If someone is poor they could do something about it if they really wanted to. Poverty has to do with bad luck. Poverty is systemic, it is a cycle that is almost impossible to break. That some people are poor is just how our world works. – These are the kinds of statements researchers have been measuring to determine how people from different parts of the world and of different backgrounds view poverty.
The outcome of their research will be essential for the development of social policies and methods which address poverty, today and in the future. If citizens believe the poor have only to look within themselves to improve their situation, they might then vote and support politicians who advocate cutting social services and benefits. If citizens believe poverty is due to injustice or economic forces that are so powerful the poor cannot escape their reality, they might push for more intervention by the government, to help alleviate poverty. Despite the fact that statistics are kept to help indicate poverty rates and trends, the very basic and unscientific personal perceptions people have regarding poverty can be just as influential when it comes to choosing policies and priorities in dealing with it.
Injustice or lack of willpower
Where you live may not necessarily determine how you look at poverty. More specifically, if you think that poverty can be escaped, if it is a temporary situation or something permanent. In Barrientos and Neff’s “Attitudes Toward Chronic Poverty in the Global Village” (2010) people surveyed in Western Europe had a similar outlook on poverty as people in East Asia: people living in poverty have a chance of getting out of it. By contrast, in that same study, more respondents in South America and Sub Saharan Africa responded that the poor don’t have a chance of getting out of their situation. It is therefore no coincidence that a decade after most of this data was collected, we have seen the rise of popular candidates championing the cause of the poor throughoutSouth America. As Armando Barrientos, Professor and Research Director at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester, explains: “In developing countries, governments that address the issue of poverty seem to get much greater political support. Poverty and social issues are becoming much more important in terms of internal domestic policy discussions and in the political cycle.”
Indeed recently elected President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, just this month announced that her government’s number one priority would be to eradicate extreme poverty reduction through a $12.5 billion-a-year program called “Brazil Without Poverty.” In the more economically developed world attitudes towards poverty seem to be going in a different direction. While South Americans might be focused on poverty as something that cannot be changed without some kind of government intervention, many Europeans either blame the individual or have come to flat out accept poverty as a natural consequence of modern life. According to Eurobarometer Survey Data from 2007, 37% of European Citizens cite “injustice in society” as the reason for poverty. 20%, meanwhile, believe it is caused by “laziness and lack of willpower.” “An inevitable part of progress” was cited by 13%, which was still lower then the 19% who cited “Unluckiness” as an answer to why people are poor.
Perceptions of poverty, even if they are extremely prevalent, are not necessarily based on fact. Widely referenced and repeated stories about poor people abusing social assistance and receiving excessively high benefits get amplified in the public sphere. These examples have a bigger impact than actual poverty statistics which often reveal them to be less prevalent or detrimental then they are said to be. One of the most referenced examples that is still used in discussions of poverty today is the image of the “welfare queen,” made famous during a 1976 campaign speech by then candidate Ronald Reagan. He spoke about an alleged African American women who lived in Chicago who lived like a queen using fraudulently acquired money from a long list of social programs. Welfare Queens became a rallying cry for anyone who believed or wanted others to believe that too many African American women were living handsomely by abusing social programs. Long after statistics and reports pointed out that neither women nor African Americans represented the largest groups on welfare in theUnited States, the idea that this type of abuse was a rampant problem lived on.
In a survey of British attitudes regarding government spending taken in 1990, 52% agreed that social security benefits were “too low.” When asked the same question in 2008, only 21% agreed. (Curtice 2010) Either the British government had drastically boosted social security in the course of 18 years and 2 recessions, or some other factors such as media and political reporting on welfare-queen-style stories had made their mark on the public. As Peter Dorey concludes in his 2010 article “A Poverty of Imagination”: “concern about social security fraud and ‘benefit cheats’ continues to elicit far more media coverage, public condemnation and governmental attention than tax evasion by corporations and the rich, even 10 though the latter actually entails much larger sums that welfare abuse and thus indirectly costs the British taxpayer far more.”
Age, sex and political ideology
If it isn’t geography or culture, what other influences shape how poverty is viewed? In the Global Village study, it was found that age and sex played some role, as both older and female respondents were more likely to see poverty as chronic. Not surprisingly they also found that political ideology can influence a person, as those who saw themselves as on the left also viewed poverty as systemic. On the other hand the European Union data shows that young people and students are more likely to view poverty as a personal fault that can be overcome. A curious opinion from a group that, although young and presumably energetic, are also frequently accused of being lazy or coddled.
What one might deduce from such results is that the older you are, the more years of life you’ve experienced, the more you’ve seen how poverty exists and changes or does not change over time. This life experience, which young people are students have not had, leads to the conclusion that poverty is systemic above all. Yet despite these few conclusions, researchers across the board have pointed to limited data and a lack of longer term research which looks into influences as well as changes in poverty perception. This lack of long term research makes it difficult to understand, for example, how economic downturns over the last 100 years have (if at all) influenced poverty perceptions; are people living in bad economic times more inclined to say the poor are lazy or are they more likely to see it as injustice brought on by the economic system.
Who are you calling lazy?
One thing is certain, just because a large amount of people think the poor are lazy, doesn’t mean that they are. Public perceptions are proven to have little link with real statistical reality. What limited research that has been carried out reveals that views on why people are poor can not easily be generalized. People living in the economic boom times of East Asiain the 1990’s saw poverty as something you could get out of. Do they still feel that way in 2011? You might be a catholic inGermanyorEnglandand see poverty as an acceptable side effect of our economic system, while a catholic in Brazil might see poverty as injustice that cannot be escaped without some kind intervention. In an era where few in the so-called developed world believe in the ability of their government to do anything right, it is not surprising that they view poverty as either something that can’t be changed or something that only the individual person can do something about. Meanwhile in the so-called developing world, we have popular movements that have elected political leaders promising to make alleviating poverty a government priority. Beyond needing more research to better understand poverty perceptions what is also clear is that something has to be done to bridge the gap between reality and opinion.