Tom West, West Words

Tom West

Sometimes, one has to wonder why our politicians seem so unable to accomplish much and the nation is so polarized. Recently, I came across the results of a survey that gives some indication as to why.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., interviewed 1,700 U.S. adults. Among the questions asked were: “What are the top three reasons people become wealthy?” and “What are the top three reasons people wind up in poverty?”

The top reason people become wealthy, Americans believe regardless of race, is hard work. Fifty-four percent of whites, 45% of Latinos and 39% of blacks listed hard work among their top three reasons.

After that, however, the racial groups diverge on what qualities create wealth. The second most popular response among blacks and Latinos is education, while whites rate education as only seventh most important. Whites think ambition is the second most important quality needed. That’s almost as important to blacks and Latinos, too. Blacks list it as their third most important quality and Latinos have it tied for third along with inherited wealth. Whites rank family connections third, which is not quite the same as an inheritance, but close.

The principle cause of poverty, Americans believe overall, is poor life choices. Forty-three percent of whites list it as their top choice, with drugs and alcohol being the second most likely cause. Family breakdown and a lack of work ethic come in tied for third among whites.

Among blacks, however, poor life choices come in only third. Blacks think discrimination is the most likely cause, followed by lack of job opportunities. Latinos think drugs and alcohol is the most likely cause, followed by poor life decisions and then discrimination.

The survey found that 63% of Americans worried at some point in the last year that they would be unable to pay their bills, and 21% actually were unable to pay all their bills.

The survey also asked people whether they support socialism or capitalism. The question has been asked for several years, and the survey finds that among Democrats, support for capitalism has been declining for almost a decade. In 2010, 53% of Democrats liked either socialism or capitalism (or in some instances both). By 2016, 58% of Democrats liked socialism and only 56 percent liked capitalism.

Since then, support for capitalism has slipped sharply among Democrats. By 2018, 57% of Democrats liked socialism but only 47% liked capitalism and this year, 64% of Democrats like socialism and only 45% like capitalism. President Trump is a major reason for the change, with 50 percent of Democrats saying Trump made them more sour toward capitalism.

Meanwhile, among Republicans, support for capitalism over socialism has remained strong. In both, 2010 and 2016, 72% of Republicans said they like capitalism and only 17% said they like socialism. This year, their support for capitalism is even stronger, with 77% of Republicans favoring it, and only 13% favoring socialism.

Support for socialism and capitalism also differs between generations, with the starkest differences being between those under age 30 and those over age 65. Among those under 30, 50 percent like socialism and 49 percent like capitalism. Among senior citizens, only 34 percent like socialism while 76 percent favor capitalism.

Other differences between the generations are found in agreement with the following statements:

• Rich people took advantage of others (53% of those under 30 agree compared to 27% of those 65 and over).

• I get angry hearing about rich people (44% vs. 11%).

• It is immoral to become a billionaire (39% - 13%).

• Violence against the rich sometimes may be justified (35% - 10%) .

Support for the public schools is not as strong as I would have expected. Fifty-five percent overall would prefer to send their child to a private school. A majority of all races would prefer that, with Latinos (57%) leading the way over whites (54%) and blacks (51%).

Unfortunately, the survey did not break down responses between those who live in metropolitan areas with many options and smaller communities, many of which have shown a strong determination to keep their public schools as viable as possible.

As it is, 58% of Americans support school vouchers, while only 40% are opposed to the idea. Support is strongest among African-Americans (69%), with 56% of both whites and Latinos also backing them.

Asked if their own life had meaning, the differences are profound. Eighty-three percent believe they have a meaningful life and 46 percent “strongly believe” that. Conservatives (58%) are more likely to believe their life has meaning than liberals (39%). Frequent church goers (68%) are more likely to believe that than atheists/agnostics (29%). Blacks (57%) are more likely to believe their lives have meaning than whites (45%) or Latinos (43%). Senior citizens (59%) are more likely to believe that than those under age 30 (36%). Volunteers (54%) apparently gain meaning from volunteering compared to those who don’t volunteer (37%).

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of questioning the survey results, saying “Consider the source” or screaming, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” everyone would look at these results and accept them as truth. Then, engage in reasoned debate about how best to change perceptions and attitudes the old-fashioned way: With persuasion and new approaches.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at

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