June 20, 2005

The Individual, Society, or Both?

A while back David Brooks noticed a tidbit bobbing about in some recent Pew poll data: 76 percent of "poor Republicans," he declared, believe that most people can get ahead with hard work. Yet only 14 percent of Democrats, according to Brooks, believe the same. "Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grips of forces beyond their control." Now it's worth noting that Brooks misrepresented the actual data here. The 76 percent number is of "pro-government Republicans," only half of whom have incomes below $30,000 per year. Calling them "poor Republicans" is a bit misleading. (The "disadvantaged Democrat" group was actually poorer on average.) Nevertheless, grant that, in the poll, poor Democrats were more likely to say "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success for most people" than poor Republicans. So okay, then what does this mean?

At the time the op-ed came out, I thought the dichotomy seemed a bit odd. For starters, the belief about "forces beyond one's control" can include two very different things. One, that structural social and economic forces lead to poverty; and two, that fatalistic causes like bad luck or illness or whatnot lead to poverty. Obviously a person can believe a mix of those two ideas, but each one leads to pretty different conclusions. If you believe that structural forces are at the root of poverty, then you're going to be more likely to believe that some sort of drastic reorganization of society is necessary to combat poverty. But if you believe more in the "bad luck" theory of poverty then you're going to be more likely to believe that social insurance—ala Social Security or unemployment insurance or Medicaid—is the best way to help the poor. It's possible that poor Republicans, for instance, believe in fatalistic reasons but not in structural reasons. Maybe. That's a distinction worth exploring.

The other thing that struck me as odd about Brooks' dichotomy was that it's entirely possible to believe both that poverty exists for reasons outside a person's control, and that a person can get ahead through hard work. There's no reason it has to be either-or. In my (not at all vast) experience working with disadvantaged youths, most people, I found, really did believe both. That may surprise David Brooks, but it shouldn't: who on earth would want to believe that he or she is poor, that no amount of hard work will guarantee success, and that the only thing to do is sit around and wait for politicians in Washington to lend a helping hand? Very few people, I'd wager, ever think like this: it's too depressing of a worldview. My hunch is that the poll question Brooks cites obscures just as much as it reveals.

Anyway, I was planning to point all this out when the op-ed appeared, but didn't really have any evidence to back myself up, so I just let it drop. But earlier today I was reading a paper by Matthew Hunt, "The Individual, Society, or Both: Black, Latino and White Beliefs about the Causes of Poverty," that used polling data to bolster the above argument, somewhat. Hunt found that, in general, whites are more likely to single out individualistic causes of poverty (and success) than blacks or Latinos. Blacks are far, far more likely to cite structural explanations. But, here's the kicker: blacks and Latinos tend to attach importance to both individualistic and structural reasons for poverty and success. As it turns out, it really isn't either-or.

How does this work? Well, Hunt found that when whites say or believe, "I made it because of me," they tend to view "society as an open system in which people have similar chances, personal responsibility is the rule applied to everyone, and poverty gets explained in the terms of internal/individual-level factors." If I made it on my own, then anyone can. By contrast, among black and Latino respondents, "assuming personal responsibility, or saying 'I made it because of me,' does not preclude—indeed it can increase—the acknowledgment that structural barriers exist in society." Success breeds awareness of what sorts of hurdles need to be overcome. It's a real difference in outlook. (A follow-up study is here, though I can't access the full text.)

Now obviously this racial divide doesn't line up exactly with the dichotomy found in the Pew poll (although... only 22 percent of "pro-government Republicans are black or Latino, as compared with 46 percent of "disadvantaged Democrats). Nevertheless, the issue here is a bit more complicated than Brooks lets on.
-- Brad Plumer 9:37 AM || ||