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Joe Trim, left, Mike Unger, center and Luis Duarte wait outside the Berkeley Food Pantry for food on Wednesday Nov. 20, 2013. The food bank has seen a large increase in clients since food stamps were cut back nationwide Nov. 1. (Doug Oakley/Bay Area News Group)

If a poor traveler cannot find an affordable room and the government provides a subsidy that allows her to spend a winter night in a stable, could it be said that she's living on Easy Street?

That's more than an intentionally provocative question posed at Christmastime.

It's one that strikes at what seems to be a fundamental divide in the way Americans view the role of government these days. More than all the emotional wedge issues -- guns, abortion, same-sex marriage -- the way that people view the role of government in providing a safety net for the poor is what constitutes the most significant gap in a politically divided society.

Stark evidence of that was provided last week in a poll of Californians conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Inserted amid a survey that mostly consisted of more traditional public-policy questions was this inquiry:

"Please indicate which statement comes closest to your own view, even if neither is exactly right: Poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return, or poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live decently."

The responses revealed sharply different views, divided along political and socioeconomic lines.


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Among respondents from households with incomes of $40,000 a year or greater, more than 40 percent said they believed the poor have it easy. Among those with incomes of less than $40,000, just 30 percent held that view.

As for Republicans and Democrats, their responses were mirror images. More than 60 percent of Democrats said the poor have hard lives; more than 60 percent of Republicans said they have it easy.

This was the sixth time the Public Policy Institute has asked the "poor people have it easy or hard" question, and, tellingly, the responses seem to reflect the economic conditions of the moment.

The highest sentiment that poor people have hard lives (59 percent) was recorded at the height of the housing-bubble economic boom, in 2007. This year marked the lowest level for that belief, at 51 percent among all adults.

That makes sense, says Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget Project. "We see more negative attitudes toward public assistance when there is a higher percentage of the public facing economic uncertainty," he told me.

Still, Hoene, whose organization advocates for policies that benefit low-income families, suggests that even those among the struggling middle-class might take a moment "to walk a mile in somebody's shoes who is on public assistance."

Following post-recession budget cuts in California, he notes that such assistance is at "historically low levels." Since 2009, cash assistance grants under CalWORKS, the state's welfare-to-work program, have been cut by 12 percent and the time limit to receive such grants has been reduced from 60 months to 48 months.

The average grant to a household now averages $400 a month. Such families also qualify for the CalFresh program (food stamps), and receive the equivalent of a food subsidy that works out to $1.40 per meal, Hoene noted.

"Our social safety net is operating at a more constrained level than it has in a long time," he said.

As for the working poor, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development notes that a family of four at the poverty line has $1,900 a month in income -- an amount that not quite allows for $565 for basic shelter, $250 for utilities, $345 to own and operate a used car, $356 for food, $220 for child care (even at subsidized levels) and $200 for health care.

Not exactly easy living.

There is a clear disconnect these days in how people think about the poor, and the role of government in assisting them.

Here's the disconnect in a nutshell:

In June, Pope Francis said this to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization: "A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being."

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill that would cut $40 billion from food stamps over the next 10 years and also establish new restrictions making it more difficult to qualify and limiting the benefit to three months.

The majority's apparent rationale was that the poor have it too easy.