Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Fall/Winter 2016
Volume 14, Issue 2

Paved with Good Intentions: Individualism and the Cultural Reproduction
of Poverty and Inequality


 Lawrence M. Eppard
Concord University


    There has been a considerable amount of scholarly research suggesting that individualistic explanations of poverty and inequality are widespread and deeply entrenched in American culture and institutions. Research suggests that, while many Americans favor structural explanations of economic disadvantage and often hold inconsistent and sometimes contradictory beliefs, individualism continues to be the most dominant explanation for these social problems in the U.S. (Feagin 1972; Huber and Form 1973; Feagin 1975; Smith 1985; Kluegel and Smith 1986; Chafel 1997; Cozzarelli et. al. 2001; Robinson 2009; Hanson and Zogby 2010; Hunt and Bullock 2016). The high degree to which Americans transform poverty and inequality into individual-level problems, or "personal troubles" (Mills 1959), seems to be a "peculiarly American tendency" (Katz 1989:237); Americans espouse much more individualistic beliefs relative to citizens in other developed nations (Gilens 1999; Sawhill and Morton 2007; Isaacs 2008; Lepianka et. al. 2010; Pew Research Center 2011). This study explores the strength of the "dominant ideology" (Huber and Form 1973) of individualism in the U.S. among college students studying to become social workers.
Origins of Individualism in the United States

    Individualism has been crucial to the general American ethos and identity, leading to more prominent anti-statism and laissez-fair economic attitudes in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations (Lipset and Marks 2000). Throughout history, American society and culture "have been steeped in the notion of rugged individualism and personal progress" (Rank et. al. 2014:153). Mark Robert Rank and his colleagues (2003) explain:

Within the United States, the dominant perspective has been that of poverty as an individual failing. From Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac to the recent welfare reform changes, poverty has been conceptualized primarily as a consequence of individual failings and deficiencies. Indeed, social surveys asking about the causes of poverty have consistently found that Americans tend to rank individual reasons (such as laziness, lack of effort, and low ability) as the most important factors related to poverty (Rank et. al. 2003:4).

The roots of modern American individualism can be traced to 18th century European Enlightenment ideas which heavily influenced the founding of the United States (Lukes 1971; Bellah et. al. 1985; Elias 1991; Elias 2000; Callero 2009; Rosemont 2015). Scholars have attributed the more extreme individualism which manifested in the U.S. to many factors, including the Protestant ethic, unusually large quantities of open land (1) and natural resources, aversion to centralized British rule, the 1776 publication of Adam Smith's widely influential An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations concurrently with the founding of the nation, a unique history of race relations in the U.S., and the logic of American-style capitalism (Gilens 1999; Alesina and Glaeser 2004; McNamee and Miller 2014).

    Over time the assumptions of individualism, despite their problematic and in many ways anti-sociological conclusions (Ryan 1976; Rank 2005; Callero 2009; McNamee and Miller 2014; Rank et. al. 2014; Krause 2015), eventually became so entrenched in American culture and social institutions that they became unquestioned truth (Feagin 1975). Peter L. Callero (2009) eloquently argues that, "American society is saturated with the holy waters of individualism" (2009:21), while Henry Rosemont (2015) asserts that individualism "has become so deeply seated in us [Americans] that it is almost impossible to think in other than individualistic terms morally, economically, politically, religiously, and not least, psychologically" (2015:xii). Social scientists have provided strong empirical and theoretical support for the notion that individuals are highly constrained by their position in the social structure, yet "In the United States, more than in other nations, that fact is hidden under the guise of the American Dream" (Beeghley 2008:142). Individualistic beliefs have been historically dominant and continue to provide the most popular explanations for poverty and inequality in contemporary American culture, enjoying a "ubiquitous presence" (Royce 2015:150) in American society. This has a tremendous influence on American politics and social welfare policies (Brady 2009), as well as modern poverty and inequality scholarship (Katz 1989; Schram 1995; O'Connor 2001; Rank et. al. 2003; Rank 2005; Brady 2009; Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015). 

Components of American Individualism

American individualism, as mentioned, is not "natural" but a historically specific conception of self with roots in 18th century Western thought and historical developments; individualism in American popular and scholarly thought is a more extreme manifestation than is typically present elsewhere in the developed world. The prevalence of individualism leads many Americans to favor the homo clausus conception of human beings—the notion that individuals and society exist separately from each other, with individuals free from structural constraints if they so choose (Elias 2000; Mennell 2007). Norbert Elias (2000) notes that this conception considers "the individual as an entirely free, independent being, a 'closed personality' who is 'inwardly' quite self-sufficient and separate from all other people" (2000:470). He goes on to note:

People to whom it seems self-evident that their own self (or their ego, or whatever else it may be called) exists, as it were, 'inside' them, isolated from all the other people and things 'outside,' have difficulty assigning significance to all those facts which indicate that individuals live from the first in interdependence with others. They have difficulty conceiving people as relatively but not absolutely autonomous. . . Since the former self-perception seems self-evident to those subscribing to it, they cannot easily take account of facts which show that this kind of perception is itself limited (Elias, 2000:471).

At its core, individualism "is an ideology of self-determination, where free actors are assumed to make choices that have direct consequences for their own unique destiny" (Callero 2009:17); individualistic assumptions promote an "artificial separation of the self from society, and the belief in the primacy and superiority of the autonomous actor" (Callero 2009:29). In the U.S. it is widely believed that individuals possess a "thinking mind inside a sealed container, from which one looks out and struggles to fish for knowledge" in the external world (Mennell 2007:302). The work of Pierre Bourdieu concerning symbolic domination, such as his theory of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977), is especially informative for this study. Particularly useful is the assumption in his symbolic domination work that socialization agents and institutions—which propagate individualistic explanations of poverty and inequality—play a significant role in the misrecognition of the complex relationship between human beings and the social structure. The cultural "tool kit" (Swidler 1986) of symbols, narratives, and explanations available to most Americans to interpret the world and motivate action is heavily biased in favor of this particular conceptualization of the free and autonomous individual.

