Just Deserts

Snap-web

Claude S. Fischer in Boston Review (image: “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 notdeclined 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.

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