A reflection on 2011: Declaring “war on inequality” means changing public values

Reflecting upon the events of 2011, I am reminded of a thought exercise Bill Gamson presented to the participants of the Young Scholars in Social Movements conference in April 2011. There was one question that especially stood out (and this is from my handwritten notes so I apologize if I don’t have this exactly right): “There has been a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the US since the 1970s. Yet there is no popular surge of moral indignation at the unfairness of it all and no social movement to demand to stop and reverse the trend.  People may be aware of this fact and angry about it, but their attention and anger doesn’t seem to get channeled into organized collective action.” Keep in mind that the conference took place before anyone heard of the Occupy movement; when to most, the word “occupy” still simply meant “to fill up space.”

It took three decades but inequality itself (as opposed to poverty, welfare and economic hardship) has become a salient political issue, thanks in large part to the Occupy movement (see The Economist, Oct. 26th).

In thinking about Bill Gamson’s question, I was reminded of an old argument – one with a long political history – the culture (or subculture) of poverty. In 2009, Bob Crutchfield and I wrote a paper on the “culture of inequality.” In it, we argue that the poor do not hold perverted values (as subculture of poverty arguments suggest), but rather, if we are to understand underlying values and beliefs about inequality, we should turn to the values in the larger society that are accepting of social inequality. That is, we as a society – the 100% – tolerate certain amounts of inequality.  For instance, most of us think meritocracies are just.  Yet any form of reward system inherently creates inequality, not to mention that discrimination based on characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation and disability are antithetical to the values that are supposed to justify meritocracies.  According to the 5th wave of the WVS (2005-2008), more than half of Americans believe that inequality is necessary, serving as an incentive for individuals to get ahead – in many ways echoing the Davis-Moore (1945) thesis about the function of inequality.  And this is not a phenomenon unique to the US. More than half of Canadians, Swedes and Zambians believe the same thing.

The culture of poverty – particularly the notion that subcultural values among the poor perpetuate a cycle of poverty – influenced the Moynihan Report of 1965 and the war on poverty. Later, social scientists like Charles Murray ( a libertarian political scientist), who argued that government support would only increase dependency and waste taxpayers’ money, influenced welfare reform in the 90s. Indeed, Clinton agreed with Murray’s diagnosis of the “welfare problem” (see the 1993 Newsweek article titled “The Entitlement Trap).

The subculture of poverty lives on in the 2012 Republican primaries. Perhaps not surprisingly, Newt Gingrich (who, as House Speaker, was a player in welfare reform in the 90s) recently said: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So, they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Similarly, Herman Cain, directly addressing Occupiers, proclaimed: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! “It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded, it is a person’s fault if they failed.”

Although many have noted that the Occupy movement has not clearly articulated its goals, it is also important to think about goals more broadly than say, a political response by elites.  The Occupy movement has taken a ubiquitous yet seemingly unmobilizable social problem, framed and packaged it, and channeled genuine discontent into protest that has brought the issue of inequality – in its own right – onto the political scene. In many ways, Occupiers have declared “war on inequality” which perhaps has served to change widely shared beliefs in the population about the nature of inequality. For instance, one November poll  found that 60% of Americans strongly agree that “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.”

That is not to say that Americans did not know or care about inequality before the Occupy movement, as Gamson alludes to in his question. Sociologist Leslie McCall writes in her (March New York Times) article that “Even though Americans underestimate how much inequality exists, they still want less of it, as studies have shown since the 1980s.” But the Occupy movement mobilized resources, took advantage of, and created an opportunity for, collective action, and provided a mobilizing frame. If not for the Occupy movement, would we be seriously talking about income inequality to the extent that we are today? Of course, the economic crisis and the recklessness on Wall Street deserve some of the credit.


Filed under Daily Disruption

4 responses to “A reflection on 2011: Declaring “war on inequality” means changing public values

  1. I wonder about the pervasive notion of the Horatio Alger myth in our society and how much of this can be attributed to the larger “cult of the individual” that feeds into consumerist society. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend the BBC doc, “Century of the Self.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyPzGUsYyKM
    If there is one success of the movement thus far, it is not only that it has brought attention to inequality in America. It is that it has made us think like citizens again. It reinvigorated Mill’s sociological imagination among the public. It stimulated civic engagement in a way that transcended traditional notions of political participation.
    However, with the retreat of the movement, I think we are beginning to see the return of the “cult of the individual” in public discourse, as you stated in the Cain and Gingrich quotes.


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