changed when it comes to public policy — or more exactly, how much change has kept things the same. The pivotal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is coming up on its 20th anniversary since enactment, shifted responsibility for welfare from the federal government to states, but poverty is more persistent than the “T” in TANF intended.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that only about half of the federal and state grant money for TANF actually went to “core welfare reform activities” in 2013, in part because “states can use TANF funds much more broadly than the core welfare reform areas of providing a safety net and connecting families to work; some states use a substantial share of funding for … other services and programs.”
So what else do people think of the poor, and how do the poor perceive themselves? Other poll findings that stand out:
Fifty-four percent of people as a whole, and 47 percent of people living in poverty, said they believe that the potential loss of welfare benefits “almost always” or “often” impacts the decision of unmarried people on whether to get married. This is an interesting finding given that much work has been done demonstrating that marriage helps families get out of poverty. It’s notable also that 47 percent of all the people who took the survey reported they are married, but only 23 percent of the people in poverty who answered the poll said they are married.
About 87 percent of Americans — including 81 percent of individuals living below the poverty line — believe that requiring poor people to seek work or participate in a training program in return for benefits is a better approach than providing benefits without asking for anything in return.
Fifty-four percent of people think welfare encourages dependency, down from 59 percent in 1985. On the flip side, more people feel negatively about the way things are going, 67 percent of people, and 66 percent of people who are poor, said they are dissatisfied with the country’s direction. That pairs with the increase in the number of people who say that it’s harder for poor people to find work, up to 57 percent today from 43 percent in 1985.
Seventy-six percent of people, including 71 percent of people in poverty and 80 percent of people not in poverty, said they thought that welfare programs are badly designed or under-funded, and that’s why they have failed to pull people out of poverty.
Thirty-five percent of people said government has the greatest responsibility for helping the poor — that’s twice as high a percentage over those who responded that either churches, charities, families, or the poor themselves have the greatest responsibility.
The entire poll, conducted between June 20 and July 7, 2016, can be viewed here. The survey was conducted among 1,202 adults, including 235 adults living in poverty. The survey oversampled individuals living below the poverty line to get reliable estimates of the views of poor Americans themselves.