This hasn't done much to stir up public support for higher pay. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
This hasn't done much to stir up public support for higher pay. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

What's keeping Congress from raising the minimum wage, despite being urged to do so by President Barack Obama and more than 600 economists? The usual answer is obstructionist House Republicans combined with low-wage industries keen to avoid rising costs. But a new poll points to a more fundamental culprit: public opinion.

Surveys show that a majority of Americans, when asked directly, say they support raising the minimum wage. But a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center shows that, when asked which issues should be a "top priority" for the president and Congress, the share of respondents who chose helping the poor and needy fell by 8 percentage points from a year ago. That's the second-greatest decrease among the 20 issues presented.

And the decrease isn't the result of growing worry about public spending. Just the opposite: The only issue to experience a greater drop in public concern over the past year was reducing the budget deficit.

Nor is the decrease in concern for the poor the result of hardening attitudes among Republicans alone. Although it was most pronounced among Republicans, who showed a 14-point drop from 2013, independents and Democrats also recorded declines, of 7 points and 5 points respectively.

In fact, the share of respondents who place helping the poor and needy among the federal government's top priorities is now below 50 percent for the first time since 2003. So it's not enough to castigate House Republicans for dragging their feet; their recalcitrance also reflects a declining public appetite for action. And it's hard to blame lawmakers for reacting to public opinion.

Of course, it's possible that declining support for helping the poor is as much the result of Republicans' attitudes as the cause. Maybe the conservative narrative about the poor being the authors of their own misfortune is more resonant, not less, in the midst of stagnant middle-class wages and an economic recovery that's still underwhelming.

But whatever the reason, the long-term slide in support for helping the poor suggests that Obama needs to focus on more than just changing the minds of Republican lawmakers -- a task that's not only futile, but one the Pew data suggests misses the point. Instead, he needs to persuade more of the public that helping the worse off should be a priority of government.

So long as the public rates aiding the poor so low on Washington's to-do list, Republicans will continue to calculate that blocking a higher minimum wage carries no significant political cost -- even if a majority of Americans say they support raising the minimum wage. Until that changes, Obama will be left to work with marginal fixes, such as raising the minimum pay for federal contractors.

Priorities matter in politics at least as much as preferences. And Obama has so far failed to translate Americans' support for raising the minimum wage into a demand that government do so.

(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at +1-212-205-0364 or tlavin1@bloomberg.net.