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A U.S. Department of Agriculture photo showing a family grocery shopping using the SNAP (food stamp) program. Photo: USDA.
Now that growing economic inequality is widely accepted as fact—it took a couple of decades for the stubborn to acknowledge this—some wonder why Americans are not more upset about it. Americans do not like inequality, but their dislike has not increased. This spring, 63 percent of Gallup Poll respondents agreed that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed,” but that percentage has hardly changed in thirty years. Neither widening inequality nor the Great Recession has turned Americans to the left, much less radicalized them.
This puzzle recalls the hoary question of why there is no socialism in America. Why is the United States distinctive among Western nations in the weakness of its labor movement, absence of universal health care and other public goods, and reluctance to redistribute income where the elderly are not concerned? Generations of answers have ranged from the American mindset (say, individualism) to exercises of brute political power (e.g., strike-breakers, campaign money) to the formal structure of government (such as single-member districts). Some recent research presents a cultural explanation—specifically, Americans’ tendency to see issues of inequality in terms of deservingness. Even economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, insists on the “key role” of “belief systems.”
Notions of who deserves what shape the American welfare state. The economic demographer Robert Moffitt has shown that, despite common misperceptions, total U.S. welfare support—social security, food stamps, disability insurance, and so on—has not declined since the days of the Great Society. Even bracketing health expenditures, per capita government spending on means-tested programs rose pretty steadily over the last forty-plus years. What has changed, Moffitt argues, is who gets help. Spending has shifted away from the jobless, single, childless, and very poor toward the elderly, disabled, working, married, parents, and those who are not poor. (Medicaid spending, now accelerated by Obamacare, somewhat tempers this trend.) Moffitt’s explanation is that the American emphasis on helping only those deemed morally deserving—the second group—has been accentuated, the 1996 welfare reform being a prime example.
Americans seem likelier than other Westerners to believe the world is fair.
In a very different sort of study, two Danish scholars conducted a survey experiment in 2013 to ascertain whether Americans really do think of welfare recipients as undeserving, and if so, under what circumstances. In one scenario, they told samples of Danes and Americans to “imagine a man who is currently on social welfare” and asked whether “eligibility requirements . . . should be tightened for people like him.” Americans were more likely than Danes to say yes, tighten up. In the other scenarios, researchers told respondents either that the man was unemployed by accident and eager to get back to work or that he was fit but not much interested in a job. American and Danish respondents were equally likely to support tightening restrictions (about 35 percent of the time for the eager man and about 75 percent for the lazy one). Putting the results of the two scenarios together shows that Americans are likelier than Danes to assume that a generic male welfare recipient is lazy rather than unlucky. The researchers also asked respondents to free-associate words that come to mind when thinking of people on welfare. The Americans more commonly offered up words that implied laziness and less often words that implied bad luck.
Americans’ insistence that aid reach only the clearly deserving goes back centuries. It fits into a broader cultural perspective that also seems particularly American: viewing the world as fair.
Individuals vary in the extent to which they believe that one generally gets what one deserves. Psychologists have measured this “just world” viewpoint with questionnaires that ask respondents whether they agree, for example, that “men who keep in shape have little chance of suffering a heart attack.” (It’s sort of folk theodicy.) When events challenge that view—say, hearing about a young person’s death—just-world believers tend to assume that the victim brought on his or her suffering. Unfortunate people, by this logic, are probably undeserving people.
Americans seem likelier than other Westerners to believe in a just world. For example, the World Values Survey asks respondents to place their views on a ten-point scale running from “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life” to “Hard work doesn’t generally bring success—it’s more a matter of luck and connections.” Americans are first among Westerners in endorsing the you-get-what-you-deserve position. (New Zealanders, Canadians, and Australians follow close behind, while Europeans are far behind.) In another survey, Americans were least likely among five Western peoples to believe that “success in life is determined by forces outside our control.” Not only are Americans likelier to underestimate the extent of inequality in their country but they also are likelier to see it as fair.
Americans do express some resentment of the rich, sympathy for the poor, and support for redistributing from the former to the latter. But this philosophical position is mitigated by ideas about deservingness. In a 2012 survey, a great majority of Americans agreed that our “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.” While only 27 percent claimed simply to “admire the rich,” 88 percent claimed to “admire people who get rich by working hard.” Given the just-world perspective, Americans would tend to believe that the rich are rich because they worked hard and so deserve the riches and the admiration.
All this research testifies to the particular, historical resistance of Americans to spending money on the have-nots, whom they commonly assume are undeserving of such help. This remains the case even though Americans know inequality is on the rise: two-thirds of respondents to a 2013 survey said they thought the gap between rich and poor had increased in the previous five years.
Using polling data, sociologist Leslie McCall shows that Americans’ objections to inequality depend little on how much inequality they think actually exists; those who see a lot of inequality object about as much as those who see less. Another survey experiment found that the greater the perceived income gap, the greater the gap survey respondents considered fair—especially among respondents who scored high on just-world beliefs.
Political scientist Kris-Stella Trump’s research further suggests that average Americans’ accommodations to inequality can be partly explained by their desire to see the world—or at least the nation—as just. If inequality had risen more suddenly, perhaps their faith in just deserts would have been shaken instead of sustained. But inequality has been rising since the 1970s, possibly inuring observers.
When Americans do complain about inequality—and most do—they typically focus not on the gap itself, but, as McCall has shown, on how it undermines equal opportunity. That is, inequality is a problem if it undermines a world in which people get their just deserts.
Some social scientists would argue that all this cultural and psychological dissection of Americans’ views of inequality is beside the point. Economic and political power suppress efforts to raise the poor and lower the rich. Americans’ opinions about a just world are only post-hoc rationalizations for their political impotence or even mind-fogging propaganda they have swallowed. Perhaps. But it will be interesting to see, as the 2016 presidential contest unfolds, how much debate centers on these themes. One side will argue the injustice of contemporary inequality, and the other will argue the justice of getting what one deserves. All sides right of Bernie Sanders surely will not be arguing for equal outcomes, but only for equal opportunities.
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