    Various scholars have conceptualized American individualism in a variety of ways, but there are many common components. (2)  The following summarizes the ideology of individualism in its purest form, acknowledging inconsistencies in its application and degrees of acceptance among adherents. A strict or "pure" form of American individualism assumes individuals and society are separate and distinct, and that people are free, rational, and autonomous. It assumes there are middle-class economic opportunities for all who want them, and that hard work, perseverance, and smart choices in competition with others will ensure their attainment; this is assumed to be true regardless of one's social or economic station of origin. Because success or failure is a matter of choice, these individualistic beliefs assume individuals are independent of the social structure and free from social forces by virtue of a high degree of negative freedom in the U.S.—typically conflating negative and positive freedom  (3) as the same. Individuals are assumed to have free will to make choices and to map their lives as they choose; those that fail are personally to blame, as it is assumed that the causes of success and failure lie within individual people, not structures. Finally, since the rewards we receive are generally proportionate to our effort, inequality in principle is justified, meritocratic, and fair.

Scope of Individualism in American Culture

    While there are multiple studies of importance on the scope of individualism in American culture, I consider James R. Kluegel's and Eliot R. Smith's (1986) Beliefs about Inequality to be exemplary along with the earlier work of Joe Feagin (1972 and 1975), scholarship which Kluegel and Smith expanded upon. Data from Feagin's 1969 nationwide survey revealed that 53% of Americans gave high importance to individualistic factors in explaining poverty compared to only 22% for structural factors (Feagin 1972:104). Poor decision-making, lack of effort, and lack of ability were the most popular explanations for poverty (4) (Feagin 1972:104). Feagin's findings revealed that, "On the average, individualistic factors were considered considerably more important than were structural or fatalistic factors in explaining contemporary poverty" (Feagin 1975:96) and individualism was "firmly entrenched in the American value system" (Feagin 1972:103). Building on Feagin's earlier work, Kluegel and Smith (1986) similarly found that "the general picture is of broad agreement on individual causes of achievement in American society" (1986:102). In general, most Americans believed that opportunities for economic advancement are widely available for all, a person's position in the social class structure is determined by individual efforts and talents, and in general economic inequality is fair, meritocratic, and equitable (Kluegel and Smith 1986:37).

    When Kluegel and Smith asked respondents whether everybody in the U.S. who works hard can get ahead, 70% agreed; about the same percentage, 72%, agreed that they had a fair opportunity to make the most of themselves without something holding them back, and 70% said the same for most other Americans (1986:44-47). Roughly 90% of respondents judged their own opportunity as equal to or better than that of the average American (1986:45). When asked class-specific versions of this question, respondents believed that most of those growing up in poor families (66%) and working-class families (92%) had an equal or better shot of getting ahead compared to the average American (1986:49). The authors found that, "A clear majority of the American population subscribes, largely unreservedly, to the characterization of America as the 'land of opportunity'" (1986:52) and "believes in the widespread availability of opportunity for economic advancement" (1986:53). The top explanations for American poverty were lack of thrift and poor money management (94%), lack of effort (92%), lack of ability and talent  (5) (88%), and faulty subcultural attitudes (88%) (1986:79). Most of the respondents believed that the wealthy attained their social and economic positions based on their superior talent and effort (1986:121). The authors concluded that, "Individualism is a central aspect of the American cultural pattern (the dominant ideology) and is held to a major extent across social strata" which leads people to a conservative evaluation of welfare and other redistributive programs (1986:93). American individualism holds that opportunities are present for all who need them, so the aims of a comprehensive, structurally-oriented welfare system contradict this cultural logic (1986:6). The authors argued that politicians react to these hegemonic beliefs by maintaining an individual-centered welfare state that reinforces the dominant individualistic beliefs.

    Research in subsequent decades has supported the findings from the seminal works of Feagin (1972 and 1975) and Kluegel and Smith (1986), finding that individualistic explanations of poverty and inequality have remained dominant and remarkably stable (Chafel 1997; Cozzarelli et. al. 2001; Johnson 2006; Robinson 2009; Hanson and Zogby 2010). From 1985 to 2006, a majority of Americans reported that hard work matters most in determining an individual's economic success or failure, never falling below 63% agreement (Hanson and Zogby 2010:572). Survey data from 1999 found that 61% of Americans believed that people were rewarded for their efforts, while the median response in 25 other wealthy countries was 36% (Sawhill and Morton 2007:2). Between 1999 and 2007, over 60 percent of respondents across six nationwide surveys agreed that most people who want to get ahead will do so if they are willing to work hard; in 2007, 67% of Americans agreed with this notion (Hanson and Zogby 2010:573-574). In 2008, 61% of Americans disagreed with the notion that success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside of one's control (Hanson and Zogby 2010:575). In a 2009 nationwide poll, 55% of Americans did not believe that a child's chances of achieving financial success are tied to the income of their parents, and hard work and ambition were still the most popular explanations for economic mobility (Pew Charitable Trusts 2009). In a 2013 nationwide poll, 65% of Americans agreed that most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard (Washington Post and Miller Center 2013). Taken as a whole these findings provide strong support for McNamee and Miller's (2014) assertion that, "Most Americans believe that meritocracy is not only the way the system should work but the way it does work" (2014:3).


