from Renewing America

Despite Economy, American Values Hold Strong

An attendee prays during the inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters).

May 8, 2013

An attendee prays during the inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters).
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There are many remarkable findings in the polling cited by Andrew Kohut and Michael Dimock in their new working paper for Renewing America, entitled "Resilient American Values: Optimism in an Era of Growing Inequality and Economic Difficulty," but the most remarkable I thought is a set of side-by-side pie charts. In the first, the Pew Research Center asked Americans if they “admire people who are rich,” and just 27 percent said yes. But then Americans were asked if they “admire people who get rich by working hard,” and fully 88 percent said they agreed.

That huge discrepancy underscores the striking conclusion of the paper: After five years of recession, weak growth, and high unemployment, Americans are hurting economically, they are angry over what they see as unfairness and lack of opportunity in the economic system, but the country’s core values remain remarkably intact. As the authors write, based on decades of polling results: “There is little indication that beliefs in individualism, the efficacy of hard work, and the potential for personal progress have been seriously eroded by the economic body blow the American public has absorbed.”

The findings are important because they would seem to indicate that, for all the enormous challenges the United States faces, a growing class-based values divide is not one of them. Sociologist Charles Murray, for instance, in his detailed study Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, suggests that beliefs in hard work, family, God, and community have broken down among poorer Americans even as they continue to be embraced by wealthier Americans. If this is the case, then rebuilding those values could take generations.

But Kohut and Dimock find little support for that thesis in opinion polls. Wealthier and poorer Americans, for instance, are in complete agreement on the importance of hard work, and are similarly critical of what they see as growing dependence on government assistance. Religious feeling appears to be at least as strong among poorer Americans as among their wealthier counterparts, as is commitment to community, charity, and volunteering. Wealthier Americans do, as Murray suggests, appear more committed to the traditional institution of marriage than poorer Americans, perhaps because of the growing prevalence of single parent households. But on most questions about the importance of marriage the gaps are small.

The study also reveals surprisingly little class resentment, despite growing income inequality in the United States. Asked, for instance, whether the United States benefits from having a class of rich people, two-thirds of Americans said yes in a 2012 Gallup survey, unchanged from opinions two decades ago.

It would be easy to misread the survey findings as somehow suggesting that Americans think the economic status quo is just fine. That would be far from the truth. Indeed, they are angry about a great many things—such as  a tax system in which the wealthy are not seen as paying their fair share, and government bailouts that they see as rescuing politically powerful Wall Street bankers and profligate home buyers. What the public sees, the authors write, “is a greater lack of fairness in public policy, which increasingly is seen as favoring the rich and powerful rather than promoting opportunities for people like them.”

"Indeed, what the general public wants,” they write, “is not a war on the rich, but more policies that increased their prospects to get ahead.” And there is nothing remarkable about that. It is what most Americans have long believed.

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