Poverty Thesis Introduction & Significance of the Study Sample
Statement of Purpose
This study proposes to evaluate public attitudes toward poverty, attributions for poverty, and support for public programs and policies aimed at eliminating poverty. It will examine public perception, differences in attitudes about the causes of poverty, and support for programs and policies across key demographic groups, including race, income-level, and political voting preference. The study will focus specifically on Wisconsin residents.
Significance of the Study
In recent decades, public opinion has shifted and has become less supportive of the plight of the poor. The view that poverty is due to individual flaws has become more prevalent. While some recognize societal causes for poverty, many others attribute poverty to lack of motivation, hard work, moral flaws, and other characteristics internal to the individual. Additionally, the literature review will show that the general public’s perception of the poor differs from the demographic profile of those in poverty. Understanding current attitudes and perceptions and how they may influence support for programs and policies that affect the poor is an important first step in addressing the issue.
When researchers, advocates, and the media individualize the issue of poverty (Bolstrum, 2002c), the public looks for individual causes and solutions rather than systemic ones. Those in the middle class have distanced themselves from the poor, and because of dominant images of the poor as lazy, unmotivated, and not willing to live up to the American ideal of hard work, there is little attachment to the issue (Lott, 2002). Because of these public perceptions, any stated support for policies affecting those in poverty is tenuous. To change the way that many Americans feel about the poor and to garner support for programs and policies aimed at eliminating poverty, it is necessary to first understand what these beliefs are. From there, advocates and policymakers can address these attitudes in an attempt to reshape public opinion and depict the issue of poverty as a societal problem, rather than an individual one.
Wisconsin residents will be studied because of the state’s unique position of having a comparatively low poverty rate, yet one of the largest gaps between the proportion of Whites and the proportion of Blacks in poverty (Dresser & Rogers, 2004) and because of personal interest to the author. While the poverty rate in Wisconsin falls below the national average, it is one of only several states that have seen a rise in the proportion of individuals falling below the poverty level from 2002 to 2004 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Lee, 2005).
Additionally, after welfare was reformed in 1996, Wisconsin has one of the strongest work-centered policies in the country (Cancian, Meyer, & Wu, 2005). While the public may support policy reforms that require the poor to work, the effectiveness of these programs in lifting people out of poverty is in question. Epstein (2004) suggests that reducing poverty is not as important to the public as is independence from welfare. However, if the public begins to understand the true face of poverty as well as the complex causes of this social condition, more effective solutions can be applied.
This study is meant to be a preliminary investigation. While it is widely believed that attitudes determine behavior, the author, through her professional experience in survey research, has noted that stated attitudes and opinions do not necessarily predict behavior. It is important to understand motivations and other underlying factors. Additionally, there may be a bias in respondents’ giving of socially acceptable responses. Bolstrum (2002c) demonstrates that while there is high stated support for public programs and policies and some positive attitudes related to poverty and the working-poor, opinion can easily be swayed. Epstein (2004) also argues that public opinion polls may not be indicative of actual preferences and support. However, as a first step, this study will utilize survey research to examine attitudes, attributions, and stated support for public policies and programs, while future research should attempt to further uncover attitudes and beliefs and how these can be shaped.
Attitude – “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor” (Eagly & Chaiken, 1998, p. 1 as cited in Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001). Attitudes related to poverty will be measured in terms of favor or disfavor for various scale items.
Poverty threshold – A measurement of the U.S. Census based on pre-tax money income, which varies according to family size and number of children. Poverty status will be determined based on the official federal poverty measurement.
Poor – those living below the poverty threshold as defined by the U.S. Census. (Ratio of income to poverty level is 1.0.) An individual or family is considered poor if its before-tax income falls below this threshold.
Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) – an area with a significant population center, along with surrounding communities. MSAs have at least one urban area with a population of 50,000 or more. Milwaukee area residents will be defined as those residing in the Milwaukee MSA, other urban residents are those living in Non-Milwaukee MSAs, and rural residents are those residing in counties outside of the MSAs in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, 2005).
Race – will be operationalized as White, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and Other (one race), in addition to Biracial/Multiracial (two or more races). Also, ethnicity will be measured as Hispanic/Latino (any race) and Non-Hispanic/Latino.
Political voting preference – Democrat, Republican, Independent, and Other.
Review of the Literature
Past research shows that how the general public perceives the poor differs from the true depiction of those in poverty. The view that the poor are mostly racial or ethnic minorities, urban, and jobless is prevalent, although in fact most poor are White, do work, and are spread out geographically. Additionally, while some recognize other factors associated with poverty, the predominant view is that individuals are responsible for their own situation and that individual failings are the leading contributors to this social condition. Attitudes toward the poor and attributions for poverty are important indicators of support for social programs and policies aimed at reducing poverty; however, such attitudes are shaped by how the poor are depicted and may be easily swayed. In order to increase support, researchers and advocates must understand how the public feels about the poor and the root causes of poverty, and they must effectively communicate through targeted and appropriate messages.
