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Poor People: Is it Their Fault? Or is Society, at least in Part, Responsible?

2015-06-14

Here’s another one of those surveys that confirms what you thought all along: Republicans and conservatives think people who are poor and/or unemployed have reached that state due to individual failings, while Democrats and liberals think the problem is due to lack of opportunity.

This particular poll was done by YouGov.com, a custom polling company that seems to do more polls than everyone else combined, even Pew and the old favorites (this is only an impression; I haven’t researched who’s the biggest.)  According to their website, YouGov can do custom polls for your company to help you find out where to improve and where to break into business: the company will “leverage cutting-edge research and analytic techniques with an eye for assessing the economic impact of your actions. We deliver you the insights and tools that help you to plan and make strategic and tactical decisions while maintaining a focus on tangible outcomes.”  The site shows outcomes for many recent polls on subjects from “Academic and Scientific” to “Travel and Leisure”; for example, they have tracked the decline in public perceptions of the TLC cable channel since they have become associated with the Duggan family (the one with nineteen children and sex abuse allegations), they have named BandAid the best-perceived brand for Mother’s Day among mothers with children under eighteen.

One of YouGov’s web pages states that they have a panel of 1.8  million US residents and over 3 million around the world, allowing them to provide a poll with a thousand respondents in 24 hours.  The respondents are fully characterized by income levels and other demographic statistics; there are even special polls for children and LGBT respondents.  This “infrastructure” allows for rapid response, specialized polls for reasonable prices on almost any subject.

At any rate, YouGov, with their panel of fully qualified opinion holders, provides an essential service and generates polls about a vast number of subjects on which people hold opinions.

The poll in question, conducted April 15-16 2014, analyzed answers to the questions “When people are poor, do you think that’s more likely to be because they had fewer opportunities or because of their individual failings?” and “When people are poor, do you think that’s more likely to be because good jobs aren’t available, or because they have a poor work ethic?”, and conversely, “When people are wealthy, do you think that’s more likely to be because they had more opportunities than other people or because they worked harder than other people? ” and “Which comes closer to your own view about people who are unemployed: most are trying hard to find jobs but can’t, or most could find jobs if they wanted to?”  Finally, the question: “Which comes closer to your own view about people who have been unemployed for more than 6 months: most are trying hard to find jobs but can’t, or most could find jobs if they wanted to?”

When you look at people’s answers to these questions, you can see that they depend strongly on their attitudes about people’s individual responsibility and staying powers versus their attitudes about the role that society plays in giving people a chance to succeed or keeping them down on the farm.  Clearly, conservatives are likely to feel that an individual has full responsibility for his or her position in life and that one’s success depends entirely on one’s native abilities and energies; whereas liberals are likely to feel that society plays a strong role in determining a person’s position in life by allowing one to show his/her ability or hindering him/her from having a chance to succeed.  Further, a liberal is more likely to feel that society displays biases and prejudices that prevent some people of certain ethnic backgrounds, religions, colors, etc. from succeeding while giving other people of different backgrounds a guaranteed place higher on the ladder.  Looking at the associated factors, one finds that being male, higher in income, and self-identifying as a Republican (even more so than self-identifying as a conservative) are more strongly associated with this attitude, with Republicans being the most strongly associated.

It is not hard for us to reason that biases operate on a person’s outcomes from birth; certain children picked at birth by random factors such as parent’s wealth, born to privilege, are treated better, fed better, sheltered better, clothed better, protected more from diseases and accidents, loved more, stimulated more, and in every way receive more of what studies have shown enhance a person’s IQ and motivation.  On the other hand, other children, marked by chance with misfortune, are ill fed, ill clothed, ill housed, and ill treated regardless of their ability.

On the other hand, the opposing line of reasoning would say that one’s abilities are already inherited at birth and merely make their appearances at the appointed age regardless of the circumstances.  It would be extremely difficult to put together experimental support for this hypothesis; virtually all the research shows that enhanced childhood experience reliably enhances abilities, while childhood sensory deprivation leaves one with severe handicaps.

While it is hard to find experimental justification for the “Republican” (this word is used specifically because of the strong association of self-identification as a Republican with this attitude) point of view, there is a significant proportion of the public that holds to this attitude.

I have nothing more that I can say at this moment about this divide in opinion; perhaps in the future, that will change.

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