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New Survey: Among White Americans, Limits to Empathy for Poverty-Related Issues Run Along Class Lines

Survey also finds broad public support for policies to assist disadvantaged children, but skepticism that government can deliver

WASHINGTON—A survey released today by PRRI finds that white Americans’ support for policies to address poverty is limited in different ways by education level—by perceived social distance to racial minorities among non-college-educated whites and by lower commitments to equal opportunity among college-educated whites.

The survey was conducted by PRRI, a nonpartisan research organization, among 3,455 adults—including an oversample of residents in the Southeast and Southwest—between April 11-May 12, 2017. The survey also finds broad support for a range of policies to assist disadvantaged families and children, but skepticism particularly about the federal government’s competency to implement policies well.

Using an index of perceived social distance from a variety of minority groups, the survey finds that fewer than half of whites without a college degree have a moderate (31%) or high (10%) affinity for these groups. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of whites with a college degree have a moderate (45%) or high degree (19%) of affinity toward people of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. These disparities impact policy attitudes. For example, six in ten (60%) college-educated whites agree public schools that serve many poor students, students learning English as a second language, and students in foster care should receive more money per student than other public schools who serve fewer of these students. By contrast, non-college-educated whites are divided on this question (48% agree, 50% disagree).

On the other hand, despite their generally higher level of affinity for minority communities, white college-educated Americans are significantly less likely to believe that a lack of equal opportunity is a big problem compared to whites without a college degree (56% vs. 63%, respectively). White college-educated Americans are also less likely than non-college whites to say that children living in poverty is a critical issue to them (49% vs. 60%, respectively) and to say that the lack of good paying jobs is a major problem facing communities in the country today (36% vs. 56%, respectively).

“A central takeaway of the survey is that support for issues affecting disadvantaged kids is limited among whites at both ends of the educational spectrum,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “But this manifests in different ways: By negative racial attitudes among the white working class and by a striking lack of concern about equal opportunity among college-educated whites.”

Despite these limitations among whites, the survey found broad consensus on selected policies to assist disadvantaged children:

  • By a two-to-one margin, Americans say pre-K programs should be supported by local taxpayers in the same way that local public schools are funded (66%) as opposed to parents paying for such programs themselves (33%).
  • More than six in ten (61%) Americans believe judges should always consider their decision’s impact on children and families when making sentencing and prison-assignment decisions for parents convicted of a crime, compared to (38%) who do not.
  • Nearly nine in ten (86%) Americans agree that children whose families cannot afford health insurance should receive coverage through the government.

However, the survey also found a nationwide skepticism of the government’s ability to manage programs that solve such social problems. For some, this came from a belief—shared by 63% of Americans—that government programs are usually inefficient and wasteful.

A lack of trust in government—especially the federal government—cuts across racial lines. Less than half of white Americans believe their local (46%) or state (35%) government can be trusted to do what is right at least most of the time. But the lack of trust in the federal government is especially pronounced; only about three in ten (29%) of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right at least most of the time. African Americans, notably, do not trust any level of government. About one-quarter believe any level of government—federal (24%), state (24%), or local (27%)—will do what is right at least most of the time. At the same time, there is broad consensus that government has an important role to play. More than three-quarters (77%) of Americans agree that nonprofits and religious charities are not large enough to address all the needs of poor Americans.

The national survey also included a large oversample of residents of the Southeast and Southwest. In-depth analysis of those regions is available in the report and by request from PRRI.

Additional Findings of Note:

  • A majority of white Americans see “reverse discrimination” as a problem. Most white Americans (54%) believe today discrimination against whites has become as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 28% of black Americans and 36% of Hispanic Americans agree. Among whites, those who feel a high affinity with minority groups are far less likely to hold this view than those with low affinities (30% and 69%, respectively).
  • Perceptions of how police treat racial minorities vary by race and ethnicity. While white Americans are nearly evenly divided (49% agree vs. 51% disagree), more than eight in ten (83%) black Americans and nearly two-thirds (65%) of Hispanic Americans disagree that police officers generally treat blacks and other minorities the same as whites.
  • Americans support prevention and rehabilitation approaches to dealing with crime committed by young people. When asked about how to deal with youths who have committed crimes, more than eight in ten Americans say their top priority would be prevention (42%) and rehabilitation (40%) efforts, rather than harsher punishment (7%) and increased enforcement (10%).
  • Americans are confident about their public school systems. Americans have a generally positive outlook (62%) about the public school system in their state, reporting that the system works at least somewhat well. Just 37% of the public believes the system is working not too well or not at all well.
  • There is less confidence in states’ juvenile justice system. More than half of Americans (54%) do not believe the juvenile justice system in their state is working well—compared to just 43% who believe the system works at least somewhat well.
  • There are striking partisan differences on measures of affinity for minority groups and support for equality opportunity. A majority of white Democrats have a moderate (39%) or high (18%) affinity for racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, compared to only about one-third of white Republicans (29% moderate, 6% high). Similarly, Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to say that one of the big problems in this country is that not everyone has an equal chance in life (83% vs. 44%). A majority (54%) of Republicans say a lack of equal opportunity is not that big a problem.

The topline, full methodology, and additional findings and analysis can be found here: https://www.prri.org/research/poll-child-welfare-poverty-race-relations-government-trust-policy/


The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 3,455 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Interviews were conducted both online using a self-administered design and by telephone using live interviewers. All interviews were conducted among participants in AmeriSpeak, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the national U.S. adult population run by NORC at the University of Chicago. Panel participants without internet access, which included 634 respondents, were interviewed via telephone by professional interviewers under the direction of NORC. Interviewing was conducted in both Spanish and English between April 11 and May 12, 2017. The total sample includes oversamples of 1,202 respondents in the Southeast and 1,237 respondents in the Southwest. The survey was made possible by support from The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Research supported by our funders reflects PRRI’s commitment to independent inquiry and academic rigor. Research findings and conclusions are PRRI’s alone and are never altered to accommodate other interests, including those of funders, other organizations, or government bodies and officials. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.5 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 2.3.

PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.