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Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their part or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question. The survey found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings, especially white evangelical Christians.

"There's a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality -- often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures," said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn't necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty."

In the poll, which was conducted from April 13 to May 1 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, 46 percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person's poverty, compared with 29 percent of all non-Christians. The gulf widens further among specific Christian groups: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort while 45 percent blamed circumstances. In contrast, by more than 2 to 1, Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor than lack of effort (65 percent to 31 percent).

The question is not just an ethical one but a political one. Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances.

A statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes of poverty, but religious identity stands out as one of several important demographic factors.

Theologians point to passages in the New Testament that shape Christians' views on poverty, from the verse in Thessalonians that says, "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat," to Jesus' exhortations to care for needy people including those who are sick and in prison, to the many interpretations of his statement quoted in Matthew, Mark and John, "The poor you will always have with you."

Many people's beliefs on the question have nothing to do with their faith. Some said that they hear one thing in church, then come to a different conclusion. Michael O'Connell of Rossville, Ga., said he hears plenty about the need to help the poor at his evangelical church on Sundays. His pastor talks about people who, through no fault of their own, are in need of assistance: the elderly, the disabled.

Still, when asked if he thought people were poor because of circumstances beyond their control, O'Connell replied that they were more often poor because of their lack of effort.

"There's just too many that just rely on government or they rely on family. They just rely too much on other people helping them, rather than just going out and doing it themselves," he said. "They don't talk about that in church. They talk more about people in need in church than people who are just lazy."

Regardless of their beliefs about what makes a person poor, almost everyone who discussed the question with the Post said that their church teaches them to help individuals who are in need, and that their congregations works hard at putting those teachings into action. Churches of every denomination and political persuasion run food banks, soup kitchens and shelters.

"Those are stereotypes," Mohler said about the difference between conservative and liberal churches. "In reality, I think we all know what to do when a hungry person is before us."

Information for this article was contributed by Scott Clement and Emily Guskin of The Washington Post.

Religion on 10/07/2017

Print Headline: Poll: Moral laxity reason for poverty

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