new addition to the HEART is our
Attitudes Toward the Poor
by: Dr. Catherine Borshuk
Department of Psychology
This study assessed
attitudes toward the poor using just-world beliefs, external/structural
attributions for poverty, and internal/individualistic attributions for
wealth as predictors. Just-world beliefs are the extent to which people
believe the world is a just or unjust place, and that people get what
they deserve. High levels of just-world beliefs frequently contribute to
schemas that are associated with victim blaming (e.g., the rape victim
must have done something to provoke it). Attributions are indicators of
the characteristics (or traits, motives, etc.) that people ascribe to
themselves or others. This study assessed internal/individualistic
attributions for wealth (e.g., ambition, perseverance, etc.), and
external/structural attributions for poverty (e.g., no benefits, low
paying jobs, etc.). The significance of holding just-world beliefs and
of making internal attributions for wealth and external attributions for
poverty in relationship to attitudes toward the poor was analyzed using
multiple regression analysis to predict attitudes toward poor persons.
In the sample (N = 112), just-world beliefs were found to be a
significant predictor of attitudes toward the poor. Participants having
high just-world beliefs had negative attitudes toward the poor, and
participants who believed the world is unjust had more positive
attitudes toward the poor. Attributions for poverty and wealth were not
found to be significant predictors of attitudes toward the poor.
Approximately 32.3 million persons
(11.8%) in the United States live at or below the official poverty level
(U. S. Census Bureau, 2000a), and the average income deficit needed to
raise poor families above the poverty threshold is $6,687 per family.
Economic trends predict that the gap between the rich and poor will
continue to widen. This economic disadvantage is especially great for
certain ethnic and racial groups, and more so for households headed by
single mothers (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000b). On virtually all indices of
social and economic status among citizens of the United States, African
Americans and other racial minorities fall below whites, and women fall
below men. Income for the poor has remained relatively steady while
upper level income continues to increase steadily (U.S. Census Bureau,
2000b). Unfortunately it is also these populations that tend to be
seriously underrepresented in US Census Bureau surveys (viz.,
homelessness, transience, etc.), and therefore these estimates are not
likely to provide an accurate representation of the poor population.
Research indicates that stereotypes and
attributions for poor people and poverty are overwhelmingly negative in
the United States (Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001; Bullock,
1999). The act of attribution is one in which one ascribes or imputes a
characteristic (or trait, emotion or motive, etc.) to oneself or another
person. Several studies have identified three fundamental attributions
for poverty: individualistic/internal, structural/external, and
fatalistic (Bullock, Williams, & Limbert, 2001; Cozzarelli et al., 2001;
Bullock, 1999; Furnham, 1982). Individualistic/internal attributions are
those that ascribe personal characteristics of individuals as causes for
poverty (e.g., laziness, immorality, and alcoholism).
Structural/external attributions are defined as those causes of poverty
outside the sphere of the individual control (e.g., social environment,
economic conditions, prejudice, and innate economic inequality).
Fatalistic attributions are those described as bad luck, illness, fate,
etc. Recent research has found that persons in the United States tend to
favor individualistic/internal explanations for poverty (Bullock et al.,
2001; Cozzarelli et al., 2001; Bullock, 1999), although attributions for
poverty are also correlated with sociodemogaphic variations (e.g., age,
There has been surprisingly little
research on attitudes toward poverty and the poor as a stigmatized or
stereotyped group, despite the available data regarding attitudes and
stereotypes toward other disadvantaged groups (e.g., ethnic/racial
groups, gays and lesbians). Often these groups suffer stereotyping
and/or social stigmas (e.g., ethnic/racial groups, single mothers), and
also tend to comprise the majority of the population living at or below
federal poverty guidelines or lower levels of living standard (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2000a; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000b). For example, poverty
rates for 1999 as reported by the U.S. Census (2000b) for Blacks were
23.6%, for Hispanics were 22.8%, for Asians (and Pacific Islanders) were
10.7%, and for single mothers an astounding 53% (U. S. Census Bureau,
Prior research has shown that attitudes
toward the poor in the United States tend to be negative (Cozzarelli et
al., 2001; Atherton, Gemmel, Hagenstad, Holt, Jensen, O'Hara, & Rehner,
1993). Studies have shown that reporting negative attitudes toward the
poor are highly correlated with individualistic/internal attributions
for poverty, and positive attitudes toward the poor have been reported
as positively correlating with structural/external attributions for
poverty (Bullock et al., 2001; Cozzarelli et al., 2001; Iyengar, 1990;
Smith & Stone, 1989). Americans typically believe that individuals are
responsible for their status in systems of social and economic
inequality. There have been suggestions that poverty serves a societal
purpose and is a necessary part of our social structure. Persons in low
positions are kept there for the benefit of those in high positions
(Gans, 1989). To eliminate the poor would be to eliminate the low-wage
labor pool, physically dangerous work, temporary work, and undignified
and menial jobs. Furthermore, attitudes toward and attributions for
poverty have been linked to the belief that the world is a just place
where people deserve what they get (Furnham, 1982).
