For Some Americans, the COVID-19 Pandemic Shifted Perceptions About Poverty

Piggy bank keeping social distance with a virus model.
The researchers tested whether the COVID-19 pandemic has altered beliefs about the extent to which poverty is caused by external forces and internal dispositions and support for economic inequality.

The global pandemic may cause a much-needed shift in perceptions of poverty in the United States and may facilitate change. These findings, from a longitudinal study, were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Americans (N=453) were recruited to participate in an online survey from the website Prolific Academic in April 2019. Participants were stratified by political party (Republican, n=222; Democrat, n=231). In May 2020, participants were recontacted and asked to participate in a second survey (n=233; Republican, n=117; Democrat, n=116). Respondents were assessed for perceptions about poverty and support for governmental interventions.

Study results showed that participants expressed a decrease of dispositional attributions for poverty (mDY, -0.266; 95% CI, -0.490 to -0.043; P =.019), an increase of situational attribution for poverty (mDY, 0.530; 95% CI, 0.320-0.740; P <.001), and no change in support for economic inequality (mDY, 0.008; 95% CI, -0.161 to 0.134; P .297).

Individual-based shifts of support for inequality (s2, 0.935; 95% CI, 0.512-1.358; P <.001) and support for government intervention (s2, 0.230; 95% CI, 0.105-0.355; P <.001) were observed.

The contrast between significant individual shifts of opinions with no change in group think likely indicated that individuals changed their opinion about support for inequality and government intervention for impoverished Americans in differing directions.

During the second survey, there was an increase in the belief that the pandemic had negatively impacted the poor which predicted an in-person change for greater decrease of dispositional attribution for poverty (b, -0.272; 95% CI, -0.480 to -0.064; P =.011) and support for inequality (b, -0.335; 95% CI, -0.596 to -0.075; P =.012) and a greater increase of situational attributions for poverty (b, 0.305; 95% CI, 0.103-0.506; P =.003), and support for government intervention (b, 0.208; 95% CI, 0.097 to 0.319; P <.001).

Individuals who increased their situational attribution for poverty and decreased their economic inequality support were more willing to personally help the poor (b, 0.166; 95% CI, 0.03-0.300; P =.017 and b, -0.142; 95% CI, -0.280 to -0.004; P =.044, respectively) and for the government to reduce poverty through legislation (b, 0.254; 95% CI, 0.068-0.440; P =.007 and b, -0.246; 95% CI, -0.486 to -0.006; P =.044, respectively).

Stratified by political party, Democrats indicated a more situational attribute of poverty (c2, 5.195; P =.023) and support for governmental intervention (c2, 11.228; P <.001) and a decrease in support for economic inequality (c2, 21.451; P <.001). These significant differences were driven by the individual-level changes of perceptions among Democrats with no significant difference in opinions among Republicans.

These findings may have been influenced by the differences of infection rates in the regions where each participant lived.

These data suggested the pandemic, for some Americans, has caused an alteration in perceptions of poverty and support for governmental interventions for the poor. Although the pandemic has been a difficult time, it may have led to meaningful shifts in egalitarianism.


Wiwad D, Mercier B, Piff PK, Shariff A, Aknin LB. Recognizing the impact of COVID-19 on the poor alters attitudes towards poverty and inequality. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2021;93:104083. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2020.104083