People’s attitudes towards poverty: it’s complicated (Part I)

Why are there people living in poverty? If you ask people this question, you may get a variety of responses. Every response may seem different, but research over the past 50 years suggests that there are some common themes across people’s responses to this question. That is, attitudes towards the causes of poverty and the people experiencing it tend to align with a set of poverty narratives that repeat over and over again. These attitudes are important because they affect how individuals think about and treat people in poverty individually. However, individual perceptions of why people are in poverty also help determine political behavior and policy that– ultimately–strongly impacts how many fellow citizens live on low incomes, as well as poverty levels across regions and population groups.      

What are some of these narratives? Let’s consider four: the individualistic narrative, the welfare narrative, the structural narrative, and the meritocracy narrative.  

People endorsing individualistic narratives believe that people living in poverty are more prone to personal failings, and that this is the ultimate cause of poverty. People living on low incomes may be less hard-working, have less intelligence, or have other negative attributes. In the 1970s, the sociologist Joe Feagin pioneered some of the research on poverty attributions and found that Americans were likely to endorse these individualistic narratives. For example, survey respondents often thought that the poor remained poor due to their “lack of effort and laziness”, or due to their having no interest in self-improvement.

This kickstarted plenty of follow-up work, which suggests that individualistic narratives and attributions are still widely held. For example, researchers found that respondents had more negative attitudes towards people living in poverty than towards the middle class, and often blamed them for their poverty.

So what are structural narratives? Instead of blaming the person, structural narratives blame systems, institutions, or society as a whole for poverty. There’s been a fair amount of debate around whether this is just the reverse of individualistic narratives, but interestingly recent work suggests they are not. People may (and do) still believe that both systems and personal failings help explain poverty. As we will see later on, people often hold beliefs about poverty that may seem, at first glance, contradictory.

There are also welfare narratives. These are unfortunately an all-too-familiar trope, often used in the media to depict those with low-income as people who take advantage of public benefit programs for their own selfish gain. This view holds that, at best, such programs help people but disincentivize hard work; at worst, they attract fraud and are a waste of taxpayer money.

The last narratives we’ll cover are the meritocracy narratives. Respondents who endorse these narratives may believe that poverty is a result of not working hard enough, and that most people can succeed if they put in the effort. The latter is commonly referred to as the American Dream narrative.

But how has this changed over the past few years? What do people in the United States think now, especially since a global pandemic upended our lives? Over the past few months, we have run several national surveys asking respondents some of these questions, with the goal of understanding how Americans see poverty, and what causes it. We tried to use items that have already been used in the past (in fact, most are part of the short version of the Attitudes Towards Poverty scale, and some were inspired by previous work by GOOD and HarmonyLabs). The overall results paint a more nuanced picture of poverty attitudes and beliefs.

We surveyed a total of 1140 people over 4 months through Lucid, an online survey marketplace (you can check the demographic breakdown of the survey in the Appendix below). This is a sample of insights from that work:

1. Most people don’t believe people living in poverty have personal failings

We asked people whether they agreed with the following three statements:

  • Poor people are dirty
  • Poor people are dishonest
  • Poor people have low intelligence

These are variations of questions that have been used in the past to assess whether people endorse individualistic narratives. Here is the breakdown of people’s responses:


Although the percent is not large, around 5-10% of respondents thought that people living in poverty were dishonest, or that they had low intelligence. While troubling, this is better than some of the earlier data conducted by Feagin, which found strong endorsement for some of these ideas (though measured through different survey questions). A natural concern behind these low numbers is social desirability, which is the tendency for respondents to avoid agreeing to controversial survey items. The statements chosen are harsh, and could have prompted respondents to hide their true attitudes.

These results are very consistent with recent work by GOOD, which also found that 5-8% of respondents believed that people living in poverty were dishonest, and around 7% thought they were dirty or had low intelligence. Therefore, respondents did not believe that the low-income were more prone to personal failings overall (and that instead other factors explained why poverty exists).  

2. Most people blame systems and structures for poverty

Conversely, there was strong support for all of the questions that explained poverty using a structural narrative. People overwhelmingly believe that the populations experiencing poverty lack affordable housing and child care, as well as opportunities for training and continuing education. Over 65% of respondents either agree or strongly agree that people experiencing poverty lack affordable housing, and the same is true for affordable child care. Respondents are slightly less likely to believe that people experiencing poverty lack opportunities for training (but still, over 55% agree).


3. Stigma around public benefits programs remains

So far it seems that respondents reject individualistic narratives, instead believing that systems and institutions do not adequately cater to the needs of people experiencing poverty. But there’s more to that. When asked about their views on public benefits programs and “welfare”, respondents are far less sanguine. In fact, they are much more likely than not to endorse the idea that there is plenty of fraud among welfare recipients (only around 25% of people disagree with this), though they remain more divided on whether public benefits programs “make people lazy”. Again, this is very consistent with data collected by GOOD, which showed that over half of respondents believed that there was a lot of fraud amongst welfare recipients.

Over the past few months we have found that respondents react strongly to the possibility of fraud, both in public benefits, and in other programs that are publicly financed. We have discussed this on this blog. Though we don’t know what people’s threshold for fraud is, we do know that fraud in public benefits programs tends to be very low. In future posts, we will try to unpack this further, hoping to understand what predicts fraud perceptions.  


4. People still believe in the American Dream

Lastly, we included some items about opportunity and the American Dream which are related meritocracy narratives. Much like when Feagin kicked off this research 40 years ago, respondents still endorse the idea that the United States is a country of opportunity. Only around 35% of respondents disagree. However, there are some subtleties.

For example, when asked about more concrete outcomes, such as equal opportunity to succeed, or equal opportunity to get a good education, respondents are less optimistic. In fact, they are about equally split on whether a good education is equally available to all.

Once again, we don’t know what people’s perceptions of social mobility in the US are, or what each respondent’s ideal target is. But recent work on opportunity in the US suggests that upward mobility may be less available than it once was (and in comparison to other nations). For example, Raj Chetty’s research shows that a child being born into the bottom 20% of the income distribution, is only half as likely to make it to the top 20% of the income distribution in the US compared to Canada.


What gives?

People’s views on poverty (and its causes) are not straightforward, and they are not unidimensional. Narratives may vary over time and geography, and they can change quickly over the course of a few years. Over the past few months, we have been working on unpacking these different narratives people hold, and how we can best go about measuring them.

This introductory blog post is just a sample of some of the work we’ve been doing. In future blog posts, we will cover how these poverty narratives vary by demographic group, ideology and its associated constructs, and even thinking style. Stay tuned.


We surveyed 1140 people over 4 months (January - April 2021) through Lucid, an online survey marketplace. The demographic breakdown of the sample is shown below. We post-stratified the sample based on American Community Survey population cells and found that the results did not alter the overall results, but we will dig into differences across groups in future posts.

N Percent
Age 18-24 120 10.53
25-34 164 14.39
35-44 209 18.33
45-54 135 11.84
55-64 208 18.25
65+ 304 26.67
Income group 30k or less 174 15.26
30k to 50k 270 23.68
50k to 90k 367 32.19
90k or more 287 25.18
Gender Female 641 56.23
Male 499 43.77
Ethnicity Asian 47 4.12
Black 115 10.09
Native American or Pacific 18 1.58
Other 55 4.82
White 891 78.16
Hispanic Not Hispanic 1047 91.84
Hispanic 93 8.16
Education level Advanced 157 13.77
Associate 153 13.42
Bachelor 311 27.28
High school or less 269 23.60
Some college 246 21.58
Region Northeast 217 19.04
Midwest 257 22.54
South 463 40.61
West 203 17.81