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DID KATRINA RECALIBRATE ATTITUDES TOWARD POVERTY AND INEQUALITY?: A Test of the “Dirty Little Secret” Hypothesis

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

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.

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Corresponding author
Professor David B. Grusky, Department of Sociology, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: grusky@stanford.edu
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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.
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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
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