July 09, 2014
Any traces of the "compassionate conservatism" championed by George W. Bush in the early days of his administration has long since evaporated under the heat of Republican extremism. Today, more than three-quarters of American conservatives think the poor "have it easy," while fewer than 10 percent believe the "poor have hard lives" and receive inadequate assistance.
What's more, many conservatives believe the poor have easy lives because "they get government benefits without doing anything," ignoring not only the limits of public aid, but also the obstacles that must be overcome to obtain food stamps, Medicaid, day care, public housing, and other kinds of government assistance. In fact, more than 80 percent of conservatives also say that the government programs on which the poor so desperately depend do more harm than good.
Can four out of five conservatives really be so hard-hearted that they cannot imagine how profoundly difficult life is for people without enough money to feed their children, to fill an essential prescription for an ill parent, or to access a safe place to leave an infant while they try to find a part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job that gives them no hope of escaping what in many cases are slum- and crime-ridden neighborhoods? "Have it easy?" Really?
These findings are consistent in that more than half of conservatives believe that people are poor because of "lack of effort," while fewer than 30 percent of conservatives believe poverty results from "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." Despite all we have learned over the years about the causes of poverty and related ills, conservatives seem bound and determined to reduce the issue to the simple fact of people making bad decisions and doing bad things.
That kind of thinking ought to be greeted with dismay by most charities, even if their missions address problems other than poverty. Blaming the victim does not make the work of nonprofits any easier, does not incline people to support well-meaning interventions, and, at the end of the day, is the opposite of charitable. Indeed, with respect to most problems of concern to nonprofits, there is no path forward if people are seen as the sole source of their own troubles.