    From July 2012 to February 2013 the author interviewed 25 out of 97 students actively enrolled in an undergraduate BSW program in the U.S. This program consisted of students who were disproportionately female and from middle-class backgrounds. Students were recruited utilizing convenience and snowball sampling. The interview data was analyzed utilizing techniques very similar to the grounded theory techniques articulated by Kathy Charmaz (2006). In the interviews the author asked students a variety of questions related to poverty and inequality in the U.S. For one question, the author asked the students whether or not the U.S. is a meritocracy. In another question, the author asked participants why poverty exists in the U.S. In another question the author asked participants what they believed (if anything) could be done to either eradicate or substantially reduce poverty in the U.S. The author then asked them whether they agree philosophically with the idea of government welfare assistance, and whether they would personally turn to welfare assistance in a time of considerable personal and/or family need. The author also asked them whether they would support three different welfare policies—work requirements, fertility policies, and drug tests—and to explain their reasoning. The author based their analysis of participants' explanations both on the core questions—meritocracy and the cause of poverty—as well as assumptions that emerged from their answers to the other questions. (6)  In this way the author was able to discern both what they believed the true causes of poverty and inequality were while gathering details about the assumptions they used to support these beliefs.

Why BSW Students?

    This project was developed to explore just how dominant individualistic poverty/inequality explanations are by focusing on a population of people who were conceivably in a position to resist them. The author chose undergraduate social work students because in exploratory conversations these students explicitly stated without prompting that a critical reason they were studying social work, one which they said is a crucial part of their developing professional identities, is that they consider themselves oppositional to dominant individualistic American beliefs about poverty and inequality. There were good reasons to question their degree of resistance to the individualistic perspective. They were entering a profession, for instance, that has traditionally been individual-focused and has grown more so in recent decades (Handler and Hasenfeld 2007), and some research suggests that social workers tend to view the poor in a negative light (Latimer 2008; Seccombe 2011). This seemed like an important research opportunity to pursue: might we gain better understanding of the hegemonic nature of individualism in the U.S. by examining the beliefs of those who claim to oppose it? An ideology is particularly powerful if it even makes its way into the worldviews of people who believe they oppose it. We likely learn more about the strength and persistence of dominant culture by examining its perpetuation among those with the weakest attachment to it. It should be noted that this was not a study of the field social work—this was a study of the connections between culture and personal beliefs and the difficulty all people have in resisting dominant culture, even those attempting to do so; after all, nobody exists outside of society and culture, and the overwhelming majority of students interviewed spent their entire lives being socialized in the U.S.

The Dominant Explanation of Poverty and Inequality: Individualism

    A majority of students supported a meritocratic vision of the U.S. and individualistic explanations of poverty and inequality. After individualism (60% support), the second most popular explanation was an individualism/structuralism compromise (7) (36%), where both structural and individualistic assumptions were important to the respondent but neither clearly dominated their logic. The structural explanation was by far the least popular (4%). While a sizeable minority (36%) of students espoused compromise explanations, the focus of this paper will be on data from students who supported individualism because this study was designed to explore the dominant ideology.

Belief in a Meritocratic Reality.

    The belief that the U.S. is a meritocracy, where individual characteristics and actions determine our social class position and explain inequality, was the dominant sentiment among the students and helped to explain the dominance of individualistic-orientations. Of the 25 participants, 14 (56%) agreed that the U.S. is a meritocracy, eight (32%) disagreed, and three (12%) only somewhat agreed. Even among the students who did not agree or only partially agreed, there was a tendency to suggest that while barriers to upward mobility do exist, most people can overcome them if they try hard enough. Most students agreed that hard work leads to success in a country like the U.S. because of the assumed endless opportunities present here.

The Assumption of Endless Opportunities.

     One of the most frequent and important assumptions buttressing the dominant individualistic perspective was the assumption of endless opportunities in the U.S. Because this belief was widespread, many students had little sympathy for people who could not work hard and grasp these opportunities. It was assumed that working hard in a land of endless opportunity leads to success for all who choose that path, regardless of the social class of origin. This belief in endless opportunities and the inevitable success that follows from hard work and smart choices tended to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about welfare dependency.

    Ashley Cohen (8), for instance, strongly believed that because her family was upwardly mobile—from poverty to the upper-class—that everybody else could make that climb if they so chose. Ashley was not alone in "proving" this through her life experience, as many students relied on anecdotal evidence to reinforce their beliefs. Here Ashley provides support for her claims through her family experiences:
[The U.S.] is absolutely a meritocracy. I see my father and his life as a perfect example. I think all of my family gets very frustrated when people say that you can never rise out of poverty. Seeing my dad really work from the bottom up I know it is possible. We went from poverty to the upper-class in one generation. I think there is a lot to be said about working hard and being able to achieve success.

Ashley believed in the core tenets of American individualism: opportunities exist for all who want them, and hard work provides a surefire path to success. She also revealed an assumption that was widespread in the interview data: because mobility is possible for some, like her family, it is proof that it is possible for all.

    When discussing which poverty perspective made the most sense to her, Jennifer Reynolds said that individualism was her first choice because of the assumption of endless opportunities. Jennifer responded, "I would say individualism is what I most agree with. . . There are so many opportunities, its America, I mean come on." There was real exasperation in her voice when she delivered the line "I mean come on," which revealed her disbelief that anybody could claim their failure in the economic game as a result of anything other than their own inability to grasp one of many opportunities available to all.

    Sarah Kim argued that her fellow BSW classmates were "too structural" in their worldviews, saying, "I've seen classmates talk strongly about structuralism, how society puts different people in one area, how society distributes wages and stuff like that. So I've heard of those opinions, I don't agree." Sarah found it difficult to accept the structural point of view because she believed anybody can "live minimum" in a land of opportunity as long as they work hard and make smart choices:
Just because to me, I believe that poverty's a very strong word. Poverty says you have nothing there. You might not be rich. . . but if you work hard, and if you make the right choices, you can actually—no matter what society throws at you, you can actually live minimum.
    Sarah espoused the popular belief that any barrier can be overcome if one tries hard enough. She also questioned whether the federal poverty threshold was too high, and as a consequence overestimating the number of poor people in the U.S.

    Peter LeBlanc believed that opportunities are available for all who want them and individuals are ultimately responsible for their own plight. He explained that, "My personal belief is that whatever you get [in life] is what you put into it." Peter stated that because the U.S. has a higher standard of living than many other countries, Americans should be grateful regardless of where they end up in the social hierarchy:
Everyone says there's no jobs right now, right?  But there are jobs, there's just not jobs that you like or that pay enough according to you. Everyone wants that one job that pays more than enough to live off of so they don't have to work multiple jobs. But the bottom line is, if you have a job at McDonalds, yes, it doesn't pay that well. Yes, it's not a prestigious job. But that's a job and a job is better than no job. When I was growing up in [Asia], if you converted the currency, people could make $2.50 an hour and live happily. . . I remember growing up, we didn't have a fridge. . . We had no centralized heating. I remember as a kid my job was to go downstairs and pick up pieces of coal. I think people take the concept of the 'land of opportunity,' you know, they should get the best. I think people take that a little too far. . . Also I personally think, what keeps the perpetual cycle of poverty going, it's like that book from when you were a kid, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  People can't just—you give someone one thing and they can't be content with it. They have to have more.
Like Sarah, Peter questions whether Americans want too much from life. To Peter, the distribution of resources in the U.S. seemed equitable because of the high American standard of living, a notion that was widespread in the interview data.

    Olivia Pace said she "agrees a lot" with the individualism perspective. She believed that opportunities are available for all who want them and, despite barriers that may make the path somewhat difficult, it is ultimately the "personal responsibility" of individuals to make the right choices and be successful:
I understand the system has been very unfair to you. . . but you are still a person. There is still the personal responsibility factor. And while all these things maybe are against you, if you give into the system it is your choice. . . giving in to the system is a personal decision. . . Somebody very close to me, his dad is a cabdriver and his mom has a similar low-income job. But they are putting him through college. I am a firm believer that it is about the decisions that you make and I think sometimes that is where I differ from other social work majors. I see a lot of my social work friends are very much like, 'Well it wasn't their fault'. . . I think that sometimes we need to be a little bit harsher. . . I think sometimes I am a little bit more like, 'That was their personal decision.'
Olivia's answer contained an assumption that was widespread in the interview data: success and failure are a matter of choice and decisions; she believes her personal experience is proof of this. According to this logic, individuals are subject to social forces only if they so choose, even if those social forces create barriers not experienced by others. She also repeats a common argument that because upward mobility is demonstrably possible for some, it is possible for all.
    A theme related to the notion of endless opportunities was the notion of welfare dependency. Rather than framing welfare as a means of fixing structural deficiencies, many of the students believed that welfare use is a sign that people cannot succeed on their own and must depend on the hard-earned money of others. After all, why would welfare recipients depend upon taxpayer money when a decent paying job is presumably waiting for them? Welfare was typically framed as a redistribution of equitably earned resources rather than a correction of structural imbalances misrecognized as earned resources. Students also tended to frame welfare dependency as inherently immoral.

    Jennifer Reynolds discussed her homeless shelter internship experience and how it helped reinforce her beliefs about the tendency of welfare recipients to become dependent:
I saw it all the time at the homeless internship I did. A lot of those people, they were all homeless and whatever, they had families, and didn't have money and couldn't afford their own homes. So they would get on this list to get a home. . . but instead of trying to make their lives better, like trying to go to school or trying to get a job or saving their money and only buying necessities, they just didn't care. They thought, 'Well, okay now I have this home, the government is helping us, they're giving us money, they're giving us all of these free things, I don't have to worry about that anymore. I am just going to rely on them instead of trying to get on my own feet.' We were trying to get them on their feet and have them do the work to stay there, but they got really comfortable. It was really, really frustrating. No matter how many times a case manager would talk to them and say, 'Hey, you need to do this or that,' they just didn't.
Jennifer, like many of her colleagues, framed welfare dependency as the refusal to work hard and grasp widespread opportunities. Jennifer, like every other student, was asked whether she would ever turn to welfare if she needed it. When answering Jennifer quickly assured the interviewer that, "I would try anything that I could think of to get out of it. I would figure it out and make it better." Jennifer's answer reinforced her other comments about welfare dependency, and like most of the students, she assured the interviewer that she would use welfare the "correct" way, in a "moral" manner.

    Isabel Cervera believed that poverty and welfare dependency are problems that are passed down from one generation to the next:
Sometimes I think it [poverty and welfare] is just a circle. There is no beginning or end. It becomes like a circle for people. . . Sometimes I think there is no improvement for those people. They just keep getting the same benefits or the same assistance. . . [For] the people that I have seen it is just like a chain. My family got this, your family will get this, and your kids will get this.
For Isabel, the poor inherit deficiencies from their parents that prevent them from grasping widespread opportunities.

    Natalia Huber argued that welfare recipients need to be forced out of their dependent states in order for them to grasp endless opportunities. She explained:
I think welfare should kind of get them on their feet, provide them with enough resources, and then kind of push them off. Because I also feel that a lot of people get dependent on it. . . If you really want to get off welfare, then you will make yourself get off welfare.
Natalia believes that welfare use is a choice and those who want to leave the system can simply choose to do so. She said that being too generous with welfare causes her and other social workers providing aid "to get angry with ourselves, asking why are there all of these people on welfare?" Natalia believes that welfare assistance that is too generous is "feeding into the system."

