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How Beliefs About Poverty Can Affect Preferences for Policy

Research explores the three types of beliefs people have about financial health.

Key points

  • There are three types of beliefs about financial health.
  • A questionnaire can be developed to assess what beliefs people have.
  • These beliefs affect preferences for different policies to alleviate poverty.
  • Policy discussions should take these three sets of beliefs into account.
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People differ in their beliefs about how we should help people in financial need. Indeed, some of the most impassioned arguments about the role of government in people’s lives revolve around the kinds of social safety nets that should be provided. Some people argue that government should focus on training programs and ways to provide opportunities for people to get hired. Other people believe that the government needs to address systemic issues that make it more likely that some types of individuals will get economic benefits (like jobs and access to credit) than others. Still other people believe that a central role of government is to ensure that everyone is protected from random events like natural disasters and serious illnesses.

Is there anything about people’s psychology that determines which kinds of government programs seem most reasonable? This question was explored in a 2022 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Job Krijnen, Gulden Ulkumen, Jonathan Bogard, and Craig Fox.

These authors argue that there are three belief systems about the factors that predict financial well-being.

  • Some people believe that the economic system rewards hard work. In this view, members of society know what is required to succeed financially, and their efforts determine their outcome. The authors refer to this as a belief that efforts are rewarded.
  • Some people believe that the economic system is biased. In this view, members of society know what is required to succeed financially, but many of the factors that drive success go beyond what an individual can accomplish by their own efforts. The authors refer to this as the belief that the system is rigged so that some types of people succeed and others do not.
  • A final group believes that there are a lot of chance factors that determine someone’s overall financial success. Regardless of individuals’ efforts, many unknown factors might influence a particular person’s outcome. The authors refer to this as the belief that the system is random.

The authors developed a scale to measure these beliefs and validated their measure in a study. Then they explored people’s comfort with different kinds of government programs (or politicians who espouse those programs) based on the beliefs they have. In these studies, they also measured people’s political affiliations to ensure that they were looking at factors above and beyond the political party to which people belong.

Across studies, a consistent pattern emerged.

  • People who hold the belief that efforts are rewarded tend to favor government programs that provide incentives for people to participate in the economy. For example, a program that helps people to get additional education would be an incentive-based program.
  • People who hold the belief that the system is rigged tend to prefer two types of programs. One program redistributes money or opportunity from groups that have historically been favored to those that have historically had economic difficulty. A second program that these individuals like is one that provides a kind of social insurance to people in need. For example, a food-stamp program that pools money from taxpayers and gives it specifically to individuals experiencing a need would be an insurance program.
  • People who hold the belief that the system is random tend to prefer programs that provide some kind of social insurance (like the food-stamp program I just described).

These results suggest that preferences for the way that the government should address poverty and the effects of poverty on the population are based on core beliefs about why some people struggle financially. As a result, candidates and politicians must understand the beliefs of their constituents in order to determine how to justify the need for particular programs. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to getting people on board with fighting poverty.

This research also helps to explain why arguments about the best kinds of social programs have persisted for so long. As long as there are radically different beliefs within the population about the causes of financial hardship, there will be radically different preferences for how these hardships should be addressed.


Krijnen, J.M.T., Ulkumen, G., Bogard, J.E., & Fox, C.R. (2022). Lay theories of financial well-being predict political and policy message preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(2), 310-336.

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