What’s the best way to fight poverty? Is it better to give aid without question, or help those who deserve it?

Julie Zauzmer, a Washington Post religion reporter, addresses this question in this article, based on a large survey of rural Americans conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation[1] in late April and early May.

These two organizations have conducted polls on social issues for decades, but I don’t believe they have done a poll together in several years. Most of the questions in the poll are about rural people’s incomes and the quality of their health care, but the Post, trying to get their money’s worth, commissioned at least ten stories about the poll’s findings. (This one, from June, notes that a majority of Americans of various faiths say grace before meals.)

As Zauzmer notes, you can argue that St. Paul believed in a work requirement. In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul famously wrote, “If any shall not work, neither should he eat.”

The question on which Zauzmer elaborates is this one: In your opinion, which is generally more to blame if a person is poor?

Those polled were given four choices: 1) Lack of effort on their own part; 2) Difficult circumstances beyond their control; 3) Don’t know; 4) Refused.

  • Nationally: 53 percent of those surveyed favored “difficult circumstances” over “lack of effort,” which got 42 percent.
  • Evangelical Protestants: voted for “lack of effort” over “circumstances” by a 53-41 margin.
  • Catholics: preferred “lack of effort” over “circumstances” by 50-45.
  • Atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated: said that circumstances resulted in poverty by 65-31.
  • Republicans: said that a “lack of effort” resulted in poverty rather than circumstances by 63-32.
  • Democrats: favored circumstances over “lack of effort” by 72-26.

I could discuss the logistical regressions the Post conducted on their one question, but rather than doing that, I’d like to make two observations.

The first is a story I read about Henry Ford that appears in the memoirs of Charles Sorensen, one of Ford’s top aides. Henry Ford was, during his lifetime, someone who didn’t like giving to organized charities, but who was very happy to hire people who were destitute and needed work. (He also frequently hired handicapped people, at a time when the disabled faced high barriers in entering the labor force.)

One day, according to Sorensen, Ford saw a tramp on the road. The tramp said he was unemployed and wanted to go to Detroit “to see that fellow Ford and see if he would give him a job.” Ford gave the man a lift in his car, personally took him to Sorensen’s office, and said, “Charlie, I found this man looking for work. He seems like a good man. What can we give him to do?”

Sorensen put the man to work in the paint shop. Ford regularly met with the former tramp, saying if he kept working he would get regular raises. He also put a note in the man’s personnel file, saying, “If this man leaves his job, contact me before paying him off.”

Six weeks later the tramp decided to quit. Henry Ford walked in during the man’s exit interview and found the tramp screaming because he wasn’t getting paid quickly enough. “When he saw Ford,” Sorensen wrote, the tramp “sailed into him saying, ‘I want to get out of this jail.’ I don’t believe that even then he was sure if it was the real Henry Ford who picked him up.”

A second point comes from the rules that rescue missions (and, as Megan McArdle points out, Mormons) have. They’ll help anyone who shows up who says they need help but if you want to stay there you have to do some sort of work. The Mormons are also excellent at having early warning systems in their stakes about who might be in trouble. Mormons also believe in self-reliance, including having a year’s worth of food in storage.

If the Kaiser Family Foundation had asked me their question, I would have said, “That’s a dumb question.” I don’t know who “the poor” are. I don’t even know if the people on the street who say they are “the homeless” are who they say they are.

What I do know is that we should of course help people who are unable to work because of disabilities. But if you talk to anyone trying to train people for the labor force, you’ll find they’ll say the hardest problem in getting people to work is to train them how to be good workers—how to show up on time, how to avoid having “issues” with your boss.

The problem with the polling question is that both answers are correct. Poor people often become poor because of circumstances beyond their control. But they stay poor because they aren’t willing to do what it takes to climb out of poverty.

Fighting poverty should be the primary job of the philanthropist. But to fight poverty we need to know what the Victorians knew and we forgot—that the poor are individuals, with their own stories, their own problems, and their own ways to climb from the bottom. That’s knowledge that the people who write Washington Post poll questions apparently don’t have.


[1] The Kaiser Family Foundation was created by the family of the World War II defense contractor Henry J. Kaiser, whose exploits are celebrated in Arthur Herman’s Freedom’s Forge. Henry Kaiser created Kaiser Permanente to provide health insurance to his workers, but the foundation his family created has no formal connection with Kaiser Permanente.