    It was always interesting to pose a general question about poverty and/or welfare and see which topic the student was eager to discuss first, which topic was most salient and pressing. Ashley Cohen, like many students, immediately began talking about dependency when the topic of welfare was broached. Referencing the recent economic crisis, she immediately seized on dependency, saying, "There are a lot of opportunities for people to depend upon the government right now, I think it is so freaking scary. I saw this in my internship—I think it is very scary to have someone not willing to work because of unemployment [insurance]." Ashley echoed much of the rhetoric that had been popular in the Presidential campaign at the time of the interview: it was the government, not the economic crisis, which was keeping people in an economically-vulnerable position.

The Dignity of Self-Sufficiency and Personal Responsibility.

    There were many themes related to the widespread focus on endless opportunities, hard work, and dependency. Two related themes that were very popular were self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. The dominant ideology held that there are endless opportunities for all who choose to work hard, so it seemed to logically follow for many students that those who do not grasp these opportunities are clearly irresponsible and not self-sufficient.
    Terra Whitley, like many of the students, discussed how social work is a field that preaches "self-determination"; the job of social workers, according to her, is to help individuals to help themselves and realize success comes from within:
I think more [social workers] would lean toward individualism [as an explanation for poverty]. . . if you're coming from a social work perspective, you'd probably pick individualism. Just because we practice self-determination meaning you get out of life what you give. So, and it's more optimistic. I think individualism is more optimistic. . . we learn a lot about self-determination, like I said. And we are taught to think more. . . we think people first, we don't think poverty. . . So sort of helping individuals fix their problems, do for themselves.
It is instructive how Terra discussed the focus on people instead of poverty, focusing on individual deficiencies instead of structural issues. Terra believed that ultimately people travel the path in life that they choose, getting out of life what they give. The poor, in their failures, needed to be helped in order to become self-sufficient.

    Sarah Kim also focused on self-determination. In discussing how welfare can be improved, she said that, "Not everybody wants to come get help themselves. To help them—to create programs to motivate self-determination." Sarah believed intelligence and decision-making are crucial to being self-sufficient:
It could be that genetically they're not—can I say they're not smart enough to make the right choice? Probably if they're genetically predisposed in that way, probably they don't know—probably they just can't help themselves. They don't know any other avenues to influence themselves to get better.
Not only did Sarah believe that choices determine who succeeds, but she also suggested that these things may be passed down genetically, that the poor may be biologically inferior.

    Jennifer Reynolds believed that the poor lack the intelligence and decision-making ability to rise out of poverty:
I think poor people aren't knowledgeable enough about, well about really anything. Like people are stupid in the fact that they do drugs and drink alcohol. People are stupid and don't know how to find jobs if they need to. They don't know how to control their money spending. It is lack of knowledge, just basically stupidity actually. . . There are poor and homeless people who are poor and homeless because they choose to be so as well, and that is also stupidity in my opinion.
Jennifer believed that poverty is largely a choice and the poor are prone to self-destructive behavior and "stupidity" which blocks self-sufficiency and access to otherwise open avenues to economic mobility.

    Karen Moore stated that turning to welfare would be embarrassing for her because she was raised to be self-sufficient:
I would not be dependent upon it personally. I would feel a little ashamed getting it not because it is welfare but because it is somebody else's help. I was raised to be very self-sufficient so I would want to get off of it. I know I would not be ashamed because I would do everything I can to get off of it.
Her answers suggested that dependency was largely a personal trait rather than a structural consequence. Karen suggested that, unlike other recipients, there was something about her personally that made her naturally self-sufficient. She believed that her choices and family upbringing would prevent her from becoming dependent on other people's money, which was presumably equitably earned.

    Natalia Huber spent her earliest childhood years in a Russian orphanage. On multiple occasions in the interview she reported that she never wanted to feel as helpless as she felt in that orphanage. When talking about whether she would use welfare if she needed to, Natalia said resorting to welfare-use would make her feel "weak," child-like, and "helpless," and said, "I would feel more degraded in terms of how I felt about myself, my own judgment." She went on to talk about how this would hurt her pride:
I would not feel comfortable [using welfare]. To me I feel that I am too proud to accept welfare. It would have to be a very, very, very, very last resort. I would probably go to the streets for a little bit before even thinking about welfare. . . I think a part of me would hate myself if I didn't try everything even if I had to choose welfare and it was the absolutely last resort, a part of me would still say no. You are going to fight it. A part of me, I don't want to put myself down or take a step down from how I feel about my pride. The biggest thing is I just don't think that I could bring myself to go onto welfare. I would feel like I am weak, helpless. And I have felt helpless and I don't want to revisit that. So I don't want to relive my past. I don't want to bring it up and have to think again, 'Great, here I am again.' I have done this once, and I don't want to do this another time. I have been in that helpless child phase where I, even when I was put in with a family I still felt helpless, I felt out of control, I didn't feel like I had control of my life. There is a part of me that would hate myself because I have already been helpless.
At several points in the interview Natalia made the connection between dependency and being in a "helpless child phase," equating poverty and welfare use with failing to be a self-sufficient adult and with personal failure in general.

     Ashley Cohen talked about how her life and religion shaped her views about poverty, inequality, and welfare:
My religious views of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, they go hand-in-hand. We believe very strongly that you should be self-sufficient, that you need to depend upon yourself and don't go looking for somebody else to bail you out.
This idea of self-sufficiency espoused by Ashley and many other respondents explicitly and implicitly supported the notion that endless opportunities exist and the initial distribution of resources was equitable, so failure to secure these resources made poor people dependent on other people's meritocratically-attained resources.
Individual Deficiencies, Poor Choices.

