Poverty, inequality and work

poverty, inequality hard workWe were grateful for this piece from the Washington Post, which carefully connects the dots between Americans’ views about poverty and work and inequality. Americans might not like the nation’s growing levels of inequality, but it’s not likely they will ever be mobilized to do anything about it as long as they believe that the economic plight of individuals is largely caused by a lax work ethic. This article reviews the recent global Pew Research Center survey results that compared countries’ attitudes about whether or not people living in poverty are working hard enough. Not surprisingly, only one country, Nicaragua, managed to out-blame people living in poverty for their own circumstances than the United States. The United Kingdom and Uganda joined us with roughly one in four of those surveyed blaming inequality on the idea that some just aren’t working hard enough. Similarly, Americans were less likely to see the role that government economic policies play in inequality:

Another possibility is that many Americans hold the opinion because it jibes with notion that the United States is still a land of opportunity. Americans, after all, aren’t as quick to blame their government for the gap as people are elsewhere. Only 24 percent of the country believes economic policies are the most important reason for inequality, which is well below the median among all advanced economies Pew polled (32 percent), the median globally (29 percent), and Greece and Spain, where roughly half of the population says inequality is the government’s fault.

There are real consequences to these persistent attitudes and misconceptions about who’s to blame for poverty and inequality, one of which is highlighted in this article from the Atlantic about why, despite popularity in the polls, our country has not managed an increase in the ever-eroding minimum wage. In the article, the esteemed Barbara Ehrenreich points out that by now, Americans should know better:

 The Great Recession should have put the victim-blaming theory of poverty to rest. In the space of only a few months, millions of people entered the ranks of the officially poor—not only laid-off blue-collar workers, but also downsized tech workers, managers, lawyers, and other once-comfortable professionals. No one could accuse these “nouveau poor” Americans of having made bad choices or bad lifestyle decisions. They were educated, hardworking, and ambitious, and now they were also poor—applying for food stamps, showing up in shelters, lining up for entry-level jobs in retail. This would have been the moment for the pundits to finally admit the truth: Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.

And yet, public understanding of the causes and solutions of poverty and inequality have hardly budged. That’s why we have to tell a better and more consistent public story about poverty and the need for public, systemic solutions, and tell it over and over again.

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