May 2, 2017

Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views

Beyond partisan differences over economic policies, there are stark divisions on a fundamental question: What makes someone rich or poor? Most Republicans link a person’s financial standing to their own hard work – or the lack of it. Most Democrats say that whether someone is rich or poor is more attributable to circumstances beyond their control.

The public overall is about evenly divided over which has more to do with why a person is rich: 45% say it is because he or she worked harder than most people, while 43% say it is because they had more advantages in life than others, according to a survey conducted April 5-11 among 1,501 U.S. adults. Opinion has shifted modestly on this question: In both 2015 and 2014, more attributed a person’s wealth to greater advantages than to a stronger work ethic.

In assessing why some people are poor, 53% think it is because of circumstances beyond their control, while 34% attribute it to a lack of effort. There has been little change in these opinions in recent years, according to a survey in December.

By about three-to-one (66% to 21%), Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say hard work, rather than a person’s advantages, has more to do with why someone is rich. By nearly as wide a margin, Democrats and Democratic leaners say the opposite: 60% say a person is rich because they had more advantages than others, while just 29% say it is because they have worked harder.

As with many other issues, partisan differences in views of why people are rich and poor have increased in recent years. Since 2014, the share of Republicans who say a person is rich more because they have worked harder than others has risen 12 percentage points, from 54% to 66%. Democrats’ views have shown less change.

Republicans are more likely to say the reason someone is poor generally has more to do with of a lack of effort (56%) than circumstances beyond a person’s control (32%). By 71%-19%, more Democrats say that circumstances beyond one’s control are generally more often to blame for why a person is poor. The share of Democrats who link a person being poor to a lack of effort has declined since 2014 (from 29% to 19%).

Views of why some people are rich and poor vary by gender, education and income level as well. For example, men (49%) are slightly more likely than women (41%) to say that hard work is more often the reason why someone is rich. Men (42%) also are more likely than women (26%) to say that a lack of effort is more to blame if someone is poor.

Those with postgraduate degrees are more likely to say that having more advantages in life has more to do with why a person is rich (52%) than they are to say hard work has more to do with it (34%). Those with less education are more divided on what has more to do with why a person is rich. When it comes to the reasons why a person is poor, majorities of postgraduates (62%) and college graduates (59%) say circumstances are generally to blame. Most of those with some college experience (54%) also take this view. Among those with no more than a high school diploma, about half (49%) point to circumstances as the reason why a person is poor, while 38% cite a lack of effort.

People with higher family incomes are more likely than those with lower incomes to say a person is rich more because they work harder than because they had more advantages. There are only modest differences across income categories in views of why someone is poor.

Note: View full topline results and methodology here (PDF).

Topics: Education, Gender, Individualism and Individual Opportunity, Work and Employment, Income, U.S. Political Parties, Political Attitudes and Values, Lifestyle, Socioeconomic Class, Income Inequality, Political Polarization

  1. Photo of Samantha Smith

    is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous3 months ago

    Hi Samantha,
    I grew up in a poverty stricken, racist community. very few Hispanics graduated from high school. I was fortunate to have graduated being the only Hispanic in the class of 1968. Why was I able to accomplish that goal? Because I knew that I had a right to an education. Proceeded to further my education and graduated with a Bachelors degree in Education later went on to get a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Agenda 21 kicked in and I was tracked. Too intelligent for the status quo of public education, my standards were measured as too high regarding student performance. Outside circumstances can effect whether you become wealthy or not. Roadblocks are set. I had to learn to go around and above the roadblocks, it did take its toll. People are targeted and prevented from becoming all that they can be.

  2. Anonymous3 months ago

    Wonderful topic, but the simplicity of the question drives me crazy. It seems that how the question is asked could change the results a lot. For example, if the question was to rate from 1-5 of how much was luck or hard work would give a somewhat different result. Asking how much was due to being born rich, how much being in the right place at the right time with the right abilities and how much due to hard work might be very different. The same sort of thing applies to why people are poor. There are a number of factors and reducing it down to either/or between two makes giving a thoughtful answer difficult.

  3. Anonymous3 months ago

    some are poor because the rich write the laws.

  4. Lorraine Krasner4 months ago

    Some are wealthy because they inherited it. Some are wealthy because they worked hard starting with nothing. Some are wealthy because others worked hard for them producing their products and services.

    Some are poor because they don’t have the education or access to a good education or parents who can assist financially. Some are poor because they work hard but their employers don’t compensate well. Some are poor because they don’t strive for better, are lazy. Some are poor because of the environment they are in where surviving is their success.

  5. Anonymous4 months ago

    Some of us become ill with chronic diseases, like psoriatic arthritis or major depression at the height of our careers, that thus limits or cuts into ones job & economic prospects. Republicans say they are Evangelical, but scripture says to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, etc….. Seems to me their choice of bills, budget items, and regulations, do nothing to fulfill the golden rule – do unto others what you would like them to do to you.

    1. Anonymous4 months ago

      Yes, but not have the government steal your money and waste it. Let the people choose how to spend and who to give it to. Also, maybe giving more to the churches and let people ask for help not think they are entitled to help and keep expecting more. The people who are poor in America do not know what poor is-they have running water, cable tv, and cell phones-that is not poor.

  6. Ezekiel Bankole4 months ago

    How were the interviews

    1. Carole F.4 months ago

      At the bottom of the article look for “View full topline results and methodology here (PDF).” To answer your question, 1501 adults interviewed over landlines or cell phones.

  7. Anonymous4 months ago

    Give me a break! Deliberately limiting the responses to two choices only magnifies and distorts partisan differences. I find it telling that in spite of Pew’s efforts to impose and either or world view on those who answered the questionnaire, 9% refused the bait and said “Both”!

    Next time why don’t you include that as an option.

  8. Anonymous4 months ago

    This is really a nuanced question put in simple terms, so of course there will be partisan differences. As a Democrat, if only given two choices, I would say most wealthy people were the beneficiaries of good schools and affluent families. But, that doesn’t mean that most wealthy people aren’t hardworking. As for poverty, there is sometimes a real lack of effort, but external circumstances usually play a larger role.

  9. Anonymous4 months ago

    Some people are poor because thats what they ha chosen. One should work very hard fir what is wanted period.

  10. Anonymous4 months ago

    Great data, but the real break through was just missed. The survey should have correlated what people do for a living: public vs private sector. I suspect that data will show an as strong or not stronger divide.

  11. Anonymous4 months ago

    I was born in the lower end of the middle class and I didn’t want to grow old being in the same spot as my parents. I worked hard and paid for my education over 7 years. I would have been less well off if I hadn’t learned to be smart with the money I saved.

    Thats a big difference between wealth and success.. you can be successful or start out wealthy and blow it all if you don’t learn how money works.

    1. Anonymous4 months ago

      You suggest that delayed gratification is important to success. I think it is one of the key personality or mental abilities.

  12. Packard Day4 months ago

    Where is the viewer response check box: “Made fewer bad choices?”___Or, how about: “Possessed more self-discipline,” “Exhibited greater cognitive & practical (a.k.a. common sense) intelligence,” and “Just had better d*mn role models?”

  13. Anonymous4 months ago

    Combination of both but some don’t strive for money.

    1. Loba “GHOST MAN ORGAN” Rosa4 months ago

      I agree with you. The government can help if they ever truly care for the economic success for their people, but it is also because people look down on their own skills… For some other reason.