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Why Aren’t More Americans Mad About Rising Inequality and Unemployment?

New research suggests a lot of people don’t think they can do anything about it.

‘Unemployment Agency, 1957-58’ by artist Seymour Rosofsky, on loan from the Art Institute, in Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall office, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011.   Brian Cassella/ Chicago Tribune

Today Paul Krugman, working off Pew data, claims that the “realities of class” are sinking in. Here’s his evidence:

“This is, I believe, a very significant development,” Krugman writes. “The whole politics of poverty since the 70s has rested on the popular belief that the poor are Those People, not like us hard-working real Americans. This belief has been out of touch with reality for decades — but only now does reality seem to be breaking in.”

Americans do have a stubborn belief that, unless they are near the top or bottom of income distribution, that they are part of the middle class. Even in 2008, self-perception of class generated an exquisite bell curve, with half of respondents in the middle and percentages equal to half of that at the bottom and top.

Now the bell curve has turned into a cliff: almost equal percentages of respondents claiming to be middle- or lower-class, falling off to a mere 15 percent at the upper end of the spectrum.

Calling this the “realities” of class raises some tricky questions. One way to slice class is simply mathematical—income distribution, perhaps including assets and education—which tends to be the intuitive way to approach class.

But Krugman hints at something that came up when I wrote about the research of U of I prof Michael Kraus. Perception of class is extremely important, in his research more significant to outcomes than income.

Take what Krugman concludes (emphasis mine): “conservatives claiming that character defects are the source of poverty, and that poverty programs are bad because they make life too easy, are now talking to an audience with large numbers of Not Those People who realize that they are among those who sometimes need help from the safety net.”

Kraus found that one’s perception of class has significant implications for how one assigns cause and blame. People from (self-perceived) higher classes are more likely to assign cause to individual traits. People from lower classes are more likely to assign cause to society and circumstance. And the latter are less likely to perceive themselves as having agency and control.

I asked Kraus if this was a paradox. After all, if individual, biological traits are the prime mover, that’s almost Calvinistically depressing—your lot is yourself. But if it’s society, you can change society, and that’s pretty encouraging… right?

“They’re actually orthogonal constructs,” Kraus said. “They’re not related. We’ve looked at associations between control and essentialist beliefs [e.g. “character defects are the source of poverty"], and they’re just not correlated. It’s a separate construct. You can see this in terms of social-constructed beliefs about class. Those suggest that class is determined, and lower-class individuals have these constructed beliefs. They believe that class is constructed by the external context. But both essentialist beliefs and constructivist beliefs all suggest no control on the part of the individual.

“Constructed beliefs mean that society, the government, powerful people, they ascribe class. The system lays down the class structure that is forced upon me as an individual. Essentialist beliefs say that your genes force your class on you. But both include something that I can’t control.”

This is where the work of psychologists like Kraus, who are just starting to interrogate the significance of class perception in that field, is promising and compelling. Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton—something of a progressive in an administration that’s associated with neoliberal/centrist economic policies—recently tried to explain why, if the numbers are so bad, there’s not more outcry. Literally, Why There’s No Outcry.

Reich’s explanations are, as you’d expect, economic. Unions have been decimated, removing the leverage of workers; employees surveying a wasteland of high unemployment and their own mountains of debt are more likely to cling to what they have; and distrust of the government, and its ability to fix things, has increased.

Kraus’s research gives some texture to Reich’s question and Krugman’s perceptions. More Americans believe themselves to be lower- or lower-middle class, and if Kraus’s research holds and scales, that’s vastly more Americans to believe they have little control over their economic fates—and thus have no reason to raise an outcry.

This line of inquiry is new, and as such there aren’t longitudinal surveys, or cross-cultural comparisons that might contrast Americans’ current beliefs to those of, say, residents of European social-democratic countries. But even as a snapshot it has explanatory power: what’s going on in the minds of those individual data points, as they shift from a bell curve to a cliff.


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