Many attribute poverty to laziness or individual failings and decry those who receive government assistance, rather than asking why or taking to task the systems that perpetuate and benefit from poverty.
The Pew Research Center found that public opinion is sharply divided when considering views of Americans living in poverty. About 51 percent of Americans believe that the government can’t afford to help those in need, whereas 43 percent say the government should help these people even if it means that the government increases its debt.
Researchers tested these perceptions and found that when white Americans perceive threats to their status as the dominant demographic group, their resentment of people of color increases. In the study, when white Americans were made aware that they would no longer be the dominant demographic group in the coming decades, they became more resentful and their opposition of federal entitlement programs (e.g. welfare) increased. The researchers discovered that attitudes among whites and communities of color about welfare diverged in 2008 — the same year as the Great Recession and the presidential election of Barack Obama. This research suggests that whites’ perceptions that people of colors’ social standing is rising can produce periods of “welfare backlash” in which adoption of policies restricting or curtailing welfare programs is more likely.
Black and white respondents in our interviews and focus groups offered varying reasons for why black people may have a harder time breaking out of poverty than white people.
This tracks findings from Pew, who found that among those who said being black hurts a person’s ability to get ahead, black adults were much more likely than white adults (84 percent vs. 54 percent) to say that racial discrimination is a major reason for this disparity. Black respondents were also more likely to say that less access to high-paying jobs and good schools are major obstacles for black people. White respondents, in turn, were more likely than black respondents to say that family instability and a lack of good role models are major reasons why it may be harder for black people to get ahead; black and white adults who said being black hurts a person’s ability to get ahead were equally likely to say a lack of motivation to work hard is a major reason (22 percent).
“So there’s really a disdain for people who are impoverished. And it seems as though people here live in a bubble and not thinking about greater issues of this country with inequity and class differences and how poverty is such a huge, huge issue that affects so many people across race, across spectrum of well, ethnic groups.”
— Black female, Montgomery
“We’re sort of dealing with the outfall of inequitable pay and unfair wages by providing housing for the working poor without asking the question of why are the working poor....‘Oh, you could get a job in tech if you had stayed in school. So, you’re a hotel worker, so just suck it up.’”
— White male, 63, Charlotte
“There’s a big, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ sort of mentality. You know, no handout, no welfare sort of mentality. And I don’t think there’s a commitment to see why these problems happen.”
— White male, 36, Knoxville
“White folks who were poor or working poor were vehemently opposed to anti-poverty programs. Because I think among a lot of white folks, there is a misconception about who these programs benefit.”
— White male, 23, Montgomery