While the decennial census records income and poverty-related information for the total population, the U.S. Census Bureau provides more current estimates from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (CPS ASEC). The official poverty rate is derived from this source. According to the 2005 CPS ASEC, 37 million people in the United States lived in poverty in 2004; that is, their total family income fell below the official poverty threshold (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2005). The poverty rate, while lower than the 1959 rate, the first year such rates were available, has risen for four successive years, from 11.3% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004.
While non-Hispanic Whites constitute the largest racial or ethnic group of those in poverty, non-Hispanic Whites experienced a lower poverty rate than did those of other racial or ethnic groups, who are disproportionately poor. That is, racial and ethnic minorities constitute a larger proportion of those in poverty than they do of the total population. Blacks (24.7%) and Hispanics (21.9%) experienced the highest poverty rates in 2004, while the poverty rate of non-Hispanic Whites was 8.6%. (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2005). This may help explain why much of the general population views poverty as a “Black problem.”
Along with the Northeast, the Midwest had the lowest poverty rate in the nation at 11.6%, and the South had the highest at 14.1%; however, the Midwest was the only region to see an increase in the poverty rate since the previous year, or 10.7% in 2003 (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2005). Wisconsin was one of only several states to see a significant increase in its two-year average, increasing to 11.0% in 2003-04 from 9.2% in 2002-03. Moreover, there is a large disparity in Wisconsin between Whites (non-Hispanic) (8%) and Blacks (39%) in terms of the proportion in poverty; in fact, the gap according to 2000 figures was the largest in the country (Dresser & Rogers, 2004). While the poverty rate for non-Hispanic Whites was below the national average, the poverty rate for Blacks was among the highest in the country.
According to Bullock & Lott (2001) and Eitzen & Zinn (1994), the majority of the poor work and do not receive welfare, and the working poor constitute the largest increase in the number of poor since 1979. Poverty is, in-part, a result of both structural inequalities and the labor market (Bullock & Lott, 2001). In the last 40 years, deindustrialization has impacted the national economy and resulting poverty rates for the working poor (Zeidenberg, 2004). As traditionally high-wage manufacturing jobs became less available, the U.S. transitioned to a service-based economy. This was especially evident in Wisconsin, where its once strong manufacturing base weakened as many manufacturers moved from the central cities to other locales, such as southern states, Mexico, and suburban rural locations, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Workers who once relied on higher-paying industrial jobs were forced into the low-wage service sector, where wages are often not enough to keep families out of poverty. In Wisconsin alone, nearly one-fifth of all jobs are qualified as poverty-wage jobs (Dresser & Rogers, 2004). Additionally, in their analysis of quarterly earnings in Wisconsin, Dresser & Rogers show that 33% of workers in 1995 had earnings below the poverty line; five years later, 51% were still earning poverty-wages.
Blacks are one group that was notably impacted by the shift from a manufacturing-centered to a service-centered economy. Wilson (1991) cites this shift, as well as the growing division of the labor market into low-wage and high-wage factions, technology, and periodic recessions, as a factor in increased joblessness among Blacks. The migration of Blacks to manufacturing cities in Wisconsin during the postwar era resulted in many being able to move out of poverty into the working class and having median wages far above national wages for Blacks (Zeidenberg, 2004). However, with the loss of these good-paying manufacturing jobs came the concentration of poverty in Black communities in Wisconsin. This deindustrialization explains in part why Milwaukee had experienced a sizeable growth in concentrated poverty.
Attitudes and Attributions
While factors such as the shift in the economy and loss of manufacturing jobs can help explain poverty, much of the general public focuses on factors internal to the individual. Hanson (1997) claims that poverty has lost its meaning, as society has moved from one in which a person’s place in the world was owed to God, to a contemporary society that views poverty as a result of character flaws within the individual. Too it seems punitive. Although in Medieval times the poor were not stigmatized, in the 20th century, as society differentiated between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor (p. 11), people began attributing poverty to a lack of individual effort. In the earlier part of the 20th century, a more socialistic view prevailed - that poverty was a result of economic and social systems - and blame was lifted from the poor. During this time, a widely held belief maintained that government was responsible for the well-being of its citizens, which was the basis of many of the social programs that arose in the middle-part of the 20th century (Midgley, 2001). However, contemporary society attributes poverty primarily to individualistic determinants, rather than societal ones, and such programs are now seen as having an adverse impact on economic development.