    Virtually all of the students had at least vague notions about wanting to pursue the field of psychology before entering the BSW program. A substantial majority of students also reported an interest in "fixing" perceived deficiencies in their clients. When the author explored this phenomenon with the students, the pattern that emerged was that the students knew that there was something "wrong" within individuals that, if fixed, could remove the primary obstacle to their success. This obstacle was typically the inability to work hard and make the right choices. This was consistent with the poverty and welfare ideologies that the students expressed about social problems: a focus on fixing individuals rather than structures.

     Tom Rowe's discussion of his career choice highlighted many of the themes that appeared time and again across the interviews. Tom initially wanted to study psychology but chose social work instead. He felt that in the field of psychology a professional must sit around all day and listen to the problems of people who cannot help themselves; social work, by contrast, was discussed as a field where you can actually help individuals fix their deficiencies:
I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. When I was younger it was more psychology and psychiatry, that sort of thing. But I had a personal issue with psychology and psychiatry, like, 'Well if you need help, if you can't resolve an issue on your own—I would never go seek help because you should be able to resolve an issue on your own.' So I thought to myself, 'Well I don't want to go into a career that does that, and I don't want to sit and listen to people's problems all day'. . . My end goal [after social work] is to do work in mental health and eventually have my own practice where people are coming to see me—similar to what a psychologist or psychiatrist would do.
Tom believed education helps poor individuals realize how their family's behaviors are flawed and teaches them to make the right decisions moving forward, saying, "Before I talked about the cycle of poverty a bit, so if a family member can see outside of themselves and their current situation they have the opportunity to change the dynamic of the family situation." Tom's answers illustrated the widespread focus on within-individual—and many times psychological—explanations for poverty and inequality espoused by most students.

     Olivia Pace's discussion of welfare was typical of this widespread focus on the assumed deficiencies of the poor:
People should get welfare as long as they're making a change in behavior. I am from a middle-class family. My family did not receive any government assistance. . . I think it is unfair to ask people to give up money that they have earned. Why do I have to give that to everybody else? I agree that is unfair especially if that person is not making an effort to change. . . as long as it is proven in the long run that you're making that change. . . after so many times though, I hate to say that, but if you are not making an effort to change do you really deserve to receive this assistance? Because you don't seem to be appreciating it or using it and really feeling like it is helping you. So I agree [with providing welfare] philosophically as long as it is structured the right way and people are making changes in their lives.
Like many students, Olivia believed the poor have an obligation to change themselves before receiving other people's hard earned money; after all, Olivia believed that nobody ever helped her family. Only under assumptions of an equitable initial distribution of resources would it logically follow that the poor should be "appreciative," because it is under those circumstances that the poor are asking to be given something that is not rightfully theirs.

     Corinne Ramsey felt that the decision-making of the poor needed to be "fixed." Corinne noted that ultimately "your choices determine who you are as a person," and poor individuals need to be taught to make better decisions than their family had been making up to that point. When asked how she would address poverty, Corinne said, "I think educating the family. . . Poverty doesn't have to be the way that they live their lives. I think that would be where we would need to start." For Corinne, choices determine success and failure in life, and bad choices are learned from family.

     Ashley Cohen used anecdotal evidence (from her internship) of a family who had recently fallen into poverty but eventually escaped as an example of how the poor could follow their example and be upwardly mobile if only they made the right choices. In her answer, she assumed there was something within these people as individuals that made them work hard and be self-motivated, excluding ways in which their previous middle-class experiences and non-economic resources may have influenced their eventual upward mobility:
Especially this one family I was working with. Both the husband and the wife together were making a wonderful amount of money, upper-middle-class, if not upper-class. They both lost their jobs, and it was a lot of self-determination and hard work that got them to where they ended up being, which is employed again.

When addressing poverty specifically, Ashley believed the poor need to be taught early on in childhood how to make the right choices so they do not become deficient, problematic adults. She said, "I think with education you can prevent a lot of problems that come down the line with people as they become adults."

    Allison Cruz, among others, echoed Ashley's popular concern that poor children need to be prevented from becoming deficient, problematic adults:
I used to think I'd want to work with children, but probably adolescents. I think because you can have such an influence, and I feel like that's a critical point in their lives. You can have a big impact on them. . . working with them so that if there's any problems, to try to resolve them [before they become adults].
Assuming that poor adults are "too late to fix" into self-sufficient individuals with the ability to make sound choices in a world of widespread opportunity was the epitome of an individualistic answer; these assumptions were widespread and informative.

The Assumed Immorality of Poverty and Welfare.
    It should be of no surprise that a student population that was mostly individualistic and thought the poor needed "fixing" would also (a) be generally suspicious of the morality of the poor and (b) support regulating the behaviors and morality of the poor through welfare policy. Every student made reference to the immorality of poverty and/or welfare in some manner, with a majority of students mentioning at least two of the following themes: welfare is inherently wrong; welfare abuse is widespread; the poor lack self-sufficiency and personal responsibility; welfare recipients are "dependent"; welfare is a handout and a waste of government money; welfare should be minimal to prevent disincentives; welfare is a transfer of money from people who earned it to those that did not; drug use is widespread among the poor; the poor are lazy/lack work ethic; and poor women's fertility is problematic. Because of these concerns and the individualistic concerns mentioned earlier, there was widespread support for regulating the poor through welfare policy.
     The study participants were overwhelmingly in favor—84% support—of policies that require welfare recipients to work in the paid labor force in order to receive welfare benefits. Most of the students who voiced their support for work requirements (a) framed work at a decent wage as something that is available to all who want it, (b) framed unemployment as a personal failing, and (c) assumed those without work lacked a strong work ethic and/or were lazy. Many of the students believed that without the proper motivation—such as work requirements—welfare recipients would have little incentive to grasp the endless opportunities available to them in the U.S. labor market.

