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Poll: Fewer Americans blame poverty on the poor

As millions of Americans continue to struggle in a sluggish economy, a growing portion of the country says that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond individual control, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The poll shows a significant shift in American opinion on the causes of poverty since the last time the question was asked, nearly 20 years ago. In 1995, in the midst of a raging political debate about welfare and poverty, less than a third of poll respondents said people were in poverty because of issues beyond their control. At that time, a majority said that poverty was caused by "people not doing enough." Now, nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, attribute poverty to factors other than individual initiative.

People wait in line to receive free milk from the Milk from the Heart program in New York, Oct. 6, 2011.
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People wait in line to receive free milk from the Milk from the Heart program in New York, Oct. 6, 2011.

"In hard economic times, people become more sympathetic to the poor," says Martin Gilens, Ph.D., a political scientist at Princeton University. "In 1995, we were in a period of economic expansion. Even the less well-off benefitted considerably. Now we're in the most visible period of dire economic circumstances for Americans. If you look around and you see that there's high unemployment and a generally poor economy, you're more likely to explain poverty through those factors."

Meg York, 41, a Democrat in rural northern Maine, runs sales for a family farm. As a single mother making her money on a small farm, she says she can "understand the feeling of not being able to afford things."

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"As a teenager," York says, "I thought if you work hard enough in the United States of America, then it's your own fault you're poor. I adopted the conservative view around here. But my view has definitely morphed and changed over the years, and I see a bigger picture."

Though opinion shifts on the causes of poverty cross demographic lines, major divides remain. More than 60 percent of Democrats said forces outside of an individual's control are the most significant cause of poverty. The same was true of just 27 percent of Republicans.

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Men and women were also split: over half of women said poverty is structural, compared to just under forty percent of men.

A slight majority of white respondents still said that poverty was mainly a result of individual failings. But the number of whites who believe poverty is primarily caused by outside forces rose from 27 percent to 44 percent between 1995 and 2014. Among black respondents, 59 percent said poverty is caused in greater part by factors other than personal choice, compared to 45 percent in 1995.

Southerners as well as Americans without college degrees also logged dramatic shifts in the same direction.

Even among white Republican men, who are still more likely to believe that poverty is mostly a result of individual failure to try hard enough (38 percent percent of white men and 27 percent of Republicans said poverty was caused by factors outside individual control), the poll reveals a softening of opinion.

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Mike Vergere, 61, a Republican marketing manager in medical manufacturing company in the suburbs of St. Louis, says, "the first issue is that there are not enough jobs in this country that pay enough money so that people can live at the bare minimum to be able to make what we'd consider a living."

Other recent polling shows similar trends. A survey released last week by the Pew Center for People and the Press finds that Americans are now significantly more likely than they were in the mid-90s to say that life is hard for the poor because government benefits do not go far enough to help people live a decent life. The 90s were marked by economic growth and relative prosperity. Coupled with a Washington consensus that welfare was broken, Americans in large numbers flocked to the idea that the poor simply needed to work harder to achieve the American dream.

Yet despite the recent shift in attitudes about the causes of poverty away from an individual responsibility narrative, the Pew poll shows very little change in opinion about spending on government programs traditionally associated with poverty. And similarly, a 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed two decades after President Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it," more respondents chose "too much government welfare that prevents initiative" as the leading cause of poverty than any other factor.

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"Americans have complex contradictions in their attitudes," said Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that co-produced the NBC/WSJ poll.

In interviews, several respondents to the 2014 NBC/WSJ poll who said they believed poverty was caused by factors outside of individual control explained that they think too much government assistance can help lock poor Americans into poverty.

"When you consistently get something for doing nothing for it, you begin to accept it and expect it," Vergere said.

Yet most of these respondents also said they think that the government should do more to create greater access to jobs and educational opportunities. Others pointed to wealth inequality as a factor in producing poverty.

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"Without a good education, and without family money to support young people, it's hard to get ahead," said Donna Myers, 61, a conservative independent who works as an insurance agent in rural North Carolina and earned a college degree well into adulthood. "If you are born into a social economic group, you pretty much maintain that." Myers says part of the problem comes from low-wage jobs that don't pay enough to support workers.

Leslie McCall, Ph.D., a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies inequality and public opinion, says that Americans have held on to 90s era stigma about family safety-net programs, while becoming more invested in opportunity-building policies.

"Concerns about inequality, or poverty, are not associated with an increase in support for traditional forms of safety net like welfare," McCall says. "But they do associate with increased support for spending in education, increased earnings for people at the bottom or the middle, and access to jobs. People look around and see that conditions are not a result of individuals, but of structural problems."

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was based on nationwide telephone interviews of 1,000 adults, including 337 reached by cellphone. It was conducted June 11-15 by Public Opinion Strategies/Hart Research Associates and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Reporting contributed by Nona Willis Aronowitz.

—By Seth Freed Wessler, NBC News

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