NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Despite evidence to the contrary, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center finds that a quarter of all Americans believe poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough.
This stands in stark contrast to prevailing views in many other nations. For instance, in Germany, Israel, and Italy, only 10%, 7%, and 3% of the population, respectively, believe lack of hard work is the primary factor in someone's low income.
The only other nations that attributed poverty to the unwillingness to work hard at a rate equal to the U.S. were England and Uganda, while Nicaragua was the only nation where the populace subscribed to that belief at even a higher rate--31%. Only 10% of the global population believes lower income people simply don’t work hard enough.
Meanwhile, only 13% of Americans ascribe the growing number of low-income households to widening disparities in income. This falls well below the global average of 19%.
“The survey…highlights how Americans are different from many others around the world on questions related to individualism, a value often associated with American exceptionalism,” notes the Pew study.
In particular, Pew found that more than half (57%) of Americans disagreed with the idea that success is “pretty much determined” by forces outside of one’s control. This rated much higher than the global median of 38%. Moreover, 73% of Americans believed hard work was critical to getting ahead in life--compared to the global median of 50%.
Alan Boulanger, a software engineer from Massachusetts, disagrees with it being a matter of not working hard enough.
“The reality is most poor people are working poor--working a bad job that offers low pay with zero safety nets in terms of time off or health insurance or sick days,” says Boulanger. “If you calculate the odds of getting sick and the out of pocket costs when they do get sick - it's a certainty that [low income people] will fall further behind and remain in the poverty cycle.”
The popularity of the opinion in the U.S. that low income people simply lack a proper work ethic ignores the rapidly widening gap between the rich and middle and lower classes--at a rate that is not only quickly becoming unsustainable, but that is also globally exceptional.
In fact, according to a paper called "Controversies about the Rise of American Inequality" recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concentrating wealth at the top has played a significant role in rising income inequality in the U.S.
"This skewing of pay at the very top in the United States contrasts with other countries," states the paper, authored by Robert J. Gordon and Ian Dew-Becker, who found that the top 10% of earners saw their overall income rise 27% between 1966 and 2001. “America's CEOs have had their pay inflated by generous stock options and having their pay set by peers on corporate boards, the survey finds, as well as institutional differences between the United States and other nations, including such things as regulations, unions, and social norms.”
Gordon and Dew-Becker also found other factors--such as changes in labor’s share of income, a lack of labor mobility, the gender income gap, health disparities in poorer people and the decline of unionization among the workforce--as part of the blame for increased income inequality in the U.S.
In addition to that paper, a recent study at Harvard Business School found that Americans tend to underestimate the country's CEO-worker pay gap.
Only 24% of the Americans believe economic policies are the most important reason for inequality, which is well below the median among all advanced economies Pew polled (32%) and the global median (29%). In Greece and Spain, roughly half of the population blames government policies for income inequality.
Many believe that Americans blame poverty on the unwillingness to work because of the over-mythologizing of the United States as a nation where anything is possible.
“[M]any Americans hold the opinion, because it jibes with notion that the United States is still a land of opportunity,” wrote Roberto A. Ferdman in the Washington Post last month. “Americans, after all, aren't as quick to blame their government for the gap as people are elsewhere.”
This, despite the fact that Americans are actually working much longer hours than 30 years ago, often including weekend and evening shifts.
“Americans work longer and weirder hours than anyone else,” wrote Matt O'Brien, also of the Washington Post. “[W]e've become a nation of workaholics, now logging an extra 250 to 400 more hours a year at the office Europe does. To put that in perspective, that's an additional six to ten weeks of work a year.”
Even with all those longer hours, wages across the bottom half of the income latter have been found to be stagnant or dropping.
Meanwhile, some studies have even shown that a child from a poor family who goes to college and gets good grades will probably still not fare as well as a child from an affluent family who succeed academically or work as hard.
Yet, despite the animosity it seems many Americans harbor toward their more destitute peers, another Pew study found that 54% of Americans favor taxing the wealthy to expand aid for the poor.
“Majorities of Americans believe the government can do at least something to reduce poverty and the gap between the rich and everyone else,” notes Pew.
--Written by Laura Kiesel for MainStreet