This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
With the seating of the 116th Congress and the rise of progressive and liberal leaders such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, increased attention has been paid to ideas about socialism, regulations of markets, and questions of equity and opportunity in this country. In response, many on the Right are attacking Democratic politicians for promoting topics that seemingly challenge long-held norms and ideas about American values and attitudes toward mobility and the role of government. But it is critical that those on the conservative side recognize that there has been a real change in Americans’ attitudes on issues of mobility and opportunity, a change that simply cannot be ignored.
New data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey on Community and Society suggest a number of non-trivial shifts in how Americans view both poverty and wealth inequality in society. In both cases, majorities of Americans now believe that individual efforts are not enough to guarantee equality and instead hold that structural issues must be addressed to promote more equity in society.
I asked a national sample of 2,400 Americans a simple question: “Which is the bigger cause of poverty today?” They could choose either: “People are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty” or “Circumstances beyond their control cause people to be poor.” Such a question is intended to capture whether or not the respondent sees the issue of poverty as a structural matter or an individualistic one. The responses we got indicate that Americans’ attitudes on these matters have shifted dramatically over the past two decades away from the individualistic point of view and towards a more structural one.
In 1995, when a similar question was asked in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, the numbers were quite clear: Americans saw poverty as a matter of individual efforts and choices. Ten percent took a middle position and said both factors were significant, while 30 percent of the respondents believed people became impoverished because of factors outside their control. A clear majority of Americans — 60 percent — thought that people were in poverty because they were not doing enough to help themselves.
Those numbers and sentiments have changed considerably. By 2001, responses showed that Americans were split: 45 percent believed that being in poverty was because of factors outside of their control compared to 48 percent saying that those in poverty are not doing enough to raise themselves up. Similarly, in 2005, the numbers again showed a split, with a slight plurality — 47 percent — who believed that being in poverty was beyond one’s control, compared to 44 percent who maintained that those in poverty were not doing enough to help themselves.
By 2018, Americans were still divided, although they clearly leaned toward believing structural inequalities are a salient cause of poverty. Today, 55 percent of Americans believe poverty is due to circumstances beyond individual control, compared to 44 percent who think that people are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty.
There is a partisan and generational component of this change in attitude. Seventy-four percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Independents feel that poverty is structural compared to just 24 percent of Republicans. Further, younger Americans tend to view structural causes as far important than individual behaviors. While 47 percent of both early and late Baby Boomers believe structural causes of poverty are more influential than individual agency, 55 percent of both late and early Millennials view structure as more potent. Finally, 63 percent of Generation Z hold that poverty is due to circumstances beyond individuals’ control. These figures line up with the beliefs of the new guard in Congress as well as their respective bases of support.
In a similar vein, a weighty shift in opinion has developed over the past two decades about wealth gaps in American society. In 1998, when asked, “Do you think the fact that some people in the United States are rich and others are poor represents a problem that needs to be fixed or is an acceptable part of our economic system?,” a slight majority — 52 percent — of Americans found these inequalities acceptable, with 45 percent saying they were a problem that needed to be fixed. By 2018, responses flipped, and 57 percent of Americans asserted that wealth differences are issues that need to be addressed.
Once again, there are partisan and age splits. Seventy-three percent of Democrats hold that wealth differences need to be addressed, compared to just 32 percent of Republicans. More notable, however, is that 73 percent of Generation Z sees disparities in wealth as an issue that needs to be corrected compared to just 47 percent of early Boomers. In fact, majorities of both Generation X and the Millennials now believe that wealth inequalities are not acceptable parts of the American market system. These groups are the demographic and political future of this country.
In short, these new data reveal a noteworthy change over the past two decades in how Americans view the causes of poverty and think about wealth inequalities. Many Americans, and especially younger Americans, now see structural causes as the problem that must be confronted to address poverty and wealth disparities.
Those in the GOP would be well served to pause and consider the fact that many of the new members of Congress have tapped into these socio-economic and demographic changes. Far from being cooked up by elite lawmakers, these sentiments about poverty and inequality are very real and run deep through the polity itself. Republicans need to consider how to position themselves in a universe in which more and more Americans believe the state must play a far greater role in mitigating both poverty and wealth disparity than in the past. In public sentiment, at least, individualism no longer reigns supreme.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.