Bauer not only American blaming the poor

Last month, S.C. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said that when the government helps the poor, it's like people feeding stray animals that continually "breed."

And this month, Colorado state legislator Spencer Swalm said poor people in single-family homes are "dysfunctional."

Both statements riled some Americans from the Piedmont to the Rockies and underscored a widely held belief: In tough times, people are tough on the poor.

In an April 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington, 72 percent agreed with the statement that "poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs." That's up from 69 percent in 2007.

"It's easier to send money to Haiti because you don't have to relate to them directly," said Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University.

The economic downturn has made the middle class less generous, said Guy Molyneux, a partner at Hart Research Associates, a Washington firm that researches attitudes toward the poor.

"People are less supportive of the government helping the poor, because they feel they're not getting enough help themselves," he said.

Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University, said these feelings stem from a new vulnerability: "Hatred of the poor is fueled by the middle class's fear of falling during hard times."

Americans don't understand how the poor are victimized by a lack of jobs, inefficient schools and unsafe neighborhoods, experts say.

"People ignore the structural issues - jobs leaving, industry becoming more mechanized," said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. "Then they point to the poor and ask, 'Why aren't you making it?'"

In June, Rush Limbaugh denigrated food stamps, which hunger experts have said are vital to poor children. With "food care," as Limbaugh put it, the "obese" poor "buy Twinkies, Milk Duds, potato chips, six-packs of Bud, then head home to watch the NFL on one of two color TVs and turn off their cell phones, and that's poverty in the U.S." (Food stamps can't be used to buy alcoholic beverages.)

Underlying negative attitudes toward the poor, experts say, are prejudices toward minorities, who are disproportionately among the indigent.

Twenty-five percent of African-Americans, 23 percent of Latinos, and 9 percent of whites live in poverty. Overall, 13 percent of the U.S. population is poor.

The United States "is very heterogeneous with very little ability to empathize with groups that are poor," said Washington economist Isabel Sawhill. That general lack of empathy can inspire anger toward the poor, especially from the right, experts say.

Welfare rolls are down around 60 percent since the mid-1990s, when welfare was switched from an entitlement to a work program that requires recipients to have jobs, said Ron Haskins, who drafted the so-called welfare reform bill of 1996 as the Republican staff director of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

"It's not a way of life," said Kathryn Edin, a Harvard University poverty expert.