Public backlash to social welfare programs is a reflection of the contemporary view that such government policies are ineffective and a waste of tax-payers’ hard-earned money. If the belief holds that poverty is attributed to individualistic factors, than there must be individual responsibility and individual solutions. This anti-welfare backlash factored in the election of Reagan in 1980, whose “opposition to government involvement in social welfare facilitated a radical change in political and popular attitudes towards social policy” (Midgley, 2001, p. 286). Conservative intellectuals, many of whom attributed poverty to internal characteristics, impacted the position that many political leaders, as well as the general public, had in regard to poverty (Midgley, 2001). The belief that poverty was a direct result of internal flaws and lack of motivation gained strength, and the popularity of welfare-to-work initiatives flourished in the 1990s.
That public welfare policy would require work agrees with public attitudes toward poverty. Many attribute poverty to a lack of hard work and other individual characteristics. The public holds that there is equal opportunity for all, a tenet of the “American Dream,” and that poverty results from some individual decisions and flaws (Bolstrum, 2002a). Although somewhat more sympathetic to the working poor, the impression that most individuals have of the poor are of those on welfare. Sympathy for those who do not work is little, as it violates the principle that one must work hard to succeed. Epstein (2004) suggests that independence from welfare is more important to the public, compared with reducing poverty.
Although individualistic determinants of poverty predominate for most Americans, other attribution theories ascribe poverty either to structural or societal factors or to factors related to neither society nor internal flaws, such as disability or bad-luck. According to Eitzen and Zinn (1994), individualistic attributions “blame the victim” (p. 173). This reasoning looks to biological or cultural differences to explain why some are poor; whereas, structural attributions place the blame on societal issues, such as shifts in the economy, inequalities in access to education and jobs, and institutional discrimination. Kreidl (2000) and Cozzarelli et al. (2001) suggest that these explanations are not mutually exclusive; it is possible that individuals realize multiple causes for poverty. However, the predominant view held by contemporary society is that of individualistic factors.
Lott (2002) claims that distancing is an underlying factor that explains the negative perceptions that many, particularly the middle-class, have of the poor. Distancing is defined as “separation, exclusion, devaluation, discounting, and designation as ‘other’” (p. 100). The middle-class have separated themselves from and have stigmatized the poor, as a result of having little social contact or experience with the issue of poverty, and negative views of the poor as inferior or lacking in basic values prevail. Such beliefs coincide with the exclusion of the poor from partaking in or benefiting from certain social institutions, such as education and health care (Lott, 2002).
Cozzarelli et al. (2001) stress that how people explain poverty is strongly related to core beliefs held about those in poverty. In their study of attitudes and attributions among students of a Midwestern college, they found that stereotypes about the poor were more negative than those about the middle-class, and that negative attitudes and stereotypes are strongly related to individualistic attributions for poverty. Additionally, although many recognized multiple causes for poverty, individualistic explanations were the dominant view. The authors suggest that such beliefs are likely to impact the public’s position on political and social issues, and that any attempts to persuade public opinion or garner support for poverty-related issues must understand and address these underlying attitudes.
Groskind’s (1991) analysis of data from the 1987 General Social Survey supports the contention that public attitudes affect public policy in regard to poverty. Groskind examined how the amount of monetary assistance the public would allocate to hypothetical families in various vignettes is related to characteristics of the families. In determining the amounts of assistance, Groskind found that while many did consider need of the hypothetical families, work status had considerable impact on how people would designate benefits for the poor, particularly for non-female headed households. Groskind concludes that work-centered policies concur with public feelings about work-related values, whether or not these programs are effective.
The extent to which attitudes about poverty differ among key subgroups of the population is debatable. Cozzarelli et al. (2001) discovered that attitudes and attributes indeed differ by sociodemographic variables, as did Bolstrum (2002a) in her review of past public opinion polls, and Groskind (1991) found that there was not a consensus among demographic groups in terms of monetary allocations for those in poverty. However, while many researchers concur that there are significant differences, the magnitude or importance of such differences is arguable.
Cozzarelli et al. (2001) determined that political party affiliation was the strongest predictor of attitudes and affect, and that more conservative Americans had less positive feelings about the poor and were less likely to attribute poverty to factors external to the individual, as were Whites in general. Bolstrum (2002a) also found that Republicans were more likely to point to individualistic explanations for poverty, and she found divisions along racial lines. For example, she reported that according to the 2001 “Poverty in America” NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School Poll results, Blacks were more likely than Whites to say that poverty is a big problem (72% vs. 52%), poor people have difficult lives (59% vs. 39%), and poverty is a result of outside circumstances (57% vs. 44%). Additionally, Groskind (1991) found several significant differences between White and Black respondents, as well as gender differences, with the White and male groups being less generous in support allocated to certain low-income families and more likely to focus on work status of the poor.
However, Epstein (2004) argues that the magnitude of such differences is not…
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