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Why most political conservatives believe the poor have it easy

Published: Tuesday, July 8 2014 1:30 p.m. MDT

Moe, who has been in and out of a home for eighteen years, refers to Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park as the biggest ghetto in Utah on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

According to the vast majority of political conservatives, the poor "have it easy" because of government benefits, reports a new survey from Pew.

The survey asked participants to read between two statements and choose which statement comes closest to their view: "Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return," or "Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently."

Of those who were identified as "steadfast conservatives," 86 percent agreed that "poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return," Pew reported. And roughly 80 percent of "business conservatives" and young conservatives agreed.

The survey also found "over half of conservatives believe that an individual's poverty is based on 'lack of effort on his or her part,' rather than circumstances beyond their own control," the Huffington Post reported.

The public as a whole is split in their views of whether government aid to the poor is justified. While 44 percent say the poor 'have it easy' because of government benefits, 47 percent believe the poor's lives are hard, and that government benefits "don't go far enough to help them live decently," Pew found.

While the report clearly identifies a wide gap between conservatives and liberals in their views of the poor and the social safety net, some question the methodology of the survey, which forces participants to choose between polar options.

Vox writer Andrew Prokop points out that Pew's analysis "doesn't just sort Americans by demographic factors like age, race and gender. Instead it asks respondents a series of questions designed to sort them by ideology. Respondents have a stark choice between two very different options."

That means the survey options are fairly polarized: "Though the actual survey respondents could also answer "don't know," it's true that this format doesn't allow for much moderation or nuance," Prokop writes.

And Pew groups respondents "not just into the traditional 'liberal' and 'conservative' categories, but offers more specific coalitions such as 'faith and family left' and 'business conservatives,’ ” The New Republic reported. You can find out where you fit in Pew's political typology by taking the quiz here.

A writer at the Washington Post said, "I have a hard time understanding how you could read about the experience of families relying on food stamps to eat, or those trying to manage chronic conditions with Medicaid, and conclude that these people somehow have it easy." He included statistics like the poor are "three times less likely to have health insurance coverage, and more likely to put off or skip necessary medical treatment as a result," according to the 2010 U.S. Census survey.

The poor are three times as likely to be victims of crime, researchers at the Brookings Institute found. Poor children attending high-poverty schools have teachers who are on average less effective than lower-poverty ones, a 2010 study found. And the poor die younger, a 2013 study from the University of Washington found.

"The notion that poor people have it easy is at odds with the data," the Post's Christopher Ingraham writes.

Ann Althouse, a libertarian blogger, criticized the survey for forcing participants to choose an extreme position on the social safety net. "I suspect most people would have trouble with both statements," Althouse writes on her blog. "But to say that your view comes closest to the first statement is not to say that you 'think the poor 'have it easy.' It's just to reveal that your tendency is to think the government's safety net is too big or too soft or perhaps that too many people are losing their incentive to strive because benefits create dependency."

amcdonald@deseretnews.com

Twitter | @amymcdonald89

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