National Youth Poverty Poll Ranks Lack of Jobs as #1 Cause of Poverty

Young People Favor Taxes on the Wealthy

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Descriptive Table

December 12, 2011

An often ignored demographic group, American young people, say that the top two causes of poverty are a lack of jobs (83.7 percent) followed by a lack of health insurance (64.3 percent) according to a new national survey of young Americans’ attitudes on poverty, released on Dec. 12. More than two thirds (67.7 percent) also cited the growing incomes of the wealthiest people as negatively affecting the quality of life of those with lower incomes. Almost three-quarters of respondents (73.8 percent) intend to vote in next year’s presidential elections.

Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom and students in his Economics of Poverty class collaborated with the research firm, Knowledge Networks, to conduct the national poll which queried more than 1,652 Americans aged 18-29, 60 percent of whom were Caucasian, 19 percent of whom were Hispanic and 13 percent were African-American.  Based on this sample, the margin of error for all respondents is approximately +/- 2.5 percent.  This online survey was conducted during November 2011 and was funded by Hamilton’s Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

Among those sampled, 38 percent indicated that their financial situation was worse than it was two years ago. The poor, non-whites and female respondents were more likely to indicate that their financial situation had worsened.

To measure attitudes toward poverty, respondents were asked how various national issues affected poverty, their perception of poor citizens’ handling of money, the causes of poverty and how and by who poor people should be helped. These are some of the significant findings:

  • 59.7 percent feel the wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor. Surprisingly a slightly higher percentage of the non-poor and a slightly higher percent (61.2) of those who plan to vote next year feel the wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor.
  • 62.6 percent of all respondents feel those earning $200,000 and above should pay more taxes.
  • 67.7 percent feel the government is morally obligated to help the poor, but 58.5 percent are not willing to pay more in taxes to help the poor.
  • 77 percent feel that government anti-poverty programs were not effective.  60.7 percent believe that anti-poverty programs discourage people from working although there was a significant difference in response rates by race with 69 percent of whites and 52 percent of non-whites agreeing that anti-poverty programs discourage people from working.
  • Despite these negative attitudes toward the effectiveness of government anti-poverty programs, about 70% of those who plan to vote next year are in favor of increasing food and housing assistance, the minimum wage, or tax-based assistance.
  • Respondents tended to answer that the poor put “the same amount of effort” into their work (46.4 percent) or even more effort (31.6 percent). Yet only 22 percent of respondents who answered that the poor exert more effort in their work also indicated in the following question that most poor have the ability to raise themselves out of poverty. Perhaps these responses indicate a belief that even with significant effort, barriers exist to upward mobility that prevent those below the poverty line from “working their way up.”
  • Overall, when asked if people were more likely to be poor because of bad luck or because of bad choices, 82.7 percent answered bad choices. Only 19% of the poor feel that poverty was a result of bad luck.
  • 51.8 percent of all respondents feel that poor households manage their money wisely although a far larger percentage (65) of non-whites agree as do whites (44).
  • Similarly when asked if an average poor person was to receive $5,000, would he or she use the money responsibly, 49.6 percent said yes. Yet, almost 6 percent fewer answered affirmatively when asked if a person who was not poor and received $5,000 would handle the money in a similar manner.
  • When asked how many of the poor have the ability to raise themselves out of poverty, 86 percent answer that most or some do.
  • Despite the fact that the majority of respondents felt that the poor manage their money wisely, 86.9 percent do not favor changing our government food assistance programs to cash transfer programs.
  • 75.3 percent support increasing the minimum wage.
  • When asked what would help the poor the most - reducing unemployment, raising the minimum wage, increasing cash transfers or earned income credits – the majority chose reducing unemployment.
  • If the government was to reduce its overall spending, 53.4 percent point to national defense as the first area from which cuts should be made when the selection includes infrastructure spending, programs for low income families and social security.
  • When asked how they would rank these issues – unemployment, health care, the national debt, national security – if they were president, 80 percent choose unemployment as their first or second most important issue.
  • When asked if they would be willing to pay more in federal income tax if the purpose was to help the poor, non-whites are more likely to say yes than whites. Even more surprising 49% of the poor would agree to pay higher taxes in order to help the poor while only 35% of the non-poor would be willing to do so.

Hagstrom and his students at Hamilton devised the poll questions, which were distributed via the Knowledge Networks Panel, an online, non-volunteer access panel whose members are chosen through a statistically valid sampling frame covering 99% of the U.S. population. Webcasts presenters include Hagstrom and students Sarah Flisnik,  Chiranjeeva Dayananda,  Lukas Bridenbeck,  Rebekah Gibson and  Philip DiDonato.

This survey is one of a series of national youth polls funded by Hamilton’s Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. Previous polls have addressed focused on young Americans attitudes toward the environment, abortion, patriotism, immigration, politics and the U.S. Senate, Muslim Americans, gay issues, gun regulation and race issues.


Paul Hagstrom

Professor of Economics

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