The Tea Party and the Hammock Theory of Poverty

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The increased focus on inequality has shifted the conversation away from deficit/austerity mania and towards a discussion of what government should be doing to boost the economy and protect people from economic harm. And it’s also prompted good new polling that goes deep into public views of the economy, the safety net, inequality, and what government should do about it.

On these topics, this week brought two new polls from Pew Research and CBS News.

I’ve asked both firms for a detailed breakdown of their data, and here’s a striking finding: The ideas and assumptions underlying the GOP economic and poverty agenda are far and away more reflective of the preoccupations of Tea Party Republicans. Meanwhile, non-Tea Party Republicans are much more in line with the rest of the public on these matters.

In short, the Tea Party economic worldview, if such a thing exists, is isolated from the rest of the public, and even to some degree from non-Tea Party Republicans – yet it has an outsized role in shaping the GOP’s overall agenda.

Both the Pew and CBS polls find large majorities believe the income gap is growing, and both find that more Americans want government to do something about it. Both also find solid majority support for raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, and (in Pew’s case) taxing the rich to help the poor.

Both polls also find that far larger numbers of Republicans don’t think government should act to reduce inequality. This is reflected in the GOP economic agenda. As Jonathan Chait explains, this agenda continues to be premised on the ideas that there is, if anything, too much downward redistribution of wealth, that government shouldn’t interfere in the market by, say, raising the minimum wage, and that safety net programs lull people into dependency (Paul Ryan’s Hammock Theory of Poverty).

But here’s the thing. That basic set of assumptions — and the resulting positions on some of the individual policies being discussed – are held overwhelmingly by Tea Party Republicans; and not nearly as much by non-tea party Republicans. Key findings:

On government action to combat inequality:

* The Pew poll finds Republicans divided on whether government should do a lot or some to reduce inequality, versus doing little or nothing, by 49-46. But tea party Republicans overwhelmingly tilt against  government doing something by 66-28, while non-tea party Republicans overwhelmingly favor doing something by 60-35.

* The CBS poll is less pronounced, but even here, Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose government acting to reduce the gap between rich and poor by 82-17, while non-Tea Party Republicans believe this by 66-29 (so nearly a third of non-Tea party Republicans believe it).

On unemployment benefits:

* The Pew poll finds Republicans oppose extending unemployment benefits by 53-44. But Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose this by 70-29, while non-Tea Party Republicans support it by 52-44.

* Similarly, the CBS poll finds that Republicans oppose extending unemployment benefits by 49-40. But Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose it by 58-31. Non-Tea Party Republicans favor extending them by 46-43.

On the Hammock Theory of Poverty:

* The CBS poll finds that Republicans believe unemployment benefits make people less motivated to look for a job by 57-40. But Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly believe this by 67-32. By contrast, only a minority of non-tea party Republicans believe this (47-51).

* The Pew poll has a similar finding: Republicans believe government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people dependent on government, rather than doing more good than harm, by 67-27. But Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly believe this by 84-11, while non-tea party Republicans are somewhat more closely divided, 59-35.

On the minimum wage:

* The Pew poll finds that Republicans favor raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 54-44. But Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose this by 65-33. Non-Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly support it by 65-33. (All the above Pew numbers include Republicans and GOP-leaners).

* The CBS poll is less pronounced, but even here, Tea Party Republicans tilt against a minimum wage hike by 52-47, while non-tea party Republicans favor it by 50-48.

A number of conservative reform types, such as Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, and Michael Strain, have written at length about the need to break from tea party orthodoxy on economic matters, and to begin to envision an affirmative government role when it comes to strengthening (and reforming) the safety net, and even spending government money to combat the near term jobs emergency. I don’t know if non-tea party Republicans can be reached and split off from the tea party on these matters or not, but it does seem at least plausible, if the above numbers are an accurate picture of things.

Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers do seem sincere about charting a new course on poverty. But the party agenda remains in thrall to a set of ideas that remain largely the province of a small tea party minority, and are not nearly as widely held among Republicans overall.

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