A Poverty of Understanding

Pundits and scholars and public officials spend considerable time trying to determine the causes of poverty and advocating measures to alleviate it.

In contrast, they spend very little time examining public perceptions of those causes, and less still inquiring into the demographics of those holding very different opinions about the causes (and thus the cures) for poverty. But a recent survey did just that:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty; in comparison, only 29 percent of non-Christians attributed poverty to inadequate effort by the individual.

The survey found an even wider gulf between adherents of different Christian denominations: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances. Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claimed no particular affiliation responded– by an impressive margin of 65 to 31 percent– that difficult circumstances are more to blame for poverty than lack of effort.

This data is not just of academic interest; it is politically consequential. Not surprisingly, the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

Although the Post’s article didn’t refer to it, these opinions reflect the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives. Furthermore, although you could never be sure who the elect were, it was widely believed that earthly material success was a sign of God’s favor and signaled “elect” status. Whether or not this belief can fairly be attributed to Calvin himself, it was firmly ensconced in the Puritans’ popular understanding of the doctrine of predestination.

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by public policies and systemic influences.

These survey results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Doctors can’t decide what medicine to prescribe if they don’t know what ails you. Lawmakers can’t address economic disparities between the rich and the rest, or lessen the incidence of poverty, if they don’t understand the underlying reasons for economic hardship.

Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.


  1. A survey of 1,686 adults is not, in my opinion, is not nearly enough people to represent our entire population. I didn’t click through to the article to see how they decided whom to contact either. I am not sold on the results.

    Our country’s emphasis on personal responsibility, rather than situations beyond our control, is a weight that Has now become so heavy that it is breaking our backs.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all “good Christians” like the Trumps? Then there would never be any worries about paying bills because we would all be financially self-sufficient.

  2. Pretty simplistic questionnaire if you ask me. In many if not the majority of cases both external circumstances and individual reactions to them play a part. My politics call for making the playing field as fair as possible. Even so, many individuals will act in self defeating ways.

  3. One thing is for sure; poverty in the United States is not the same as poverty elsewhere. Here, one person’s poverty is another person’s wealth. And if one only gauges poverty in material and monetary terms then you miss the mark completely.

    Poverty is not the inability to own an I-phone, or a boat, or a second home, or a Prius. It is not the inability to dine out several times a week, nor is it not shopping at Keystone at the Crossings. But American poverty is carrying a debt that far exceeds your ability to ever pay it back, sleepless nights trying to keep your lifestyle afloat, fear of others finding out what you are really worth. American Poverty is alcoholism, drug addiction, religion addiction; it is having more than enough but gambling it away. It’s having no one in your life to whom you can be open and honest with. It is constantly comparing yourself to the neighbors. It is the pretense of happiness and comfort when all you really want is to escape it all… free yourself from the burden of carrying the giant load of things you have accumulated over your lifetime.

    Real poverty is the single, refugee mother at the side of the road holding her dead baby in her arms.

  4. The survey is flawed. If it had controlled for education, income and urbanity the differences would disappear I suspect. Ideology, including religion, follows life circumstances.

  5. Born in 1925 the seventh of eight children following the Victorian and Catholic Christian social imperative to shun birth control, to make abortion severely punishable, to legislate morality, to succeed by personal pride and by effort, I was too young to understand why my five older brothers and my father had to struggle, in vain to eke out a living.
    By the time I was 14 years old and entered public high school, read Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ but was ignorant of Hoovervilles, war was threatening around the world while in a ‘conservative’ community there was widespread opposition to New Deal progressive politics, opposition to dam building to stem the devastation of flooding rivers, opposition to works projects, and vicious opposition to taxation to provide relief and employment, even opposition to school lunches to relieve undernourished children (while farm product were being plowed under, burned or spilled to support prices)….I can go on and on.
    During the next four years the war raged on, millions enlisted or were conscripted to serve in uniform. I still have my draft card now yellowed with age. Upon graduation from high school in 1944 I was in uniform, in Army basic training and a year later I was on an Asian island mopping up Japanese soldiers hiding in the hills. Name places like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Okinawa, Luzon, etc. will grip the hearts of some men 3 or 4 years older than me.
    Now, at 91 years old, I do not have Steinbeck’s artistic skill to convey my disgust with Trump et al, socially blind ‘conservatives’, and “Republican-Light” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana.
    Any idea how I will vote in 2018 and 2020 if I’m still living and loving the United States of America??