     Like work requirements, policies aimed at limiting poor women's fertility and punishing them for having children while receiving welfare—such as family caps, policies which forbid families from collecting additional benefits for children born while a family is receiving welfare assistance—were very popular among the participants (68% support for family caps). Twice as many students supported fertility-limiting policies as rejected them. Common beliefs were that having children is mostly a choice that should be based on family finances, and nobody should choose to bring a child into poverty—logically precluding the long-term poor from bearing children. Their logic seemed to hinge on the notion that opportunities are available for all, so people do not have to be poor during their childbearing years if they so choose. There were also a large number of participants who believed, many quite strongly, that too many welfare recipients have children just to increase their monthly welfare benefits.

     It was widely assumed that the poor disproportionately abuse drugs, with 60% of students supporting mandatory drug testing in order for people to receive welfare assistance. The assumption of disproportionate drug use highlighted the widespread belief among these students in the inherent immorality of many of those in poverty and receiving welfare. Students were concerned about (a) the assumed widespread, disproportionate use of drugs among the poor and welfare recipients, (b) welfare recipients using hard-earned taxpayer money for drugs instead of basic necessities, (c) the poor and welfare recipients committing what they considered immoral acts, and (d) the government enabling drug use.

Further Discussion and Conclusions

Individualism as Dominant Ideology

     While the results of this study have important implications concerning the strength of the ideology of individualism in the U.S., there are limitations which limit generalizeability. While data from interviews with 25 out of 97 students in a BSW program reveal quite a bit about the dominant beliefs of students in this particular program, this is certainly not a big enough sample to make generalized statements about all BSW students in the U.S. Despite these limitations, this study reinforces the idea that the dominant ideology of individualism is quite strong in American society—so strong that even among those who claim to reject this ideology, as most of these students did, most actually firmly support it. Most of the BSW students (60%) in this study believed very strongly in many of the tenets of American individualism and supported the dominant American cultural logic concerning poverty and inequality. Only one student totally rejected individualism, and she was raised by politically socialist parents in a European country that is much more leftist than the U.S. in terms of its culture and welfare state. This study suggests that even Americans who believe they are engaged in cultural resistance often reproduce hegemonic cultural assumptions in many ways. This is not surprising, given that most Americans prefer individualistic explanations to more structurally-oriented ones. Some groups show less support for this ideology, such as the poor and working class, yet still prefer individualism despite being more structurally-oriented than other groups.

     The data suggest that, for these students, the dominant ideology functions to help them interpret the social world, categorize groups of people, give meaning to social divisions, conform to normative cultural understandings of poverty and inequality, justify their own position in the social hierarchy, absolve themselves of any responsibility for social inequality, reinforce their positive beliefs concerning U.S. society and culture, legitimate the prevailing social order, and support their own positive views of their own choices, work ethic, and abilities. These students most likely internalized the dominant ideology through the process of socialization and have this ideology constantly reinforced by dominant culture. The students, like most Americans, were not completely aware of their support for individualism or the way in which this ideology operates within their worldview. This helps explain why they were so strongly individualistic despite statements about their progressive political identities and what they believed were their structural poverty/inequality beliefs. Some of the most striking evidence of the strength of individualism in American culture is how dominant it is among groups of people least beholden to the ideology—such as social work students who claim to reject it. 

     There were many themes that buttressed the students' individualistic beliefs. Most students maintained that the U.S. is a land of endless opportunities and assumed that economic success and failure can be analyzed in terms of personal-responsibility, self-determination, hard work, proper motivation, and smart choices; in assuming endless opportunities, these students took the current social structure for granted and assumed people who could not succeed within this structure, regardless of social or economic station of origin, are somehow deficient. Means of addressing poverty and inequality were typically suggested within the context of the current taken-for-granted social structure; since it was widely assumed that resources are allocated equitably in the initial distribution, welfare was framed by a majority as redistribution of meritocratically-earned resources. Welfare was often framed as a "contract" between welfare recipients and the middle-class, a contract that stipulates that the poor will agree to address their aforementioned deficiencies and resulting behavior in exchange for hard-earned middle-class money; this behavior management seemed justified to students given their focus on the deficiencies and the assumed immorality of the poor—such as irresponsible fertility, substance abuse, and laziness/lack of work ethic.

     A majority of students supported the homo clausus conception of self, disconnecting individuals from society, treating individuals and society as distinct, and conceptualizing people as free, autonomous individuals. Most students argued that people are free from social forces and can choose whether or not to be poor; in assuming this students often conflated negative and positive freedom. Many reported that "nobody helped their family," framing government aid to the poor as the only external social force of any consequence, separating individuals from society and myriad other social forces affecting all social classes. Even students who acknowledged barriers to upward mobility assured the interviewer that anybody could succeed despite these barriers if they worked hard and really put their mind to it. While it is certainly problematic to assume that no poor person can escape poverty, it seemed equally problematic that these students assumed every poor person can escape poverty (which they often "proved" through anecdotal rags-to-riches stories).

     A particularly strong theme in the data was the belief that success and failure come from within, that all individuals are completely free from social forces to make the "right" choices and map their lives however they choose. There was a strong emphasis on negative freedom, and most students conflated negative freedom—perceived to be endless in the U.S.—with positive freedom; overcoming social forces, it was assumed, is simply a matter of choice. One of the most popular reasons that so many students were much more interested in the plight of children than the plight of adults was because they argued that children, unlike adults, are too young to choose to leave poverty. Children were framed as victims of circumstances while adults were assumed to be free to make the "right" decisions at any time and make a better life for themselves. Their answers were supported by the problematic assumption that negative freedom means freedom from social forces and structural constraints; once you are of the age to make adult decisions, it was implied, your success or failure is your responsibility—or your outcomes were ultimately "on you," as research participant Noreen Ahmed put it.