Lerner's Belief in a Just World theory
presumes that persons either believe that the world is a just place and
that people get what they deserve, or that the world is not a just place
and that events occur by chance (Lerner, 1980). Those with high
just-world beliefs attribute poverty and other negative circumstances to
one's behavior and personal characteristics, concluding that the poor
person somehow deserves to be poor. The person's economic status is due
to something the person did or failed to do, therefore they deserved it
or had it coming. Many studies have correlated just-world beliefs with
attributions and/or attitudes with some success (Bullock et al., 2001;
Cozzarelli et al., 2001; Furnham, 1982). Although some have questioned
the reliability of the psychometric scales measuring just-world beliefs
(Lea & Fekken, 1993; O'Conner, Morrison, & Morrison, 1993), most studies
have shown significant results with the measurement. And, Furnham (1993)
reported that people having high just-world beliefs had more negative
perceptions and attitudes toward the poor.
Research pertaining to poverty and
attitudes toward the poor could serve as a catalyst for political
policy, education, healthcare, and various other issues concerning this
population. Poverty continues to be a significant problem in the United
States and globally, yet the poor are apt to be devalued and
marginalized. Minority group members (e.g., the poor) are objectively
worse off than they would be if stereotypes and prejudice did not exist.
They suffer psychologically, economically, and physically. Attitudes
form quickly and easily, yet resist change. More importantly, the poor
are often the victims of categorization, viewed as the social outgroup,
and perceived as homogenous; they are all the same (e.g., lazy, immoral,
Rubin and Peplau (1975) found that
just-world beliefs frequently tend to be polar in nature, extending
between total acceptance and total rejection of the perception that the
world is a just place. Given the previous research, it would seem
appropriate to hypothesize that those having higher just-world beliefs
will report lower levels of agreement with structural/external
attributions for poverty, will report higher levels of agreement with
individualistic/internal attributions for wealth, and additionally have
more negative attitudes toward the poor. Conversely, those having lower
just-world beliefs will report higher levels of agreement with
structural/external attributions for poverty, lower levels of agreement
with individualistic/internal attributions for wealth, as well as having
more positive attitudes toward the poor.
One-hundred and twelve undergraduate
students (76 women, 44 men) enrolled in introductory psychology courses
at Indiana University South Bend volunteered to participate in this
study in order to partially fulfill a psychology course requirement.
Seventy-one percent of respondents were White/Caucasian, 22% were
Black/African American, 3% were Asian, 1% were Hispanic, and 3%
self-identified as ``other''. Fifty-seven percent of participants
reported no personal history of public assistance (e.g., food stamps,
welfare, or housing subsidies), 42% reported some history of public
assistance, and 1% did not know whether they or their immediate family
had any history of receiving public assistance.
