Does the Public Know What It Thinks About the Safety Net?

“The public remains ambivalent about the role that government should play in helping the poor,” says the Pew Research Center. This is its top-line conclusion from the results of a poll it conducted in April.

“Ambivalent” may be too kind a word. The public, it seems, has contradictory views of the safety-net.

On the one hand, 71% of Americans surveyed agreed that poor people have become too dependent on government programs.

On the other hand, 59% agreed that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep. The same percent agreed that the government has a responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.

Best I can figure is that a large majority of our fellow citizens view poor people, when so named, as wholly other. They can’t imagine themselves as among “the poor” — and don’t think of anyone they know that way.

But they can imagine themselves — or someone they care about — suffering from hunger and/or homelessness.

They can imagine not being able to take care of themselves — becoming severely disabled, for example, or declining into senility. They can imagine a close relative or friend having no care at all unless they provide it.

And the majority believe that we collectively, as Americans, have an obligation to provide some sort of safety net — but not that “hammock” those wholly other poor people recline in.

Or at least most of those who are Democrats and Independents do. Only 36% of Republicans endorse the food/shelter guarantee and only 40% the care for those who can’t care for themselves.

The rest apparently embrace what economist Jared Bernstein coined the term YOYO policies for. You’re on your own, for better or worse.

But at least they’re consistent — and like as not will be until they’re out of money for food and have to rely on some over-stressed charitable organization to feed them.

In the meantime, the better-off are more dependent on a host of government programs than poor people are — airport traffic control, which keeps the planes they’re on from crashing, regulatory agencies that, by and large, protect them from fraudulent stock offerings, tax subsidies for their vacation home purchases and show horses, etc.

And what about programs that benefit the businesses they own or invest in — crop insurance, trade promotion and patent protection, for example?

Indulging in a little class warfare here, I guess.

My main point is that we all depend on government programs. But we don’t fret about this — only about poor people who perforce depend on government programs to meet their basic survival needs.

Well, most of us in the great American public fret. And no wonder, given all the rhetoric about how poor people could pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they cared to — or wouldn’t be poor if they’d made responsible choices.

But I’d like to think that you reading this blog are among the 29% for whom poverty itself, not dependency on safety net programs is the real issue our government should address.


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