Do the Poor Suffer From Elite Ideas?

September 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

People in the lower class and working class are more likely do things that violate middle-class standards. They drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, take drugs, don’t have a job, and commit crimes all at higher rates than their middle-class counterparts. Traditional conservative explanations for these shortcomings focus on the individual. These people fail to live middle-class lives because they lack virtue.

In modern times, conservatives have pinned that lack of virtue on the policies of liberals —  policies like not punishing criminals severely enough, not punishing idleness, giving poor unwed mothers assistance for themselves and their children, and other programs that encourage the irresponsibility of the undeserving poor. 

Starting a half-century ago or so ago, conservatives began to indict liberals not just for their social policies but for their ideas about things like happiness and freedom. James Q. Wilson, for example, attributed the 1960s increase in crime in part to the ideology of self-expression and “do your own thing.” “This attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people.”

Of course, the people who were tuning in to these messages of self-indulgence (or as they might have styled it “self-actualization”) were largely young, White, and middle-class. Wilson never traced the paths of this diffusion of ideas. He just left us to assume that muggers, rioters, and welfare mothers in the cities had come together with the Whiter, less urban Woodstock generation, and they were all listening to Tim Leary, reading Fritz Perls or Abe Maslow, and putting those ideas into practice. Those practices —  the self-actualization among the middle-class, crime among the poor —  might have looked very different on the surface, but in Wilson’s view they were all based on the same ideas.       

A recent version of this theory — that the poor and uneducated have absorbed the ideas of affluent liberals and are worse off because of that — comes to us from Rob Henderson (here) in his catch-phrase “luxury beliefs” —  “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” He even claims that these beliefs explain the increase in economic inequality. “These beliefs . . . produce real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people, further widening the divide.”

Take, for example, ideas about the causes of success.

Then there’s the luxury belief that individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck. This belief is more common among many of my peers at Yale and Cambridge than the kids I grew up with in foster care or the women and men I served with in the military. The key message is that the outcomes of your life are beyond your control. This idea works to the benefit of the upper class and harms ordinary people.[emphasis added]

As I said in a previous post, most of Henderson’s assertions are hard to test against actual data. But for the last 45 years, the GSS has in fact asked people about the importance of luck.
GETAHEAD: Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks or help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?

I have broken the sample down into three educational categories: those who finished college, those who never finished high school, and those in between (a high school degree and possibly some college).  If Henderson is right, we should see a steady upward trend in the percent who say that Luck is important. The trend should begin among the most educated. If their ideas are filtering down through the class system, the less educated should also be trending upward but with a lag time of a few years.

(Click for a larger view.)

Henderson does not specify the time period for the trends he’s talking about, but if he’s thinking about very recent history, the graph offers some support. Among those with a college degree, the percent citing Luck rose in the two most recent iterations of the GSS — from about 8% in 2012 to 17% in 2018. Is that a trend? I don’t know. Prior to 2016, the percent fluctuates in no discernible pattern.

More relevant for Henderson’s claims, the fashion in Luck among the educated has no apparent effect on those with less education.  Since the mid-80s, among those who never finished high school, the belief that success depends mostly on luck does not follow the fluctuations of the college educated; instead it trends slightly downward.

It does not look as though the less educated are adopting the ideas of those who finished college. More tellingly, the GSS data also raises the question of whether beliefs about luck affect behavior. Henderson says that the well educated (“my peers at Yale and Cambridge”) are more likely to believe in the importance of luck and “random social forces.” Yet they behave in a contradictory way. They work hard. Henderson also seems to be implying that the less educated do not work so hard. That’s why they’re poor. Unlike the Yalies, they are acting on their belief about luck and winding up worse off for it.

But what the graph shows is that these ideas have not changed much.  If anything, the dropouts believe in luck less now than in the past. And yet, their incomes have left them farther and farther from the well-educated. Maybe economic inequality has less to do with virtuous ideas and more to do with the economy.

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