Participants were asked to complete a
packet of questionnaires. The first part of the questionnaire asked
sociodemographic questions (gender, age, ethnicity, and public
assistance history). The second questionnaire was Rubin and Peplau's
20-item Belief in a Just World scale (Rubin, & Peplau, 1973). The third
questionnaire was a modified 17-item Attributions for Poverty
Questionnaire. The fourth questionnaire was a modified 8-item
Attributions for Wealth Questionnaire. The Structural Attributions for
Poverty and Attributions for Wealth Questionnaires contained selected
items from previously tested scales (Bullock et al., 2001). The fifth
questionnaire was a 37-item Attitudes Toward the Poor Questionnaire
(Atherton et al., 1993). With the exception of the demographic
questionnaire, all questionnaires employed five-point Likert scales.
Participants rated their level of agreement from 1 (strongly agree) to 5
Belief in a just world.
Rubin and Peplau's Belief in a Just World Scale is intended to measure
to what extent one believes that the world is a just and fair place
where one gets what one deserves. High scorers on this scale have been
found to denigrate and blame innocent victims for their plight (Rubin &
Peplau, 1973). Twenty statements (e.g., good deeds often go unnoticed
and unrewarded, people who meet with misfortune often have brought on
themselves) were used to measure the degree to which individuals endorse
the Belief in a Just World. Cozzarelli et al., (2001) reported a
coefficient alpha of 0.57; although low, it is typical of previously
reported values (Lea & Fekken, 1993; O'Conner, Morrison, & Morrison,
1996). Cozzarelli et al., (2001) reported moderate agreement with
just-world beliefs (M = 3.63, SD = 0.41), on a seven-point Likert scale.
Attributions for poverty.
The 17-item Attributions for Poverty Questionnaire was adapted from a
scale previously developed and tested by Bullock et al., (2001). Scale
items were selected to assess structural attributions for poverty (e.g.,
low paying jobs with no benefits, prejudice and discrimination in hiring
and promotion). Structural attributions are those outside the sphere of
individual control (e.g., social environment, economic conditions).
Bullock et al., (2001) reported a coefficient alpha of .91, with (M =
4.85, SD = 0.90), on a seven-point Likert scale, for structural
attributions for poverty.
Attributions for wealth.
The 8-item Attributions for Wealth Questionnaire was adapted from
Bullock et al., (2001) 21-item Attributions for Wealth Questionnaire.
The 8 items were selected from the original 21-item questionnaire to
assess individualistic attributions for wealth (e.g., ambition and
personal drive, hard work and perseverance). Bullock et al., (2001)
reported a coefficient alpha of 0.82, with (M = 4.98, SD = 0.84), on a
seven-point Likert scale, for individualistic attributions for wealth.
Attitudes toward the poor.
Attitudes Toward the Poor were assessed using the 37-item scale
developed by Atherton et al., (1993). The Attitudes Toward the Poor
Questionnaire contained statements that reflected both positive (e.g.,
poor people are discriminated against) and negative (e.g., poor people
create their own difficulties) attitudes toward the poor. Positive items
were reverse scored. Atherton et al., (1993) reported Cronbach's alpha
as 0.93, and the split half reliability as 0.87. Factor analysis
concluded that the instrument was a single-factor scale (Atherton et.
Participants were recruited using
posted research announcements, announcements on Indiana University South
Bend introductory psychology web sites, and announcements at
introductory psychology classes. Participants reported to Indiana
University South Bend classrooms and psychology research rooms in groups
of 20-25. Data collection took place over a two-week period from October
4, 2001 to October 17, 2001. Participants were told that attitudes
toward a variety of social groups were being investigated. Participants
took 15-30 minutes to complete the questionnaire packets. After
completing the questionnaire packet, participants were debriefed and
informed that attitudes toward the poor were being investigated.
Internal reliabilities were analyzed
using Cronbach's index of internal consistency for the sample (N = 112)
to validate the Belief in a Just World Scale (a = 0.95), the
Attributions for Poverty scale (a = 0.95), the Attributions for Wealth
scale (a = 0.93) and the Attitudes Toward the Poor scale (a. = 0.98).
All measures were above the adequate range.
