Lay explanations for poverty: A multilevel analysis of European public opinion (1976 – 2014)

  • Lionel MarquisEmail author


Unlike ‘expert’ approaches to socioeconomic inequalities, ‘lay explanations for poverty’ are the explanations provided by ordinary people to account for the existence and persistence of poverty in contemporary societies. Depending on people, the alleged causes of poverty can stress either individual or social failures, while at the same time pointing out either a ‘blame’ or a ‘fate’ dimension. Following the 2008 economic crisis, ‘social blame’ explanations relating poverty to social injustice have risen to unprecedented levels in most European countries. However, there is no consensus on the individual and contextual underpinnings of lay explanations for poverty, and little is known about how these explanations change in response to socio-economic hardship. Using data from Eurobarometer surveys (1976‒2014), our analysis suggests that lay explanations for poverty are largely driven by selfinterest considerations, whereby less well-off individuals are more likely to explain poverty by social injustice. Nevertheless, the post-2008 trend toward social injustice explanations is remarkably similar in all social groups. If anything, there is evidence of a ‘normalization’ pattern, whereby the crisis seems to have brought social groups closer to one another in their poverty attributions.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Armingeon, Klaus, and Besir Ceka. 2014. “The Loss of Trust in the European Union during the Great Recession since 2007: The Role of Heuristics from the National Political System.” European Union Politics 15 (1): 82‒107.Google Scholar
  2. Armingeon, Klaus, and Kai Guthmann. 2014. “Democracy in Crisis? The Declining Support for National Democracy in European Countries, 2007‒2011.” European Journal of Political Research 53 (3): 423‒442.Google Scholar
  3. Armingeon, Klaus, Kai Guthmann, and David Weisstanner. 2016a. “How the Euro Divides the Union: The Effect of Economic Adjustment on Support for Democracy in Europe.” Socio-Economic Review 14 (1): 1‒26.Google Scholar
  4. Armingeon, Klaus, Kai Guthmann, and David Weisstanner. 2016b. “Choosing the Path of Austerity: How Parties and Policy Coalitions Influence Welfare State Retrenchment in Periods of Fiscal Consolidation.” West European Politics 39 (4): 628‒647.Google Scholar
  5. Bartels, Larry M. 2013. “Political Effects of the Great Recession.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 650 (1): 47‒76.Google Scholar
  6. Brooks, Clem, and Jeff Manza. 2013. “A Broken Public? Americans’ Responses to the Great Recession.” American Sociological Review 78 (5): 727‒748.Google Scholar
  7. Bullock, Heather. 2006. “Justifying Inequality: A Social Psychological Analysis of Beliefs about Poverty and the Poor.” National Poverty Center Working Paper Series#06-08.Google Scholar
  8. Chafel, Judith A., and Carin Neitzel. 2005. “Young Children’s Ideas about the Nature, Causes, Justification, and Alleviation of Poverty.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 20 (4): 433–450.Google Scholar
  9. Cozzarelli, Catherine, Anna V. Wilkinson, and Michael J. Tagler. 2001. “Attitudes toward the Poor and Attributions for Poverty.” Journal of Social Issues 57 (2): 207‒227.Google Scholar
  10. Da Costa, Leonor Pereira, and José G. Dias. 2014. “Perceptions of Poverty Attributions in Europe: A Multilevel Mixture Model Approach.” Quality and Quantity 48 (3): 1409‒1419.Google Scholar
  11. Da Costa, Leonor Pereira, and José G. Dias. 2015. “What do Europeans Believe to be the Causes of Poverty? A Multilevel Analysis of Heterogeneity Within and Between Countries.” Social Indicators Research 122 (1): 1‒20.Google Scholar
  12. Feagin, Joe R. 1972. “Poverty: We Still Believe that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” Psychology Today 6 (6): 101‒129.Google Scholar
  13. Feather, Norman T. 1974. “Explanations of Poverty in Australian and American Samples: The Person, Society, or Fate?” Australian Journal of Psychology 26 (3): 199‒216.Google Scholar
  14. Furnham, Adrian. 1982. “The Protestant Work Ethic and Attitudes towards Unemployment.” Journal of Occupational Psychology 55 (4): 277‒285.Google Scholar
  15. Furnham, Adrian. 2003. “Belief in a Just World: Research Progress over the Past Decade.” Personality and Individual Differences 34 (5): 795‒817.Google Scholar
  16. Goldstein, Harvey. 2010. Multilevel Statistical Models. 4th ed. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  17. Heaven, Patrick C. L. 1989. “Economic Locus of Control Beliefs and Lay Attributions of Poverty.” Australian Journal of Psychology 41 (3): 315‒325.Google Scholar
  18. Heck, Ronald H., Scott L. Thomas, and Lynn N. Tabata. 2012. Multilevel Modeling of Categorical Outcomes Using IBM SPSS. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Hochschild, Jennifer L. 1981. What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Hopkins, Daniel J. 2009. “Partisan Reinforcement and the Poor: The Impact of Context on Explanations for Poverty.” Social Science Quarterly 90 (3): 744‒764.Google Scholar
  21. Hox, Joop J. 2010. Multilevel Analysis: Techniques and Applications. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Hunt, Matthew, and Heather E. Bullock. 2016. “Ideologies and Beliefs about Poverty.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty, edited by David Brady and Linda M. Burton, 93‒116. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Hunt, Matthew O. 1996. “The Individual, Society, or Both? A Comparison of Black, Latino, and White Beliefs about the Causes of Poverty.” Social Forces 75 (1): 293‒322.Google Scholar
  24. Hunt, Matthew O. 2002. “Religion, Race/Ethnicity, and Beliefs about Poverty.” Social Science Quarterly 83 (3): 810‒831.Google Scholar
  25. Hunt, Matthew O. 2016. “Race, Ethnicity, and Lay Explanations of Poverty in the United States: Review and Recommendations for Stratification Beliefs Research.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 2 (4): 393‒401.Google Scholar
  26. Kainu, Markus, and Mikko Niemelä. 2014. “Attributions for Poverty in Post-Socialist Countries”. Accessed August 10, 2018.