  6. Interesting that Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty but those who are Trump supporters clearly demonstrate the belief that “the other” is to blame for their being “left behind.”

  7. Most surveys seem flawed to me and we can easily be misled by them. But we don’t need a survey to tell us that the “United” States has failed miserably in coming to terms with its heritage of slavery and Calvinist puritanism. Both are enjoying a big rebirth in the 21st century.

  8. OMG, thank you for those reminders of the past. Far too many people today are blissfully oblivious of those past struggles to lift up the poor, and all too eager to destroy what safeguards we have. I hope you are hale and hearty in 2018 and 2020.

  9. Over the years there have been lots of small successful conspiracies leading to an economy where some are paid lots and many are paid little. Once that spread gets started it only gets worse over time.

    To be fair part of the problem is the mixture of work where some jobs need academic preparation and willingness and ability to work long hours and the supply of the skills is less than the demand, while many jobs can be demanding but done by virtually anyone so there is a greater supply of capable labor than supply.

    We have a built in classism in the labor market.

  10. as i travel the u.s. and talk with like workers,and from diffrent races,christian sins,wrong or right prevail. im a non believer,but,as i approach i give no indication. the social ladder is anyone,homeless to fellow worker,we have a tendancy to self segrogate,and like minded run with the crowd. typical,we all got pigeon holed. we do it without religious values,and predict when it will happen when working with other classes. its bred into us wether family,church or birth. the controling arm today is money,power,and greed. for the short of this,when on top,you get to kick one to the curb,like a suit, its a uniform to say to the working class im above you,and religion has little to do with it. for,the sake of saysing , “if the white man didnt want poverty,there would be no poverty,”my granddads words to me,christian,irish,union man born 1905 in north east Pa. he couldnt have said it better…

  11. It’s really sad when I hear (or read the comments, not here, elsewhere) that lack of effort is the reason someone is poor. What are people supposed to do when they can’t find a liveable wage job? Go in to the HR department of a company and point a gun to the head of the person and demand they get hired? Why are some Americans such a$$holes?

  12. Tell Me Again It Isn’t All About Race (yesterday)
    “When Trump’s poll numbers finally bottom out, we’ll have a pretty good idea what percentage of our fellow citizens are willing to jettison American ideals in return for continued White Christian privilege.”

    A Poverty of Understanding (today)
    “Christian charity is all well and good, but Christian economic realism would be a lot better.”

    These two blogs are companion pieces; two sides of the same coin. It is the “poverty” of the soul connecting the two; so-called “Christian” charity of our leaders today begins and ends at home – their home. It will go no further and serve only one master; the almighty dollar. Democrats are not immune; only fewer in number, which is why the Democratic party today is weakened in the strength of its candidates and the money needed to strengthen its workforce thanks to the GOP and Citizens United.

    Surveys are limited to a chosen few; the number and content of questions geared to the short attention-span of the selected few responders. With all of the survey results publicly proving points for one side or the other; how many of us on this blog have ever been asked to participate in any them?

  13. What yhe survey results really show is the lack of serious and non-partisan dialogue on the subject. It’s about our failure to communicate with others in a meaningful and non-judgemental way

  14. It is just after 3:00 this afternoon and I came inside to take a break from trimming shrubs, so I decided to check this blog for new comments.

    OMG – your comment provided me with info that I never knew about. I did not know about the absolutely dispicable way that people treated their neighbors and fellow citizens. It is clear to me now that we have always been a nation filled with some very hateful people who have managed to use their wealth to control everyone else and maintain their power. I hope that the younger generations will have bigger and more compassionate hearts.

  15. If god favors people by providing great wealth and trump is an example of that favor, we’re all in a world of trouble.

  16. Designing a survey is very difficult. Survey designers must be quite clever, not only in selecting subjects to question but in wording the questions. We make a mistake when we ridicule the idea of surveys, as if all surveys are incompetent simply because they are not perfect. Surveys are part of a numbers game. Even flawed surveys give us information that enable us to lay odds upon human behavior, which is what political policies do. Surveys can be compared to data that odds makers in Vegas collect before setting the odds on, say, a football game, relying on data and interpretations of data that are not perfect but almost always helps the odds maker come out ahead. We who ridicule survey data are like the gambler who is addicted to betting against the odds maker; we call him a loser.

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