Jun 25, 2007

From the Archives

Americans Are Misinformed About Poverty, But Widely Involved in Helping the Poor

A new national survey by The Barna Group regarding people’s perspectives on poverty shows that Americans are quite concerned about what they perceive to be a significant and growing challenge facing the nation. The survey also showed that most people are actively involved in trying to alleviate poverty, although they typically believe it is primarily the government’s job to do so. The religious faith of adults appears to have a limited influence on how people perceive and respond to poverty.

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Overestimating the Incidence

Three out of four adults (72%) consider poverty to be one of the most serious social problems facing the United States today. That includes one out of every five adults (21%) who contend that poverty is the single, most serious social problem of all. Just 4% argue that poverty is not much of a problem in the U.S.

Interestingly, evangelical Christians were only half as likely (11%) as the rest of the adult population to deem poverty to be the nation’s most vexing social challenge. Asian Americans (11%) were similarly less likely to see the issue in this way.

When asked to estimate the percentage of people in the country who live in poverty, according to government statistics, the average estimate was 30%. Over the past forty years, federal statistics have pegged the poverty level in the 12% to 15% range. Currently, the estimate is about 13%.

Several segments assumed that poverty is at three or four times the actual level. In general, the people who were most likely to be on the verge of poverty or to have regular contact with poor people fit in this category. People living in households earning less than $35,000 annually, and people who had a high school education or less estimated the poverty rate to be 40%. African Americans and people who come from downscale households (i.e., no college education and household earnings of under $30,000 annually) estimated poverty to be the condition of 50% of all Americans.

In like manner, people groups that are more affluent provided the smallest estimates of poverty. On average, people from households earning more than $60,000 as well as those who have a college degree estimated the poverty rate to be 20% – substantially below the typical estimate offered by adults, but still significantly higher than the actual rate published by the Census Bureau.

Two out of every three adults (66%) believed that the percentage of people living in poverty today is higher than it was 25 years ago. One-seventh (14%) said they thought today’s rate was lower, and a similar proportion (15%) said they believed the rate was about the same as a quarter-century ago. In reality, during the early and mid-Eighties, the national poverty rate was in the 13% to 14% range – essentially the same as it is today.

Who Should Address Poverty?

Two-thirds of Americans (64%) consider poverty to be an issue that the government is primarily responsible for addressing. That perspective is divided among those who say it is mostly a task for the federal government (39%) and those who assign it to local and state governments (25%). Nearly one out of five people (18%) say it is the primary responsibility of each individual citizen to address poverty. Much smaller numbers of people say it is the duty of churches (4%), non-profit organizations (4%) or businesses (3%) to take the lead on dealing with poverty.

Worthy of note is the divergent perspective of evangelicals. They were among the groups least likely to see poverty as a job for the government (55%) and were the group most likely to see it as a matter for churches to address (14%). The only other group that was similar was Christian Revolutionaries – the people who indicate that their highest priority in life is living for God and who possess a worldview that is based on biblical principles. Barely half of the Revolutionaries (52%) assigned poverty primarily to government agencies, while 11% said it was predominantly a church responsibility.

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Personal Involvement with the Poor

Two out of every three adults (67%) claimed to have had some type of intentional and significant personal interaction with a poor person in the past year. Such engagement was particularly common among evangelicals (83%) and people who regularly attend a house church (84%). It was least common among Mosaics – i.e., adults in the 18-22 age range – (just 57%), Asian Americans (56%) and homosexuals (51%).

A substantial majority of adults engage in multiple personal responses to poverty. The most likely responses include giving material resources (such as clothing or furniture) directly to poor people (75%); donating money to organizations that address poverty (60%); giving food directly to a poor person or family (58%); spending a “significant amount of time” praying for poor people (55%); and donating time to personally serve needy people in the community (47%). Other responses include visiting institutionalized elderly or sick people who are not family members (40%); donating money to organizations that address poverty in foreign countries (31%); serving as a tutor or friend to an underprivileged child (30%); and helping to build or restore a house for a poor family (16%).

The survey showed that most Americans have similar patterns of responsiveness to poverty, regardless of their faith. Born again Christians were somewhat more likely than non-Christians to donate money to organizations addressing global poverty and slightly more likely to give food directly to poor people, but otherwise the two groups showed few differences. The only other exception is those people who have no specific religious faith they embrace. Atheists and agnostics emerged as the segment of people least likely to do anything in response to poverty. They were less likely to engage in eight of the nine specific responses measured, and were the faith segment least likely to participate in eight of the nine responses evaluated.


Americans Take Poverty Seriously

The survey portrays Americans as a people who are concerned about poverty and regularly integrate responses into their lives, according George Barna, who directed the study.

“Although many public officials seem to assume that Americans are not sufficiently engaged in efforts to ameliorate or eliminate poverty, the data show a different story,” stated the researcher, who has written 39 books about American lifestyle and faith. “Most people consider it to be a very serious issue. Most people are counting on the government to effectively deal with poverty. Most people interact with the poor. And most Americans undertake a variety of actions designed to reduce or limit the effects of poverty.

“However,” Barna continued, “the study also shows that Americans are poorly informed about America’s poverty. They radically overestimate how many people the government identifies as poor, and they believe things have become much worse over the last quarter-century, when in fact the incidence of poverty has remained about the same.”

Barna expressed surprise that devout Christians were not more engaged with the issue. “Given the extensive comments in the Bible regarding the importance of taking care of the poor, we expected to see a larger distinction between the responses of Christians and non-Christians. As churches seek social causes through which to engage people and their faith, facilitating hands-on responses to poverty would probably activate a lot of latent faith and resources.”

Activities Related to Poverty Engaged in During the Past 12 Months
Born Again
gave material resources such as clothing or furniture, but not including money, directly to poor people
donated money to an organization specifically to help poor people in the U.S.
made or bought some food that you gave directly to a poor person or poor family
spent a significant amount of time praying for poor people
donated your time to personally serve needy people who live in your community
visited elderly or sick people, other than friends or relatives, who cannot leave their house or care facility
donated money to an organization specifically to help poor people in other countries
served as a tutor or friend to an underprivileged child
helped to build or restore a house for a poor family
gave material resources such as clothing or furniture, but not including money, directly to poor people
sample size
estimated maximum margin of sampling error (95%) confidence interval):   ± 5.1 points

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Research Details

This report is based upon a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of adults, age 18 and older, conducted in January 2007. In total, 1003 adults were interviewed, allowing for a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to several demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are people who meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website ( Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.

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Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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