How do Americans view poverty? Many blue-collar whites, key to Trump, criticize poor people as lazy and content to stay on welfare
BY DAVID LAUTER
The official poverty measure, however, does not include the value of government benefits designed to help the poor. Including those payments, the share of people who are impoverished is now considerably lower than it was in the 1960s, although slightly higher than it was at the end of the 1990s.
One question on which views have changed somewhat since the 1980s is whether poverty is a temporary or a permanent condition.
In the 1985 survey, Americans by a very large majority, 71%-21%, said that most poor people would probably remain poor. Today, that remains the majority view, but the gap has narrowed somewhat, with 60% seeing poverty as mostly permanent and 33% saying it is a temporary condition that people can move into and out of again.
The poor divide closely on that question. So do minorities.
A correct answer to that question is complex. Census figures show that in recent years, people who fell below the poverty line typically stayed poor for about six months. A lot of people, however, cycle in and out of poverty, rising only slightly above the official poverty line, then falling back.
One recent census study found that about one-quarter of poor people were in poverty only briefly – the result of a job loss or other crisis. About 1 in 7 were chronically poor, spending much of their lives impoverished. In between are many who churn in and out of poverty.
Across the board, Americans overestimate how high the government’s poverty line is and how many people live below it. Asked to estimate the poverty line for a family of four, those polled, on average, put it at just over $32,000, which is about a third higher than the actual figure of just over $24,000. The public’s figure may be more realistic, however; many poverty experts think the official level is far too low.
Those polled also estimated that about 40% of Americans live below the poverty line – far more than the actual figure of 15%. Again, though, the public may have the clearer view. Many experts on poverty say that in addition to the roughly 45 million Americans who live below the official poverty line, roughly an equal number are “near poor.”
Many federal benefit programs, including healthcare subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid in many states, are open to people earning significantly more than the official poverty threshold.
The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, one of the country’s largest nonpartisan polling organizations. The survey was conducted June 20-July 7 among 1,202 adults aged 18 and older, including 235 who live below the poverty line. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points in either direction for the full sample.
David Lauter is the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau chief. He began writing news in Washington in 1981 and since then has covered Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and four U.S. presidential campaigns. He lived in Los Angeles from 1995 to 2011, where he was The Times’ deputy Foreign editor, deputy Metro editor and then assistant managing editor responsible for California coverage.