November 5, 2003

The 2004 Political Landscape

Part 4: Success, Poverty and Government Responsibility

Americans feel a strong sense of personal empowerment and have long valued the benefits of hard work. If anything, those sentiments are shared even more widely today than when the Center’s values surveys began in 1987. By more than two-to-one (67%-30%), the public rejects the idea that “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” Opinion was more divided regarding this value from the late 1980s through the early 1990s ­ in 1993, as many as 41% said they felt success was outside their personal control, a number that has fallen by 11 points over the past decade.

Correspondingly, about two-thirds of Americans (68%) disagree with the statement “Hard work offers little guarantee of success,” while just 30% agree with that statement. Opinions on this issue also were much more even divided in the early 1990s; in 1992, 45% endorsed the idea that hard work does not offer a clear path to success. By comparison, there has been more consistency in the public’s overwhelmingly positive view of people who become wealthy through hard work. Since 1992, no fewer than 87% have said they admire people who have gotten rich through hard work.

Yet while Americans feel empowered and applaud individual enterprise, they increasingly see the need for a government safety net for the needy. Two-thirds (66%) say it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t care for themselves. That represents a modest increase from recent values surveys ­ and a more significant change from 1994, when anti-government sentiments were the most pervasive over the past 16 years.

A comparable percentage (65%) believes that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep. That is in line with levels in previous surveys, with the exception of 1991 when 73% said they agreed with that idea.

What may be more surprising is that, in spite of the rising budget deficit, a 54% majority thinks the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt. In 1994, as hostility toward the government reached a high point, just 41% backed more aid for the poor, even if it increased the deficit.

While Americans support a government safety net, a large majority (71%) continues to think that poor people have become too dependent on government assistance. But that number has declined significantly since reaching a peak in 1994 (85%). And a steady six-in-ten believe that many people think they can get ahead without working hard.

Democrats Feel Less Empowered

Compared with a decade ago, significantly fewer Republicans and Democrats believe success is outside of a person’s control and that hard work offers little guarantee of success. But the decline has been steeper among Republicans and, consequently, the partisan gap over these values has grown.

A decade ago, more than a third of Republicans (35%) agreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside of our control.” In the current survey, just one-in-five Republicans hold that view. The same pattern is evident in Republican opinions on whether hard work offers little guarantee of success ­ 33% said that in 1994 compared with 19% in the current survey.

Fewer Democrats also hold those beliefs than did so in the early 1990s, but the change has been somewhat less dramatic. More than a third of Democrats (36%) think success is largely outside of an individual’s control and the same number (36%) say hard work offers little guarantee of success. The partisan gap on both values as wide as it has even been in the values surveys.

As recently as 1997, partisan differences over the relationship between hard work and success had disappeared ­ 32% of Democrats and 31% of Republicans said that hard work provided little guarantee of success. Since then, agreement among Democrats has grown marginally (from 32% to 36%), while it has fallen sharply among Republicans (from 31% to 19%).

Roughly three-in-ten political independents think that success lies outside a person’s control (31%) and that hard work offers little guarantee of success (32%). Independents are closer to Democrats than Republicans on both of these values.

Race and Personal Efficacy

Race also is an important factor in these views. Only about a quarter of whites (27%) say success is determined by outside forces, compared with 43% of blacks. Attitudes toward this value have fluctuated over the years, but a decade ago, 39% of whites and a solid majority of African Americans (56%) subscribed to this opinion. Going back to 1988, an even higher percentage of African Americans (61%) believed that success was mostly outside a person’s control.

There is an almost identical difference between the races in views of whether hard work offers little guarantee of success (41% of blacks, 27% of whites agree). Again, the percentage of whites and African Americans holding this opinion has declined markedly since the early 1990s. In 1991, 44% of whites and 56% of blacks said that hard work offered little guarantee of success.

Bigger Differences Over Safety Net

The partisan divide over the responsibilities of government to alleviate poverty is much more striking. As might be expected, Democrats are much more supportive than Republicans of a social safety net. But the gap has increased even more in recent years, as an increasing number of Democrats endorse government help for the needy.

Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats (79%) say it is government’s responsibility to “take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” That represents a nine-point increase since 2002 (70%) and is the highest percentage of Democrats to express this view since the late 1980s. A narrow majority of Republicans (54%) agree; that marks little change from last year (52%) or that late 1990s.

The partisan gap is even larger over whether the government should “guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.” Roughly eight-in-ten Democrats (81%) say the government should provide such a guarantee, a modest rise from last year (78%) but a nine-point gain since 1999 (72%). By contrast, fewer than half of Republicans (46%) believe the government should guarantee food and housing, a percentage that has not changed significantly over the past few years.

The views of political independents fall roughly between those of Democrats and Republicans on these issues, but the gap between independents and Democrats has been growing. Four years ago, 73% of Democrats and 63% of independents said government had a responsibility to take care of people who can’t care for themselves; today the gap is 17 points (79% of Democrats, 62% of independents). Similarly, differences between Democrats and independents over whether the government should guarantee every citizen food and housing have grown sharply since 1999 (from four points to 17 points).

Deficits and Aid for the Poor

The political differences over government’s role in aid for the poor are seen most clearly in the question of whether the government should go into debt to help more needy people. Fully 72% of Democrats say that it should ­ an increase of 20 points since 1997. That is the highest percentage of Democrats expressing this opinion since the values surveys began in 1987.

As a result, the gap between Democrats and Republicans ­ as well as between Democrats and independents ­ has grown substantially. About four-in-ten Republicans (39%) think the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt. The percentage of Republicans who endorse that idea has been growing steadily since 1994 (from 25% that year), but the partisan gap has also widened and now stands at 33 points. (See chart page 8.)

Half of independents think the government should help more poor people even if it adds to the deficit. Independents’ opinions on this issue have not changed much in recent years, though like Republicans, more independents now support government aid to the poor even if it expands the deficit (50% now, 39% in 1994). Yet the differences between Democrats and independents on this issue are larger than ever (22 points).

White, Black Democrats Concur on Safety Net

While African Americans have been consistently more supportive than whites of government aid to the poor, racial differences among Democrats have narrowed considerably. And that is because of a sharp rise in support among white Democrats for helping more needy people even at the cost of adding to the deficit.
Seven-in-ten white Democrats hold that opinion today, up from 60% last year and 52% in 1987. Views among black Democrats, by comparison, have been more consistent: 78% of African American Democrats believe government should help more needy people even if it adds to the deficit. That marks no change from last year (77%) and a modest increase since 1999 (70%).

Poor Too Dependent? Fewer Democrats Agree

Consistent with greater Democratic support for government aid for the poor, Democrats also are less likely than Republicans to say that poor people are too dependent on government help. In the current survey, about six-in-ten Democrats (63%) agree with the statement “Poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.” The number of Democrats who endorse this view has steadily declined in recent years, from 80% in 1994.

The shift among Republicans on this issue has been much more modest. Through much of the 1990s, roughly nine-in-ten Republicans consistently said poor people were too reliant on the government. In the current survey, 84% of Republicans express that view.

While the partisan gap over this issue remains substantial, differences between the races have narrowed. About seven-in-ten whites (71%) and two-thirds (66%) of African Americans believe the poor have become too dependent on government aid. A year ago, there was a much larger racial gap in these attitudes (12 points).

Moreover, more black Democrats than white Democrats now say that the poor have become too reliant on government assistance (67% of black Democrats, 60% of white Democrats). This is the first time that has occurred since Pew began asking this question in 1992.

The Slacker Factor

More broadly, a consistent majority of Americans fault the work ethic of their fellow citizens. Six-in-ten agree with the statement “Many people today think they can get ahead without working hard and making sacrifices.” That percentage has changed little over the years, but as is the case with many values regarding the poor and government aid, partisan differences have grown.

Only about half of Democrats (51%) feel people think they can get ahead without working hard, which is the lowest level of Democratic agreement since Pew began asking this question. In 1994, 63% of Democrats expressed this view. Republican attitudes have been much more consistent: two-thirds of Republicans (66%) believe many people think they can get ahead without sacrifice, little changed from previous surveys.

In contrast, there are only modest differences between whites and African Americans on this question. Six-in-ten whites (61%) and nearly as many African Americans (56%) think that many people today think they can advance without working hard. This is about the same as in previous values surveys.