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Framing Poverty as a Social Problem

For a .pdf version of this briefing sheet, please click here.

Psychological research indicates that as with race and gender, people have prejudice based upon class. These biases affect the treatment of people living in poverty, the desires others have to help, and policy efforts aimed at reducing poverty.

Policy Implications

The ways in which people think about the poor and poverty will affect how they feel about policies designed to alleviate poverty. The framing of poverty-related legislation can influence whether it is evaluated positively or negatively.

People tend to attribute poverty to individual responsibility and are unlikely to want to help people who are seen as responsible for their own misfortune. Policies aimed at equality of opportunity may be more appealing than policies aimed at “helping the poor”. Research in this area suggests that policies that are framed in terms of equality and systemic roadblocks to opportunity will be viewed more favorably.

Research Findings

How People Tend to Explain Poverty: The poor are often blamed for their poverty (Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001).[1] This may be due to a desire to see the world as a just place (Lerner, 1980).[2] Blaming the person (as opposed to societal circumstances) is particularly likely in the U.S. where individualism is greatly valued (Kleugel & Smith, 1986).[3]

Classism: Classism is “the oppression of the poor through a network of everyday practices, attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and institutional rules” (Bullock, 1995).[4] Low income groups are the targets of discrimination partly because people want to distance themselves from poverty (Lott, 2001).[5]

These biases (e.g., that poverty is due to personal failings) are reflected in public policy and anti-poverty programs (Bullock, 1995; Furnham, 1993; Furnham & Gunter, 1984; Rubin & Peplau, 1975).[6] In comparisons across countries, nations where people believe that poverty is society’s fault spend more on social welfare programs (Alesina and Glasier, 2004).[7]

Issue Framing and the Desire to Help: Studies of helping behavior show that victims of circumstance are likely to be helped more than a person who is responsible for needing help (Meyer & Mulherin, 1980; Weiner, Perry, & Magnussen, 1988).[8]

Analysis of news reports suggest that when poverty is framed as a societal problem, society is deemed responsible. Alternatively, when news presentations illustrate poverty with a specific example of a poor person, responsibility is assigned to the individual (Iyengar, 1990).[9]

Framing Poverty as a Societal Problem

• Economic inequality is problematic for everyone. The greater the income gap between the poorest and the wealthiest in a society, the poorer the health of the members of that society (Kawachi & Kennedy, 1997; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2006).

• The United States has one of the highest rates of homelessness among industrialized nations. Families with young children are at special risk in the U.S. (Shinn, 2007; Toro et al., 2007).

• The impact of poverty on children has lifelong effects. Children who experience poverty have limited chances of moving out of poverty (McLoyd, 1998),
[12] and poor children are at risk of poor nutrition, homelessness, and underfunded schools (Fairchild, 1984; Gletman et al, 1996; McLoyd, 1998; Parker et al, 1988).[13]

For more information, please contact Jutta Tobias, Ph.D., SPSSI James Marshall Public Policy Fellow.

Briefing sheet created by Carrie Langner, Ph.D.; February 2008.


1.  Cozzarelli, C., Wilkinson, A. V., & Tagler, M. J. (2001). Attitudes toward the poor and attributions for poverty. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 207-227.

2.  Lerner, M. J. (1980) The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

3.  Kleugel, J. R. & Smith, E. R. (1986). Beliefs about inequality: Americans' Views of What Is and What Ought To Be. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

4.  Bullock, H. E. (1995). Class acts: Middle-class responses to the poor. In B. Lott & D. Maluso (Eds.), The social psychology of interpersonal discrimination (pp.118-159). New York: Guilford.

5.  Lott, B. (2001). Low-income parents and the public schools. Journal of Social Issues, 57(2), 247-259.

6.  Bullock, 1995; Furnham, A. (1993). Just world beliefs in twelve societies. Journal of Social Psychology, 133(3), 317-329; Furnham, A., & Gunter, B. (1984). Just world beliefs and attitudes towards the poor. British Journal of Social Psychology, 23, 265-269; Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L. (1975). Who believes in a just world? Journal of Social Issues, 31(3), 65-89.

7.  Alesina, A., & Glaeser, E. L. (2004). Fighting poverty in the U.S. and Europe:  A world of difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8.  Meyer, J. P., & Mulherin, A. (1980). From attribution to helping: An analysis of the mediating effects of affect and expectancy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 201-210. Weiner, B., Perry, R. and Magnussen, J. (1988) An attributional analysis of reactions to stigmas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(5), 738-748.

9.  Iyengar, S. (1990). Framing responsibility for political issues: The case of poverty. Political Behavior, 12, 19-40.

10.  Kawachi, I., & Kennedy, B. P. (1997). Socioeconomic determinants of health: Health and social cohesion: Why care about income inequality? British Medical Journal, 314, 1037-1040. Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. E. (2006). Income inequality and population health: A review and explanation of the evidence. Social Science and Medicine, 62(7), 1768-84. 

11.  Shinn, M. (2007). International homelessness: Policy, socio-cultural, and individual perspectives. Journal of Social Issues, 63, 659-679. Toro, P. A., Tompsett, C. J., Lombardo, S., Philippot, P., Nachtergael, H., Galand, B., Schlienz, N., Stammel, N., Yabar, Y., Blume, M., MacKay, L., & Harvey, K. (2007).  Homelessness in Europe and the United States:  A comparison of prevalence and public opinion. Journal of Social Issues, 63, 505-524.

12.  McLoyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic disadvantage and child development. American Psychologist, 53, 185-204.

13.  Fairchild, H. (1984). School size, per-pupil expenditures, and academic achievement. Review of Public Data Use, 12, 221-229. Gletman, P. L., Meyers, A. F., Greenberg, J., & Zuckerman, B. (1996, Spring). Commentary: Welfare reform and children’s health. Washington, DC: Center for Health Policy Research; McLoyd, 1998; Parker, S., Greer, S., & Zuckerman, B. (1988). Double jeopardy: The impact of poverty on early childhood development. Pediatric Clinician, North America, 35, 1227-1240.