What do you think makes someone wealthy? I don't mean in the philosophical “is true wealth actually happiness and not money” sense; what I mean is, why do you think some people are rich and others are poor? According to a new survey, your answer likely depends greatly on where you fall politically. When it comes to why Democrats and Republicans believe people are rich or poor, each party has significantly different answers.
The recent survey that comes from Pew Research Center didn’t ask people their opinions on economic policy or solutions to ending poverty in the United States. It started with the fundamental question on which these other issues lie: What makes someone rich or poor? For Republicans, the majority believe the answer lies in hard work. For Democrats, circumstances beyond a person’s control. And honestly, these beliefs are extremely telling.
You can read the full study here, but here's the short version of how each side sees it: 66 percent of Republicans said people become rich because they “worked harder”; 29 percent of Democrats said the same. 60 percent of Democrats said that a person becomes rich because of “advantages they had in life”; 21 percent of Republicans said the same. These trends remain true when you ask why someone is poor.
56 percent of Republicans said people are poor due to “lack of effort”; 32 percent of Democrats said the same. However, 71 percent of Democrats said a person is poor due to “circumstances beyond control” where only 19 percent of Republicans said the same. That is where party line divisions are the widest.
Overall, the public is fairly evenly divided on why a person is rich, with 45 percent saying they worked harder and 43 percent attributing it to life advantages. There has, however, been a slight shift in opinion in recent years when it comes to what makes someone wealthy. In 2014 and 2015, more people said life advantages lead to someone being rich. Opinions on why someone is poor, meanwhile, have remained fairly constant. Overall, when asked why someone is poor, 53 percent of the public say it has to do with circumstances beyond a person’s control and 34 percent attributed it to “lack of effort.”
The stats, of course, open up an interesting dialogue — and one which might explain a lot about where our country is right now:
Is One Side Right?
Are these questions overly simplifying an incredibly complicated issue? Of course. What causes poverty or creates wealth is not a one-size-fits-all answer. However, studies have shown that when it comes to wealth, where you come from largely determines where you end up in life. As FiveThirtyEight put it in 2016, rich kids stay rich and poor kids stay poor. Things like where you grew up, how much your parents made, and whether or not your parents were married are all factors in determining whether you are more likely to be rich or poor as an adult.
There are also significant racial divides when it comes to wealth. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty takes an in depth look at wealth divides in their piece, “Who is poor?”. Based on the most recent census information from 2015, children who are black and Hispanic are more likely to live below the poverty line than their white peers. More than 31 percent of black children and almost 29 percent of Hispanic children were living in poverty in 2015, compared to less than 20 percent of children overall. These trends remain true throughout time: significantly more children of color live in poverty than white children.
While not an all-determining cause-and-effect, circumstances beyond a person’s control do statistically play a large role in whether a person is rich or poor.
Will We Ever Agree?
This likely comes as little surprise, but the partisan gap on what determines wealth has widened in recent years. The same is true across many politicized issues as we are growing more politically polarized as a country. Unfortunately if you’re looking for something to blame, it’s not as simple as social media. Echo chambers that contribute to the lack of diversity in opinion we hear regularly are not limited to our Facebook feeds. Where we get news and information from also depends greatly on whether we lean red or blue. Again, that’s probably not a big surprise. However, it is significant as we try to understand how we’ve can begin to address issues we’ve become so divided on.
When we aren’t able to agree on a fundamental part of a problem, finding a way to solve is seemingly impossible. The Pew study also broke down answers by gender, education level, and income. As education level increased, the amount of people who said people who are poor because of circumstances beyond control also increased. Significantly more women were likely to attribute being poor to circumstances beyond control than a person’s lack of effort (60 percent versus 26 percent, respectively). People who made more than $75,000 a year were more likely to say a person is rich because they worked harder. However, a majority (57 percent) also said a person is poor because of circumstances beyond control.
If we are able to see how our own experiences shape our perspective, how our opinions are determined by a number of things both within and beyond our control, perhaps we can start to acknowledge the same for others.