In this sample, attitudes toward the
poor were, on average, moderately positive (M = 3.13, SD = 0.75) (see
Table 1). Just-world beliefs were on average, relatively neutral (M =
2.99, SD = 0.74), although scores were widely dispersed, with higher
scores indicating stronger beliefs in a just world. External
attributions for poverty (M = 3.22, SD = 0.80) were moderately positive,
with higher scores indicating agreement with structural (e.g.,
discrimination, and lack of child care) attributions for poverty. And,
attributions for wealth (M = 3.78, SD = 0.73) were moderately high,
indicating agreement with individualistic (e.g., ambition, and
intelligence) attributions for wealth.
Table 1: Summary of Belief in a
Just World, Attributions for Poverty, Attributions for Wealth, and
Attitudes Toward the Poor
in a just world
Attributions for Poverty
Attributions for Wealth
Attitudes towards the poor
Correlations among Constructs
Correlational analysis revealed a
number of relationships between the constructs (see Table 2). Higher
just-world beliefs correlated negatively with attitudes toward the poor
(see Figure 1), were negatively associated with structural attributions
for poverty, and were positively associated with agreement for
individualistic attributions for wealth. Structural attributions for
poverty were negatively correlated with individualistic attributions for
wealth, and positively correlated with attitudes toward the poor.
Individual attributions for wealth were negatively associated with
attitudes toward the poor. All correlations were significant at the p <
Figure 1: Correlation Between Belief in a Just World and Attitudes
Toward the Poor
Table 2: Correlations Between Belief in a Just World, Attributions
for Poverty, Attributions for Wealth, and Attitudes Toward the Poor
Belief in a Just World
Attributions for Poverty
Attributions for Wealth
Attitudes Toward the Poor
Note: Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (1 - tailed).
Multiple regression analysis was
conducted to assess how well just-world beliefs, attributions for
poverty, and attributions for wealth predicted the criterion variable,
attitudes toward the poor (see Table 3). With all three predictor
variables entered simultaneously, the model was significant, F(3, 108) =
48.465, p < .001. And over half (R2 = 0.574) the variance was
accounted for by the three predictor variables. Individual coefficients
assessed how well each alone predicted the criterion variable. Belief in
a Just World was the strongest predictor of attitudes toward the poor (
= -0.719, p < 0.0005). Attributions for poverty and attributions for
wealth did not produce any significant effects. As expected, stronger
just-world beliefs predicted more negative attitudes toward the poor.
Table 3: Summary of Multiple
Regression Analysis for Variables Predicting Attitudes Toward the Poor
in a just world
Attributions for Poverty
Attributions for Wealth
Note: R2 = .574 . * p < .0005
The results of this study supported the
proposed hypothesis; those who scored high on the Belief in a Just World
Scale made internal/individualistic attributions for wealth and poverty,
and reported more negative attitudes toward the poor. Just-world beliefs
and attitudes toward the poor had a highly negative correlation,
indicating that participants who reported believing the world is a just
place, and that people get what they deserve reported negative attitudes
toward the poor. Ultimately, those reporting high just-world beliefs
held the poor responsible for their plight. Conversely, participants who
reported lower just-world beliefs reported moderately positive attitudes
toward the poor.
The results of this study indicated
that attitudes toward the poor are strongly related to just-world
beliefs and, to a lesser extent, to structural/external attributions for
poverty and individualistic/internal attributions for wealth. Overall,
participants' attitudes toward the poor were moderately positive. These
findings are consistent with previous studies (Cozzarelli et al., 2001;
Bullock et al., 2001; Bullock, 1999). Multiple regression indicated that
Belief in a Just World was the only significant variable and that the
unique variance associated with Belief in a Just World explained a large
proportion of the variance for attitudes toward the poor. One
explanation for these results may be that persons having high just-world
beliefs and negative attitudes toward the poor are endorsing victim
blaming as explanations for why people are poor (Furnham, 1982). People
viewing the world as a just place were reported to hold more negative
perceptions and stereotypes toward the poor (Furnham, 1993). This would
support Lerner's just-world theory, in that the poor are themselves to
blame for their poverty.
