Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lives of the poor

On Sunday, Nicholas Kristof mentioned a survey question on whether "poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return" or "poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently."    I've written about that question before, but it's been asked a couple of times since then, so here's an update:

As I mentioned in my previous post, changes in average opinion can be predicted by three things:  party of the president (people are more likely to say "easy" when a Democrat is in office), the unemployment rate (people are less likely to say "easy" when unemployment is high, and the welfare reform of 1996 (people have been less likely to say "easy" since the reform).

What struck me about Kristof's description was that the focused on the opinions of affluent people: "the delusion on the part of many affluent Americans that those like Kevin [a high school friend of his who had been living on disability assistance] are lazy or living cushy lives. A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center found that wealthy Americans mostly agree that 'poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.'"  But as the figures above suggest, a lot of Americans who aren't especially affluent must also agree.  More precisely, here is a breakdown of opinions by income in December 2013:

Under $10,000       +38
$10-20,000          +18
$20-30,000          +13
$30-40,000          -6
$40-50,000          -26
$50-75,000          -9
$75-100,000         -6
$100-150,000        -12
over $150,000       -10

The numbers are the percent choosing "hard life" minus the percent choosing "have it easy."  For example, among people earning over $150,000, 38% chose "hard life," 48% chose "easy" and 14% volunteered another answer like "some of both."

So the affluent aren't very different from the middle class--in fact, people earning $40 to 50,000 are most likely to say that poor people have it easy, although it's not clear that the difference is statistically significant.

I adjusted for differences in the composition of income groups in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, martial status, and education.  Results are shown in this figure:


Again, opinions are similar in all groups with moderate or higher incomes.  This pattern is interesting, because common sense suggests that opinions should become steadily more negative as income increases.  Compared to a person who earns $150,000 a year, a person who earns $40,000 a year is more likely to have been   poor in the past, has more chance of being poor in the future, and is more likely to have friends or family members who are poor.  But they're not more likely to say that the poor have hard lives.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

1 comment:

  1. It strikes me that this is another instance of a poorly worded survey question leading to uninterpretable results. The question asks respondents to choose between "A because C" and "B because D." This choice won't adequately capture people who believe A because X or B because Y, so they may answer A or B for some other reason - and A and B (poor people have it easy/have hard lives) are pretty general concepts with an undefined benchmark.

    On top of that, it's perfectly reasonable for someone to believe both C and D concurrently. I do myself. It's not obvious that two such persons would pick the same answer to the survey question.