Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • David B. Grusky (a1) and Emily Ryo (a1)

We test the popular claim that poverty and inequality were “dirty little secrets” until the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina exposed them to a wider public. If this account were on the mark, it would suggest that the absence of major antipoverty initiatives in the United States is partly attributable to public ignorance and apathy coupled with the narrowly rational decision on the part of policymakers to attend to other issues about which the public evidently cares more. Using the 2004 Maxwell Poll, we find strikingly high levels of awareness and activism on poverty and inequality issues even prior to Katrina, clearly belying the “dirty little secret” account. The follow-up Maxwell Poll, which was administered in 2005 immediately after Katrina, revealed only a slight increase in public awareness of poverty and inequality. The Katrina effect was evidently dampened because (1) the large number of preexisting poverty activists reduced the size of the residual population “at risk” for conversion to antipoverty activism, and (2) the remaining non-activists were ardently opposed to poverty activism and hence unlikely to be receptive to the liberal message coming out of Katrina.

Corresponding author
Professor David B. Grusky, Department of Sociology, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail:
Hide All
We are grateful to Alasdair Roberts and Jeff Stonecash for so graciously allowing us advance access to data from the 2005 Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality. We are also grateful to Michael Hout, Jeff Manza, and Leslie McCall for providing unusually detailed and helpful comments. The research reported here was financed in part with Stanford University funds, but as always we remain responsible for any errors that remain.
Hide All


Alesina, Alberto, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote (2001). Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State? Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2: 187277.
Alesina, Alberto, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch (2002). Inequality and Happiness: Are Europeans and Americans Different? Working Paper 02-84, Harvard Business School.
Almond, Gabriel (1950). The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.
Arrow, Kenneth (1963). Social Choice and Individual Values. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Baltimore Sun (2005a). Disaster Brings Race, Class to Forefront. September 3, 7A.
Baltimore Sun (2005b). Influx of Evacuees Raises Tensions in Baton Rouge: Katrina's Wake. September 15, p. 1A.
Bartels, Larry M. (2005). Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind. Perspectives on Politics, 3: 1531.
Boston Globe (2005). Katrina Returns the Poor of Inner City to Forefront. September 6, A3.
Boudon, Raymond (2001). The Origin of Values: Sociology and Philosophy of Beliefs. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.
Bowman, Karlyn H. (2000). No Din over Dollar Divide. Chicago Sun-Times, July 31, p. 31.
Brooks, David (2006). Dollars and Sense. New York Times, January 26, A23.
Bullock, Heather, Wendy R. Williams, and Wendy W. Limbert (2003). Predicting Support for Welfare Policies: The Impact of Attributions and Beliefs about Inequality. Journal of Poverty, 7: 3555.
Business Week Online (2005). Poverty: The Crisis Katrina Revealed. September 27. 〈〉 (accessed February 7, 2006).
Card, David and John E. DiNardo (2002). Skill-biased Technological Change and Rising Wage Inequality: Some Problems and Puzzles. Journal of Labor Economics, 20: 733783.
Converse, Philip E. (1964). The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics. In David E. Apter (Ed.), Ideology and Discontent, pp. 206261. New York: Free Press.
Denver Post (2005). U.S. Poverty Exposed by Katrina. September 11, E6.
Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
Draut, Tammy (2002). New Opportunities? Public Opinion on Poverty, Income Inequality and Public Policy: 1996–2001. New York: Demos.
Esping-Andersen, Gøsta (2001). Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies. In David B. Grusky (Ed.), Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, pp. 830845. Boulder: Westview Press.
Feagin, Joe R. (1975). Subordinating the Poor: Welfare and American Beliefs. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Gamson, William A. (1992). The Social Psychology of Collective Action. In A. D. Morris and C. McClurg Mueller (Eds.), Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, pp. 5376. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Gitlin, Todd (1980). The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer L. (1981). What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Iyengar, Shanto (1991). Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Kelley, Jonathan and M. D. R. Evans (2001). The Legitimation of Inequality: Occupational Earnings in Nine Nations. American Journal of Sociology, 99: 75125.
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.
Ladd, Everett Carl and Karlyn H. Bowman (1998). Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Lippman, Walter (1922 [1991]). Public Opinion. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Los Angeles Times (2005). Katrina's Aftermath: Floodwaters Lift Poverty Debate into Political Focus. September 13, p. 1.
Lukács, Georg (1923 [1967]). History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin Press.
Mann, Michael (1973). Consciousness and Action Among the Western Working Class. London: Macmillan.
Manza, Jeff and Fay Lomax Cook (2001). Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion: The State of the Debate. Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University. 〈〉 (accessed May 24, 2006).
Massey, Douglas S. (2005). Return of the “L” Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
McCall, Leslie (2003). Do They Know and Do They Care? Americans' Awareness of Rising Inequality. Working Paper, Departments of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University. 〈〉 (accessed May 24, 2006).
McCall, Leslie and Julian Brash (2004). What Do Americans Think About Inequality? An Analysis of Polls and Media Coverage of Income Inequality. New York: Demos.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (2005). Poverty a Storm that Batters the Poor Every Day. September 11, p. 4.
New York Times (2005a). The Disaster Behind Disaster: Poverty. September 18, p. 5.
New York Times (2005b). Giving: Aftermaths. November 14, F1.
Newsday (2005). Storms Shine a Light on Poverty. October 2, A6.
News Tribune (2005). Poverty a Silent Scourge No More. September 18, A1.
O'Connor, Derry (2004). Public Opinion, Rational Choice and the New Institutionalism: Rational Choice as a Critical Theory of the Link Between Public Opinion and Public Policy. Working Paper, Université Laval. 〈,%20Derry.pdf〉 (accessed May 24, 2006).
Pew Research Center (2005a). Two-in-Three Critical of Bush's Relief Efforts. 〈〉 (accessed February 5, 2006).
Pew Research Center (2005b). Katrina Relief Effort Raises Concern Over Excessive Spending, Waste. 〈〉 (accessed February 5, 2006).
Riker, William (1982). Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Social Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.
Roberts, Alasdair (2004). Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality (2004). New York: Syracuse University.
Roberts, Alasdair (2005). Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality (2005). New York: Syracuse University.
Sacramento Bee (2005). Katrina Crisis Renews Focus on U.S. Poverty. September 18, A21.
Samuelson, Robert J. (2001). Indifferent to Inequality? Newsweek, May 7, p. 45.
San Diego Union-Tribune (2005). Dirty Little Secret: Disaster Laid Bare the Prevalence of Poverty in America. September 18, E1.
San Francisco Chronicle (2005). Catastrophe Shows Us Two Americas. September 5, B1.
Scheufele, Dietram A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 49: 103122.
Schiff, Frederick (1994). Deconstructing “Attitude Structure” in Public Opinion Studies. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 11: 287297.
U.S. Bureau of the Census (2005). Historical Poverty Tables. 〈〉 (accessed January 30, 2006).
USA Today (2005). Hurricane Exposes Issues of Class, Race. September 2, 20A.
Vermunt, Jeroen K. and Jay Magidson (2005). Technical Guide for Latent Gold 4.0: Basic and Advanced. Belmont, MA: Statistical Innovations, Inc.
Wagner, Joseph (1990). Rational Constraint in Mass Belief Systems: The Role of Developmental Moral Stages in the Structure of Political Beliefs. Political Psychology, 11: 147171.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
  • ISSN: 1742-058X
  • EISSN: 1742-0598
  • URL: /core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed