Republicans to the Poor: “You Built That!"

According to a new survey, a majority of Republicans agree that individual behavior—and not circumstances—are responsible for poverty.


Life is not a Horatio Alger novel, and whether you’re poor or rich has a lot—if not everything—to do with circumstances beyond your control, from the wealth and education of your parents, to the circumstances of your environment, the policies of your government, and the broad structure of your environment.

But don’t tell that to Republican voters.

According to a new survey on inequality and public opinion from the Pew Research Center, Republicans are more likely than anyone else to have an Alger-style view of class and mobility. Fifty-seven percent say that “working harder than others” has more to do with a person being rich than anything else, despite the clear fact that “hard work” isn’t rewarded equally. When asked about inherited advantages, however, only 32 percent say they play a big part.

On the other side of things, 51 percent of Republicans say that a “lack of effort” is mainly to blame if a person is poor. That poverty has something to do with circumstances is dismissed; just 32 percent say that things “beyond control” are to blame for people being poor.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Democrats hold the opposite view. Just 27 percent say that wealth is the product of hard work and effort; 63 percent say that previous advantages are the key to the upper class, a view that jibes with research on economic mobility in the United States. Overall, if you’re born near the bottom—or stationed at the top—you’re likely to stay there. That’s not to say that movement can’t happen, but it’s not common.

This poll offers useful context for conservative rhetoric. When Mitt Romney disparages the “47 percent” or when GOP lawmakers show insensitivity to the poor, they are—in one way or another—expressing the views of their constituents, who are skeptical that government can help the poor, and view class status in terms of personal responsibility.

Indeed, it also explains the GOP’s focus on marriage and culture as explanations for disadvantage. After all, if behavior causes poverty, than the obvious solution is to encourage better behavior. In this view, new programs—or greater funding for existing ones—would only exacerbate “dependency.”

The ugly aspect to this narrative, of course, is the idea that impoverished communities deserve the blame for their own immiseration. It’s “cultural pathology” that explains the disadvantage of inner-city African Americans, not the policies that isolated communities and robbed them of opportunity.

In any case, it’s not hard to sum up the views of many Republican voters on wealth and inequality. If you have a high income, you built that, and if you don’t, you built that too.