According to Lerner (1980), there are
two diametrically opposed worlds, the just-world, in which the good and
virtuous are rewarded, and the bad and wicked are punished; and the
unjust-world, in which the reciprocal occurs. People want to believe
that the world is a just place. And, if people believe that the world is
a just place and we get what we deserve, then logically, we also deserve
what we get. Therefore, if persons are poor they somehow are to blame
for their poverty. That is, they are getting what they deserve. The
actions, or inaction, of poor persons has caused their plight. They do
not work hard enough, they are lazy, or they act immorally. According to
Lerner (1980), people with high just-world beliefs tend to denigrate the
poor and other outgroups. Clearly, those with wealth and power have
earned their position according to the just-world theory.
Belief in a Just World scores have been
significantly and positively correlated with authoritarianism, work
ethic, conservatism, internal locus of control, and religious beliefs
(Furnham, 1993). More importantly in regards to this study, just-world
beliefs have also been associated with perceptions of poverty, personal
income, and reaction to personal deprivation. Furnham (1993) argued that
Belief in a Just World may exist in any society, particularly one in
which there exist obvious inequalities. Those persons living in poverty
tend to believe that the world is an unjust place. Lerner (1993) also
reported that in more stratified societies (i.e., caste systems, class
systems), unjust-world beliefs are higher than those in the United
The inequality between wealth and
poverty is seen as the outcome of ones own behavior, wealthy people have
earned their fortune and the poor have not. Previous studies (Cozzarelli
et al., 2001; Furnham, 1982) have suggested several other variables
(e.g., political affiliation, Protestant Ethic, authoritarianism)
associated with high and low just-world beliefs. Those with high Belief
in a Just World would not support assistance programs (e.g., welfare,
food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; TANF) that would
provide relief for the poor. According to Lerner's theory (1982), people
with high just-world beliefs believed that the opportunity to get ahead
is available to all, and that one's own actions cause poverty.
Therefore, social programs only serve to justify poor people's behavior.
Furnham (1993) reported that some
people believe in a just world because of their personal pathology and
experiences (individual functionalism), but there is strong evidence
that just-world beliefs are a function not only of personal experience,
but also of societal functionalism (i.e., a country's structural and
societal factors). Just-world beliefs held by the rich and powerful
condemn or devalue the poor. A sociological view suggests the poor serve
several functions for the rest of society, and the more affluent have no
true desire to address the issues of poverty. Gans (1999) suggested that
the poor are exploited in a number of ways (e.g., a low-wage labor pool,
guarantee the status of those who are not poor, absorb the costs of
change and growth in American society, etc.). Elimination of poverty
would prove costly and be met with resistance. It is believed that
economic inequality is inevitable in a capitalist society, and the
wealthy contribute to the economy in ways that are beneficial for all.
It was also found that participants
tended to endorse the individualistic/internal attributions for wealth,
and concurrently moderately endorsed the structural/external
attributions for poverty. Specifically, participants making
structural/external attributions for poverty were less likely to
strongly believe in a just world. Due to the relatively low age of
participants (M = 19.7), participants may have simply underestimated the
extent to which variables such as low paying jobs with no benefits are
significant barriers for many poor persons. Therefore, the moderate
level of participants' structural/external attributions for poverty may
be confounded (i.e., due to inadequate knowledge of social and economic
factors related to poverty, fundamental attribution error, etc.).
Cozzarelli et al. (2001) reported that younger persons, who may not have
not yet worked to support themselves, are more likely to make
individualistic/internal attributions for wealth and poverty. Prior
studies have reported that attitudinal and attributional variables were
related to one another at widely varying degrees, and in some cases were
not related at all (Cozzarelli et al., 2001). This pattern supports
previous studies by Furnham (1982), in which unemployed persons were
found to favor structural/external attributions for poverty over
individualistic/internal attributions for poverty.
Clearly this study suffered from
certain limitations. Firstly, the majority of participants were White,
young, college students who reported that neither they nor their
immediate family had a history of receiving public assistance (e.g.,
welfare, TANF, food stamps, or a housing subsidy). Cozzarelli et al.
