Global Council for Tolerance and Peace

Being and Becoming Poor: How Cultural Schemas Shape Beliefs About Poverty

By Patricia Homan, Lauren Valentino, Emi Weed


Prior research on stratification beliefs has investigated individuals’ understandings regarding the causes of poverty in America. These past studies have uncovered demographic characteristics associated with individualist and structuralist explanations for poverty. In the current study, we will argue that Americans, like social scientists, envision poverty as a heterogeneous and complex phenomenon. We utilize a cultural cognition theoretical approach to conceptualize these understandings of poverty as schemas. We contend that a schema of poverty contains a set of unique associations regarding both demographic beliefs (who the poor are) and causal attributions (why they are poor). Using original data in a mixed-methods design that incorporates inductive and experimental components, we find that people differentiate between two key types of poverty: intergenerational poverty and downward mobility. People perceive each type of poverty as caused by a different set of factors and as experienced by a different group of people. The type of poverty envisioned is, in most cases, as important as or more important than a respondent’s own demographic characteristics in predicting what type of causal attributions he or she makes for poverty. These findings underscore the importance of investigating different schemas of poverty in future stratification beliefs research.


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