1

Perceptions and Poverty

exploredAssociated Press reporter Hope Yen recently wrote about a telephone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in December of 2011. More than 2,000 adults were questioned about class tensions, which researchers conclude are at their most intense in 25 years.

The article says:

About 3 in 10 Americans polled said there are ‘very strong’ conflicts between the rich and poor…. That is double the share who believed so in July 2009 and the largest proportion reporting that view in the 24 years the question has been asked in surveys.

The thing is, this survey is about perceptions, otherwise known as opinions, concerning the economic divide. It used to be mainly Democrats, African-Americans, and youth who were conscious of an upsetting disparity between the rich and the poor. But now, this survey reveals, even white folks are seeing the huge chasm between the richest and the poorest, and not liking what they see. Why? Because a lot of formerly middle-class Americans see themselves sliding closer and closer to the abyss.

It’s the kind of issue that people get emotional about, and form opinions about, but can we really understand what they think, when the framework of questions is so rigid? Thanks to this study of attitudes, we now know that:

… about 46 percent of Americans hold a disapproving view that rich people are wealthy because they were fortunate enough to be born into money or have the right connections. But almost as many people — 43 percent — say wealthy people are rich ‘mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education.’

Why are the pollsters asking respondents to choose one or the other? In the real world, both are true. The correct answer is, some people have money because it was given to them, or they were granted unfair opportunities to acquire wealth. And, even worse, some are rolling in dough because they threw their souls overboard to make room for greed. As Balzac and many others have said, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

The rest of the correct answer is, a lot of people have become wealthy because of their ambition, drive, work ethic, integrity, talent, ingenuity, and a whole lot of other desirable qualities. There is a quite a number of different ways for a person to reach the high-income brackets.

But the more disturbing question is, why is there so much concern about asking Americans their opinion about things, whether it’s the motherhood fitness quotient of Britney Spears, or the qualifications of their fellow citizens to have big bank accounts? What people think doesn’t really count for much. If the majority of people think that the Earth is balanced on the back of a giant turtle, that doesn’t make it so, and no progress is made toward solving the planet’s problems.

There is another difficulty. This kind of either/or thinking encourages Americans to polarize: x% believe that the homeless deserve all the help a society is capable of giving, and y% believe that people experiencing homelessness are lazy specimens who deserve their bad fortune and that they have brought it on themselves.

Well, guess what? In the real world, both are true, and many other things, too. Many of the people experiencing homelessness are disabled, either mentally or physically. There just isn’t any kind of work they can do — especially when unemployment is so high, with hordes of massively overqualified workers available for even the most menial jobs.

And many, of course, are children. Surely, nobody expects them to go out and get jobs. Their lives are difficult enough, just trying to keep up in school. That’s their job. Keep the kids in mind when learning about the Universal Living Wage, which has the potential to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Including the ones with kids.

Reactions?

Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Image by eflon (Alex), used under its Creative Commons license.

  1. […] Press journalist Hope Yen’s report on the recent Pew survey about attitudes concerning class in the United States. It turned out to be so interesting, there’s more to say about […]