If you are poor, chances are it is your own fault. At least that’s what Americans thought in 2001. In a National Public Radio poll from that year, about half of those surveyed said the poor are not doing enough to pull themselves out of poverty.
Now, one would think that since the recent economic crisis predictably has led to increased poverty people would start blaming circumstances more than the poor. This has not been the case in the United Kingdom. A recently published survey shows that Brits over time have become more likely to blame poor people themselves for their financial trouble. From 1986 to 2009, the proportion of people who attribute poverty to laziness and lack of willpower has grown to a little under 30 percent, with the proportion blaming “injustice in our society” conversely falling.
People’s attitudes towards poverty to some extent determine sentiments about health care, welfare benefits, and other collective interventions. Not surprisingly, the UK study found that more and more Brits believe government benefits are too high.
In the United States, the picture is, perhaps surprisingly, a bit more nuanced. The 2001 NPR poll shows that attitudes about welfare at that time were determined by the income of the person asked. Those who made more than twice the poverty level were almost twice as likely as those closer to being poor to say that welfare recipients had easy lives and could do very well without the benefits if only they tried.
This difference is significant. Since household income has been declining over time (and proportionally fewer individuals earn more than twice the poverty level), the silver lining of the 2008 crisis might be that more Americans start seeing poverty for what it is: not something anyone “deserves.” This could even help bring about more coherent anti-poverty policies when politicians, many of whom seem to want to appeal to the “poor people are lazy” sentiment as a way to obtain votes, realize their constituents understand reality better than they do.
And poverty is, in fact, becoming reality for more and more people in the United States.
In 2010 more people were recorded as living in poverty than in any of the previous 52 years for which rates have been published: 46.9 million (representing 15 percent of the population). About 17.2 million households were registered as food insecure for that same year, meaning they didn’t have consistent dependable access to enough food. This, again, is the highest number ever recorded in the United States. Even percentage-wise, poverty rates in 2010 were the highest they had been since 1993.
And poverty is not just something people “are,” something that might be inconvenient and often frustrating (though it surely is both of those things in copious amounts).
Poverty is a very real obstacle to exercising human rights, bringing with it substandard housing, under-resourced schooling, lack of health care, and at times unsafe neighbourhoods, as well as many other disadvantages. Children are particularly affected, since years of poorer quality education and potentially unhealthy living has consequences that to some extent continue even after a family pulls out of poverty—which only some ever do.
And not only is poverty an obstacle to exercising rights. It is also, in many cases, caused by rights violations. Four million more women than men live in poverty, and both African-Americans and Hispanics are over-represented amongst the poor. In 2010, women earned 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. For black women that figure is 68 cents, for Hispanic women 59. Unemployment rates fluctuate enormously according to sex, race, and marital status. Women constitute 65 percent of all part-time workers.
To be sure, everyone is ultimately responsible for how they deal with their circumstances, and some individuals pull out of poverty despite multiple odds stacked against them. But many more do not. This is not because poverty is inevitable. It is because it generally requires support for health care, education, housing, anti-discrimination initiatives, and other interventions at least partially sponsored by the government. Without addressing the growing poverty in the United States through collective action based on human rights, chances are that if you are poor you will stay poor. Through little fault of your own.