It has been obvious for quite a while that Americans occupy different and incommensurate realities. But in the midst of the partisan and religious vitriol (often fed by an appalling lack of basic constitutional, economic and scientific knowledge), there is some evidence of–dare I say it–a creeping rationality.
As millions of Americans continue to struggle in a sluggish economy, a growing portion of the country says that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond individual control, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The poll shows a significant shift in American opinion on the causes of poverty since the last time the question was asked, nearly 20 years ago. In 1995, in the midst of a raging political debate about welfare and poverty, less than a third of poll respondents said people were in poverty because of issues beyond their control. At that time, a majority said that poverty was caused by “people not doing enough.” Now, nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, attribute poverty to factors other than individual initiative.
America’s porous social-safety net is largely attributable to a stubborn belief in individual responsibility for social mobility and a corresponding insistence that only lazy people or those who are somehow morally deficient find themselves at the bottom of the economic heap.
Rooted in Calvinism (earthly success as a sign of divine favor) it is a worldview that conveniently overlooks all the ways in which government helps the middle and upper classes and focuses opprobrium on anything that could be labeled “welfare.” (Corporate subsidies are economic development; Social Security and Medicare are insurance programs, etc.).
As a country and society, we perversely refuse to recognize the systemic and institutional causes of economic disadvantage until the pain is widely enough shared and its roots impossible to miss. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that people were willing to recognize the need for even a minimal social safety net. The NBC poll is just one data point. But there are others.
Sane Republicans are speaking out about climate change. Dick Cheney is increasingly seen as the bad joke he has always been. Young people are demonstrably more inclusive than their elders. Same-sex marriages are close to being fait accompli everywhere. There are more tolerant Americans than there are Theocratic Christians, and the ranks of the former are growing while those of the latter are declining.
Although Obama’s election unleashed a depressing torrent of hitherto suppressed racism, the fact remains that we did elect an African-American President. Twice.
There are signs that it’s getting better. If we can just survive the Crazy…