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Are Republicans cold-hearted toward the poor? Pew poll oversimplifies issues

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What a preposterous poll the Pew Research Center people are peddling.

As it happens, anyone can take a shortened version of the poll online by visiting people-press.org/quiz/political-typology/. No surprise, I wound up in the “solidly conservative” camp when answering the 23-question quiz.

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But it wasn’t a particularly satisfying outcome. Although the poll’s design allows for a little nuance — a fraction of respondents answered, “I don’t know” — it’s very much an either-or proposition.

On the topic of poor Americans, here is how the Pew quiz poses the question: “Which of the following statements comes closest to your view? ‘Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.’ Or ‘Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.’ ”

Both statements are gross oversimplifications.

 “Some of those questions are really dumb,” remarked Jason Bedrick, an education policy analyst for the libertarian (don’t you dare call it conservative!) Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. “You can believe that the poor have it hard and that government programs aren’t the best way to help them.”

Precisely. This gets to the heart of the conservative — and libertarian — critique of the 21st century American welfare state.

We see a labor participation rate that’s fallen to a 36-year low —

62.8 percent — even as the unemployment rate has dipped to 6.1 percent. That means millions of Americans who could be working are not. They’ve simply given up looking for gainful employment in a stagnant economy.

In some cases, it’s better to stay unemployed than work because the government benefits are better. In

35 states, according to a 2013 Cato study, welfare pays more than a minimum wage job.

That doesn’t mean welfare recipients’ lives are easy. But it does mean certain government policies have created incentives against the habits — like honest work and maintaining two-parent families — that would make their lives better and more meaningful. That’s a nuance the Pew poll doesn’t quite capture.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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