Poll: Many Americans still suspicious of nation's welfare system

Despite stark societal changes since 1985, people's beliefs on welfare and the poor have largely remained the same.

The Poverty Project, a poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, asked 1,202 Americans about the country's most impoverished people and the government programs that seek to help them. This poll is an update to a similar survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 1985.

David Lauter highlighted these results in a Los Angeles Times story published on Aug 14, 2016. Looking into responders' own backgrounds, Lauter analyzed answers to similar questions asked in the 1985 survey. Despite major overhauls of the welfare system since the original poll, many Americans continue to be suspicious of the effectiveness of antipoverty programs.

When asked "if the government were willing to spend whatever is necessary to eliminate poverty in the United States, do you think the government knows enough about how to accomplish that, or not?", 73 percent of Americans responded "no" in 2016, similar to a response of "no" by 70 percent in 1985. Many of those polled also continue to believe that the government shouldn't bear the sole responsibility of the poor. In 2016, 66 percent of responders believe that it is the person's responsibility to care for themselves as opposed to the government, only 1 percent lower than the previous study.

An important finding from the study also highlights the discrepancies Americans hold about what constitutes poverty. Those polled in 2016 overestimated the poverty line by a 1/3 higher than the actual figure. For a family of four the poverty line is a little over $24,000. The average estimate from those polled reported $32,000. When asked how many Americans live below the poverty line, those polled estimated 40 percent when the actual figure is 15 percent.

In both cases, Lauter reports that the public's estimation may be closer to the reality of the situation. He states that poverty experts believe the official poverty level is too low and that an equal number of Americans are in both the "poor" and "near poor" category. What's unclear is whether those polled are assuming more people are utilizing benefits then actually are or if their estimation is reflecting the dire situations they may see around them.

Looking further into the 2016 poll results, Lauter found distinct differences between blue-collar, white Americans without college degrees and minorities and college-educated whites. The blue-collar group, which most usually throws their support behind Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, were the most likely to criticize the poor. This group called the government less responsible for those facing poverty than all other groups. They also were most likely to view being poor as a permanent, lifelong situation.

While most Americans, 61 percent, believe that the poor would "rather earn their own living" as opposed to continuing with welfare support, blue-collar whites were split 52 percent-44 percent on the issue. When asked whether people believe that benefits encourage poor people to remain impoverished, two-thirds of the blue-collar group felt that they did, compared to college-educated whites, who only half of the group felt similarly.

The findings from both the 1985 and 2016 polls highlight the deep seated and long-standing beliefs that welfare has been mostly ineffective. Going forward, the poll results could be a potential starting point for the government to start addressing the efficacy of antipoverty programs and the information surrounding them.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is kdaniels@ncronline.org.]

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