More Americans Say Poverty Beyond Peoples’ Control

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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Two decades ago, Americans blamed “people not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty” as the root cause of poverty. Now, more Americans blame “circumstances beyond peoples’ control,” according to a Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll of 1,000 U.S. adults.

In the recent poll, conducted from June 11-15, 44 percent of respondents blamed poverty on individual lack of initiative.

That is a steep decline from the 60 percent of Americans in 1995 who said they believed that poverty was the result of personal choices.

Forty-six percent of Americans now believe that external forces — the economy and job market, for instance — cause individuals to live in poverty. In 1995, only 30 percent let individuals off the hook.

The biggest change has been among Democrats and women.

In 1995, 31 percent of women said they believed that poverty was the result of circumstances outside of individuals’ control. In 2014, the ratio rose to 52 percent.

Mens’ attitudes toward poverty changed in that direction as well, though not as dramatically. In 1995, 29 percent blamed poverty on outside circumstances; 39 percent of men feel the same way today.

Sixty-three percent of Democrats in 2014 blamed outside factors versus 40 percent in 1995. Republicans showed a slight increase — from 19 percent to 27 percent. Independents went from 29 percent to 43 percent.

The shift indicates a change of attitude from that of Bill Clinton’s “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” Passed in 1996 with support from Republicans, the bill fundamentally changed how welfare was doled out in the U.S. by forcing more welfare recipients to have jobs in order to receive assistance.

Though attitudes towards poverty have changed over the two decade period, the percentage of households in poverty has remained about the same. In 1995, 13.8 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census statistics. That marked a slight decrease from the 14.5 who were poor in 1994.

The poverty rate over the past few years has remained steady at 15 percent. In 2007, before the Great Recession, 12.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty.

The unemployment rate was 5.8 percent when the 1995 poll was taken. Today, it is 6.3 percent.

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