News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 21, 2013

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Individualist culture at root of income gap attitudes

Thomas L. Steiger
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Why don’t Americans think that growing income inequality (as well as the growing gaping disparity in wealth) is a very big problem for us? The United States is certainly exceptional when it comes to the actual levels of income inequality and public concern for it. Across the other advanced economies, as the ratio of the top 20 percent income to the bottom 20 percent income increases, public concern about income inequality grows as well. (We are number one in having the greatest inequality as measured this way among the advanced economies).

It is not because Americans are unaware of growing inequality. Polls consistently show that Americans believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and that the rich are doing better while the rest of us, especially the middle class, are struggling. Nevertheless, it’s not viewed as a very big problem.

Pope Francis is popular in the U.S., attributed to, in part, his personal actions regarding the poor and his pronouncements about growing income and wealth inequality. Of course, liberals like him better than do conservatives; a solid majority of U.S. Catholics like him. President Obama is making speeches about the growing economic inequality in the U.S. (Personally, I’d like to see him volunteer one day a month at Habitat for Humanity instead of golfing with Wall Street types.) It seems disjointed to me that on the one hand, these kinds of messages ring true with Americans but, on the other, they don’t see our growing inequality as a very serious problem.

Why?

Some conservatives suggest that relative inequality is not what Americans care about, rather it is “absolute well-being.” In short, the argument goes that our poor are rich compared to the poor from other countries. However, one can argue that the poor in other advanced economies are better off than our poor, why don’t other advanced countries, with considerably less inequality than we experience in the U.S., see inequality as a very big problem? Why don’t those other countries focus on absolute well-being, too? What evidence is there that our poor are knowledgeable about the poor in other countries? Despite the obvious weaknesses with this explanation, it points in the right direction. It’s about “me,” not “us.”

The American ideology of individualism contrasts sharply with the more “collectivist” orientations of the rest of the globe. In short, an individualist culture extols the interests of the individual over the larger group, while a collectivist culture extols the group over the individual.

Protestant European countries are more individualist oriented while Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are more collectivist. The American belief system has evolved to a point where there is considerable hostility to collectivist approaches, even to the point where some Americans object to how insurance works.

The historically strong and growing individualist cultural orientation of Americans, I think, goes a long way in explaining why Americans don’t see the growing economic inequality in the United States as a big problem, because we look out for ourselves and really don’t care (much) about others, even those in similar economic situations as ourselves.    

This growing hostility to collective approaches is shown in a variety of things. Labor unions, which  unquestionably have done more for working people than any other organization, are now viewed, even by a third of union families, as doing more harm than good. That all across the U.S., municipalities have scaled back virtually all public services, even first responders, who used to be untouchable when it came to any kind of cutbacks.

The “crisis” with education demonstrates this all too well, as our once vaunted public education system is being privatized from kindergarten all the way through graduate school with individuals racking up major debt because education is viewed less a public good than as a private good. Even the declining significance of religion in the U.S. fits with the growing imbalance of individualism over collectivism since one thing all religions hold true is this: There is something larger than me that I am a part.

Pope Francis, being a Latin American, comes from a society with a more collectivist orientation than what Americans are accustomed. Indeed, among Americans, Catholics tend toward a more collectivist orientation than do American Protestants. To some conservative Americans, who extoll individualism more so than liberal Americans, no wonder Pope Francis sounds “foreign” or “Marxist.”

Help the poor? The individualist responds, “No, let them help themselves. ‘We’ will provide a privately run prison cell for those who won’t.”



Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.