(2001) reported that age is significantly related to the attributions
one makes for poverty and wealth. Furthermore, a greater variety of
ethnicities, social classes, ages, and geographic locales would be
beneficial to this study. Further research is necessary to explore other
factors associated with poverty and poor persons. In particular more
research is needed to assess the content (i.e., affective, cognitive,
and behavioral) of attitudes toward the poor rather than simply
evaluating degrees of favor or disfavor.
Current systems tend to disadvantage
the poor, and the economic disparity continues to widen. Historically,
programs that have been designed to serve the poor (e.g., welfare, TANF,
the Workforce Investment Act) have been ineffective, and serve to
reinforce the negative stereotypes and attitudes toward the poor. Debate
continues regarding welfare reform and legislation that would establish
time limits for those receiving public assistance. A portion of the
population of the United States consider social service and public
assistance programs created to assist the poor as a waste of taxpayer
money, and regard the poor as a burden to society. Negative attitudes
and stereotypes lead to negative behaviors against members of disliked
groups. And while legislation may create laws that require equal
opportunity for employment, housing, and other factors, legislation will
never eliminate prejudice. Legislation and law cannot make people think
or feel what we want them to.
- Atherton, R.
A., Gemmel, R. J., Haagenstad, S., Holt, D. J., Jensen, L. A.,
O'Hara, D. F., & Rehner, T. A. (1993). Measuring Attitudes Toward
Poverty: A New Scale. Social Work Research Abstracts, 29(4),
- Bullock, H.
E., Williams, W. R., & Limbert, W. M. (2001, August).
Attributions, Beliefs About Inequality, and Support for Progressive
Welfare Policies. Poster session presented at the annual
convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco,
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E. (1999). Attributions for poverty: A Comparison of Middle-Class
and Welfare Recipient Attitudes. Journal of Applied Social
Psychology, 29(10), 2059-2082.
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- Furnham, A.
(1993). Just World Beliefs in Twelve Societies. Journal of
Social Psychology, 133(3), 317-330.
- Furnham, A.
(1982). Why Are the Poor Always With Us? Explanations for Poverty
in Great Britain. British Journal of Social Psychology, 21,
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(1999). The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All. Making Sense
of America: Sociological Analysis and Essays (pp. 219-224). Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Iyengar, S.
(1990). Framing Responsibility for Political Issues: The Case of
Poverty. Political Behavior, 12(1), 19-40.
- Lea, J. A., &
Fekken, C. G. (1993). Toward an Improved Just World Measure: Can
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Bureau (2000a). Poverty: 1999 Highlights. Available on the
Internet from: http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/
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graduated in May 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. He was also
the recipient of the James R. Haines Research Award in Psychology for
the 2001-2002 academic year. He will be attending the Master of Arts in
Applied Psychology program at IUSB in the fall of 2002. This research
was conducted for P421, Advanced Laboratory in Social Psychology.
``My interest in this project was generated quite some time prior to its
actual origination. The catalyst for this study began in P320, Social
Psychology. This course identified and defined various theories,
themes, and topics that I found intriguing and enlightening. The
phenomenon that is the human condition and the relationship to social
identity, social learning, and other social influences that contribute
to our sense of self and how we define and perceive others continues to
fascinate as well as perplex me. Not all stigmatized persons are members
of racial, ethnic, or minority groups. Certainly many poor persons are
also members of these groups, but the discrimination and prejudice
remains indistinguishable. Although the poor comprise a large proportion
of the United States and global populations, these groups tend to be
marginalized or overlooked. Dr. Catherine Borshuk assisted me in
exploring this topic and directed me to a small body of literature and
prior research in this area. I intend to further explore these and
various related issues while attending the Masters of Applied Psychology
program.'' The author would like to extend his thanks for the continued
effort, assistance, and support of Catherine Borshuk PhD, Jonathan
McIntosh PhD, and Laura Talcott MA.