  27. Kallio, Johanna, and Mikko Niemelä. 2014. “Who Blames the Poor?” European Societies 16 (1): 112‒135.Google Scholar
  28. Kenworthy, Lane, and Lindsay A. Owens. 2011. “The Surprisingly Weak Effect of Recessions on Public Opinion.” In The Great Recession, edited by David B. Grusky, Bruce Western and Christopher Wimer, 196‒219. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  29. Kluegel, James R. 1987. “Macro-economic Problems, Beliefs about the Poor and Attitudes Toward Welfare Spending.” Social Problems 34 (1): 82‒99.Google Scholar
  30. Kluegel, James R., and Eliot R. Smith. 1986. Beliefs about Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  31. Kluegel, James R., György Csepeli, Tamás Kolosi, Antal Örkény, and Mária Neményi. 1995. “Accounting for the Rich and Poor: Existential Justice in Comparative Perspective”. In Social Justice and Political Change, edited by James R. Kluegel, David S. Mason and Bernd Wegener, 179‒207. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  32. Larsen, Christian Albrekt. 2008. “The Institutional Logic of Welfare Attitudes: How Welfare Regimes Influence Public Support.” Comparative Political Studies 41 (2): 145‒168.Google Scholar
  33. Lee, Barrett, Chad R. Farrell, and Bruce G. Link. 2004. “Revisiting the Contact Hypothesis: The Case of Public Exposure to Homelessness.” American Sociological Review 69 (1): 40‒63.Google Scholar
  34. Lepianka, Dorota, John Gelissen, and Wim van Oorschot. 2010. “Popular Explanations of Poverty in Europe: Effects of Contextual and Individual Characteristics across 28 European Countries.” Acta Sociologica 53 (1): 53‒72.Google Scholar
  35. Lepianka, Dorota, Wim van Oorschot, and John Gelissen. 2009. “Popular Explanations of Poverty: A Critical Discussion of Empirical Research.” Journal of Social Policy 38 (3): 421‒438.Google Scholar
  36. Lepianka, Dorota. 2007. “Are the Poor to Be Blamed or Pitied? A Comparative Study of Popular Poverty Attributions in Europe.” PhD diss., University of Tilburg.Google Scholar
  37. Lerner, Melvin J. and Dale T. Miller. 1978. “Just World Research and the Attribution Process: Looking Back and Ahead.” Psychological Bulletin 85 (5): 1030‒1051.Google Scholar
  38. McClosky, Herbert, and John Zaller. 1984. The American Ethos: Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Merolla, David M., Matthew O. Hunt, and Richard T. Serpe. 2011. “Concentrated Disadvantage and Beliefs about the Causes of Poverty: A Multi-Level Analysis.” Sociological Perspectives 54 (2): 205‒228.Google Scholar
  40. Saunders, Peter. 2003. “Stability and Change in Community Perceptions of Poverty: Evidence from Australia.” Journal of Poverty 7 (4): 1‒20.Google Scholar
  41. Schlozman, Kay Lehman, and Sidney Verba. 1979. Injury to Insult: Unemployment, Class, and Political Response. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Schmidt-Catran, Alexander, and Malcolm Fairbrother. 2015. “The Random Effects in Multilevel Models: Getting Them Wrong and Getting Them Right.” European Sociological Review 32 (1): 23-38.Google Scholar
  43. Smith, Kevin B., and Lorene H. Stone. 1989. “Rags, Riches, and Bootstraps: Beliefs about the Causes of Wealth and Poverty.” Sociological Quarterly 30 (1): 93-107.Google Scholar
  44. Soroka, Stuart, and Christopher Wlezien. 2014. “Economic Crisis and Support for Redistribution in the United Kingdom.” In Mass Politics in Tough Times: Opinions, Votes, and Protest in the Great Recession, edited by Nancy Bermeo and Larry M. Bartels, 105‒127. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Swartz, Teresa Toguchi, Amy Blackstone, Christopher Uggen, and Heather McLaughlin. 2009. “Welfare and Citizenship: The Effects of Government Assistance on Young Adults’ Civic Participation.” Sociological Quarterly 50 (4): 633‒665.Google Scholar
  46. Teymoori, Ali, Jolanda Jetten, Brock Bastian, Amarina Ariyanto, Frédérique Autin et al. 2016. “Revisiting the Measurement of Anomie.” PLoS ONE 11 (7): e0158370.Google Scholar
  47. Van Oorschot, Wim, and Loek Halman. 2000. “Blame or Fate, Individual or Social? An International Comparison of Popular Explanations of Poverty.” European Societies 2 (1): 1‒28.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université de LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations