AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Objective. Lay explanations for "wealth" have been neglected in research on beliefs about social stratification. This study compares the nature and determinants of beliefs about the causes of both wealth and poverty, with special focus on race/ ethnic differences. Methods. Using survey data collected from Los Angeles County residents in 2000, descriptive and multivariate procedures are used to analyze "individualistic" and "structuralist" beliefs about wealth and poverty. In addition, one "fatalistic" belief, asking about the role of "God's will" in shaping wealth and poverty, is examined. Analyses test (1) whether race/ethnicity and other social and political characteristics variables shape these stratification beliefs, and (2) whether African Americans, Latinos, and whites differ in the determinants of beliefs about wealth and poverty. Results. Respondents favor individualistic over structuralist reasons for wealth, but favor structuralist over individualistic beliefs in explaining poverty. Fatalistic beliefs are least popular. On beliefs about wealth, African Americans, Latinos, and whites show similar levels of support for individualistic explanations; however, the race/ethnic minorities are both more structuralist than whites on this issue. On beliefs about poverty, the race/ethnic minorities are simultaneously more structuralist and more individualistic than are whites. Social-class identification and self-reported conservatism both significantly impact beliefs about wealth and poverty, and do so differently across race/ethnic lines. Conclusions. Findings support the separate treatment and examination of beliefs about wealth and poverty, and reinforce recent calls for greater attention to "nonwhites" in studies of sociopolitical attitudes.
That the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth and exhibits among the highest levels of economic inequality of any advanced industrial nation is well known in social scientific circles (Bradshaw and Wallace, 1996; Braun, 1991; Kerbo, 1996). What is less well understood is the nature of public opinion about the causes of the substantial economic disparities in the United States. Do people in the United States believe that the wealthy enjoy their privileged positions because of great talent and individual initiative? Alternatively, do they believe that some persons are able to amass great wealth due to systemic biases, such as political and business connections? Or, do people believe both these "types" of explanations for the existence of the rich? Similar questions can be asked regarding poverty: Do people believe that "personal," "structural," or both types of factors explain why the poor are present in the United States?
There has never been a shortage of "expert" commentary on these questions from both apologists (Gilder, 1981; Murray, 1984) and critics of the current political economy (Bluestone and Harrison, 1988; Harrington, 1984), but we have surprisingly little empirically-based knowledge of what lay persons believe about issues as basic as why the rich and poor exist in the United States. This relative empirical void is curious, considering the importance of these issues. As Kluegel and Smith note, "individuals' own strivings for economic advancement, as well as aspects of their views on public policy, may be influenced by beliefs about the causes and potential availability of wealth" (1986:75). That is, depending on whether people view wealth accumulation as due to individual effort and ability, or limited to a privileged few by virtue of structural barriers, has important consequences (as do the corresponding views of poverty, see Hughes and Tuch, 1999). Stratification beliefs researchers have attempted to document the causes and consequences of such patterns in public opinion, typically documenting the determinants (e.g., social location) and outcomes (e.g., policy views) of such ideological currents in an attempt to understand "what people believe about who gets what and why" (Kluegel and Smith, 1986).
There is a fairly extensive literature on the determinants and consequences of class consciousness and identification (Centers, 1949; Jackman and Jackman, 1983; Vanneman and Cannon, 1987), but comparatively little is known about the determinants of other "stratification beliefs," such as why some people are poor and others are wealthy. Further, to the extent that research into these issues does exist, most has examined beliefs about poverty (Feagin, 1975; Hughes and Tuch, 1999; Hunt, 1996, 2002; Kluegel and Smith, 1986), homelessness (Lee, Jones, and Lewis, 1990), or welfare recipients (Gilens, 1999). Considerably less is known about beliefs about wealth--a curious omission by stratification beliefs researchers given the explosion of research in recent years into the cultural, historical, and social-structural aspects of wealth inequality (Conley, 1999; Keister, 2003; Keister and Moiler, 2000; Oliver and Shapiro, 1995).
Alongside the neglect of beliefs about the rich, the larger domain of sociopolitical attitude research (Schuman et al., 1997), and the field of social psychology generally, have been criticized recently for their neglect of the beliefs and attitudes of nonwhites (Bobo, 1999; Hunt et al., 2000). Bobo argues that racial attitudes research "has thoroughly marginalized the opinions of African Americans and other racial minorities" having "unfortunate consequences for theory development and for the capacity of public opinion analysis to make useful contributions to the larger public discourse" (1999:138-39). In a similar vein, Hunt et al. (2000) criticize social psychology" for being "color-blind" in its neglect of issues of race and ethnicity in light of (1) the central attention paid to race by other subfields of sociology, (2) increasing attention to the relevance of other structural features of societies for social psychological processes (e.g., gender and crossnational differences), and (3) trends toward increasing race/ethnic diversity in the United States generally.
This study seeks to advance our knowledge of beliefs about inequality in several ways. First, rather than focusing solely on beliefs about why some people are poor, I examine lay beliefs about both poverty and wealth, allowing for a comparison of the nature and determinants of beliefs about these two important aspects of economic inequality. Second, this research responds to recent race-based criticisms (Bobo, 1999; Hunt et al., 2000) and moves beyond the "black/white" dichotomy by also incorporating Latinos' beliefs into our understanding of lay perceptions of the stratification order. (1) Third, rather than focusing solely on sociodemographic influences, I consider how sociodemographic and two relevant social psychological factors--political ideology and social-class identification--shape beliefs about inequality. Finally, in response to the "color-blind" critique (Hunt et al., 2000), and to some recent research documenting race differences in socialpsychological processes (Jackson, 1997; Schnittker, Freese, and Powell, 2000; Steelman and Powell, 1993), I explore whether the determinants of beliefs about wealth and poverty differ by race/ethnicity.
Most stratification beliefs research has focused on beliefs about the poor. In his seminal study on the issue, Feagin (1975) argued that beliefs about poverty are of three possible types: individualistic, structuralist, and fatalistic. "Individualistic" beliefs locate the causes of poverty in poor persons themselves (e.g., lack of ability, lack of effort) and are thought to reflect and reinforce a "dominant ideology" of individualism in American society (Huber and Form, 1973; Kluegel and Smith, 1986). In contrast, "structuralist" beliefs locate the causes of poverty in the social and economic system in which poor persons live (e.g., low wages, poor schools, discrimination) and are thus thought of as a "system-challenging" belief, and an ideological alternative to individualism. Finally, "fatalistic" beliefs locate the causes of poverty in supra-individual, but non-social-structural forces such as bad luck, sickness, and physical handicaps. Much less is known about fatalistic beliefs than about the other two types, perhaps in part because past studies have failed to include sufficient numbers of survey items tapping the "fatalism" dimension to produce statistically reliable measures (Hunt, 1996). (2) Thus, past empirical research has focused almost exclusively on individualistic and structuralist beliefs (also the primary foci of this study, though one fatalistic belief concerning the role of "God's will" is analyzed below).
Kluegel and Smith's (1986) research represents the most systematic study of beliefs about wealth. These authors document the existence of two primary types of belief: individualistic (e.g., personal drive) and structuralist (e.g., money inherited from families), though these are analyzed in considerably less detail than are beliefs about poverty. A literature search revealed two other studies (Smith, 1985; Smith and Stone, 1989), both of which use samples of Texans. Smith (1985) used a similar set of items as Kluegel and Smith (1986) and observed the same two types of belief. Smith and Stone (1989) factor analyzed a set of 38 "often-mentioned causes of wealth and poverty," which included survey items tapping individualistic, structuralist, and fatalistic dimensions (though the first two types of belief dominate the views of those surveyed). Consistent with Kluegel and Smith (1986), both of these studies find individualistic beliefs to be more popular than structuralist beliefs. In light of this relative paucity of research into beliefs about wealth, more work is needed to better round out our knowledge of lay perceptions of the stratification order.
Determinants of Stratification Beliefs
Research into the antecedents of beliefs about poverty has generally found that persons of higher status (e.g., those with higher incomes, whites, and older people) favor individualistic explanations. Lower status has been found to increase use of structuralist explanations, "but not necessarily with greatly diminished support for individualism" (Kluegel and Smith, 1986:93). The adherence to individualism among lower-status people is explained as evidence of the strength of a dominant ideology (Huber and Form, 1973; Kluegel and Smith 1986), which is viewed as a general cultural trait, having broad, "universalistic" effects on all Americans. In contrast to the effects of individualism, structuralist beliefs are more variable, more responsive to group memberships, personal experiences, and the prevailing social climate, and "layered" onto, instead of replacing, the existing individualistic base. (3)
To the extent that we have knowledge of the role of race/ethnicity in shaping stratification beliefs, studies have virtually all focused on whites, blacks, or the issue of black/white differences. Thus, the beliefs of the rapidly growing Latino population--recently surpassing African Americans as the numerically largest race/ethnic minority in the United States according to 2000 Census figures--have been relatively neglected. Most research on race has shown that African Americans are generally equal to or slightly less individualistic than whites, but much more likely to view structural factors as contributing to the existence of poverty (Feagin, 1975; Kluegel and Smith, 1986). African Americans' greater structuralism, along with levels of individualism similar to that of whites, supports the argument that structuralist beliefs may be combined with, or "layered onto," an existing in dividualistic base. (4) Some more recent research also suggests that racial minorities may be simultaneously more structuralist and more individualistic than whites on the issue of poverty (Hughes and Tuch, 1999; Hunt, 1996).
Finally, social-psychological factors shaping beliefs about inequalities have generally gone unanalyzed and, to the extent that researchers have examined this issue, findings are mixed across race/ethnic lines, underscoring the need for more work analyzing (1) a greater range of social-psychological factors shaping perceptions, and (2) how these factors may vary in their effects across race/ethnic lines (Hunt et al., 2000). This study focuses on the effects of political ideology (liberalism/conservatism) and social-class identification (SCI)--two factors that are particularly relevant given the politically- and inequality-focused nature of the beliefs under examination.
In this study, I ask three main questions.
First, what is believed about the …