Implications for American Culture and Society
    The fact that these students, who explicitly stated without prompting that they were actively engaged in resistance to dominant cultural explanations of poverty and inequality, were so taken by individualism's core assumptions is informative about the prevalence and strength of the ideology of individualism in the wider American culture. This dominant perspective has been stable in the U.S. over the last few decades, and if the current neoliberal trend is any indication, it is not going anywhere any time soon (Soss et. al. 2011). Research suggests that it may prove difficult to reduce poverty and inequality in the U.S. without addressing the prevalence of individualism in American culture and social science.

     American culture—woven into which is the dominant ideology of individualism—not only impacts how we view poverty and inequality as a society, but also (1) how we study these issues in the social sciences (Longino 1990; Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015) and (2) how we choose to manage these issues through government welfare policies (Brady 2009). This study is framed in large part by the work of Pierre Bourdieu concerning symbolic domination, particularly his theory of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). Particularly informative is the notion that inequality is created and maintained across generations by the transmission of seemingly disinterested symbolic cultural forms, including language and knowledge, which leads to misrecognition. Bourdieu argues that "all cultural systems are fundamentally human constructions that are historical, that stem from the activities and interests of particular groups, and that legitimate unequal power relations among groups" (Swartz 1997:86). Social reproduction is a function of cultural reproduction; in essence, cultural transmission helps create social divisions as well as the social consequences of those divisions. Bourdieu argues that the arbitrariness of the content of one's culture, who created that content, and whom it benefits is never seen in its full truth. The symbolic forms that result from the reciprocal relationship between culture, scholarly research, and government action, for instance, have a significant impact on which particular "capitalism" we choose yet this process seems disinterested and natural. Taken-for-granted symbolic forms cycling through these three fields maintain a particular social structure; thus, these symbolic battles are ultimately largely responsible for the levels of poverty and inequality Americans are willing to tolerate.

     Bourdieu argues that learning in various contexts, particularly in families and schools, creates culturally-informed dispositions that are remarkably resilient throughout one's life; through the process of socialization we come to accept the assumptions contained in these symbolic forms as natural and reproduce them—reproducing social inequality in the process. Through socialization, socially-orchestrated—and thus collectively-chosen—inequality comes to be seen as natural, inevitable, justified, legitimate, desirable, and/or meritocratic. Through socialization in families and schools we come to internalize seemingly disinterested notions about inequality, suffering "genesis amnesia" (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977:9) and assuming our assumptions are purely our own, reproducing inequality largely unknowingly.

     If people truly believe something is not only legitimate knowledge but also a product of their own reasoning, threats to the dominant perspective are "excised at the source" (Chomsky 1987:136). The perpetuation of any cultural assumption—in this case individualism—by social science is therefore a particularly effective method contributing to ideological hegemony. There seems to be significant evidence of this in the reciprocal relationship between American culture, social science, and government welfare policy. In terms of how this works in social science, consider the fact that the United States is one of the most individualistic cultures in the wealthy world which also happens to produce some of the most highly individualistic poverty and inequality research in the wealthy world (Katz 1989; Schram 1995; O'Connor 2001; Rank et. al. 2003; Brady 2009; Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015), research that has become even more individualistic over the last forty years (Royce 2015). Threats to the dominant perspective of individualism, it seems, are vanquished at the source because of the "myth of autonomous social science" (Schram 1995:xxiv)—a social science of poverty and inequality supposedly disinterested and disconnected from cultural bias yet highly informed by culture. Alice O'Connor (2001) observed in her historical account of "poverty knowledge" in the U.S. that "poverty research continues to concentrate overwhelmingly on the behavior and characteristics of the poor" (2001:292). David Brady (2009) similarly argues that, "For many social scientists, individualism is beyond question—it is an assumed truth about the world," and individualism dominates social scientific methodologies in examining poverty and inequality (2009:16). Sanford F. Schram (1995) argues that modern poverty research is dominated by economists and economic assumptions; this research has often "assumed the prevailing behavioral bias of contemporary social science, that focusing on the behavior of the poor was the key to solving those problems" (1995:xxv), resulting in poverty studies which "assume the materialist base of society as given" and thus reinforcing the current social structure (1995:xxx). Michael Rodriguez-Muñiz (2015) discusses how cultural infrastructures both enable and constrain thought through the manner in which they "orient, direct, coordinate, explain, and legitimate or justify action" (Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015:91, citing Glaeser, 2011:37); generations inherit modes of thought, or their "intellectual inheritances" (Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015), from the past and these modes of thought motivate present action. Modern poverty research in the U.S. has maintained an inherited focus on individual characteristics of the poor despite evidence to suggest significant cross-national variation in poverty and inequality in the wealthy world which defies individualistic explanations (Brady 2009). Multivariate modeling has become one of the dominant methodologies for studying poverty, which inevitably leads researchers to examine correlations between individual-level characteristics—education, family structure, employment status, etc.—and economic outcomes (Rank et. al. 2003). This focus has shifted poverty and inequality research in a decidedly individualistic direction:
By focusing on individual attributes as the cause of poverty, social scientists have largely missed the underlying dynamic of American impoverishment. Poverty researchers have in effect focused on who loses out at the economic game, rather than addressing the fact that the game produces losers in the first place. An analysis into this underlying dynamic is critical to advancing our state of knowledge regarding American poverty (Rank et. al. 2003:5).
Our individualistic culture both influences research on poverty and inequality and is influenced by such studies. This has significant consequences for what the U.S. government does to reduce poverty.

     Despite its high overall standard of living the U.S. also has high levels of inequality and poverty relative to the rest of the wealthy world (Rank et. al. 2003; Smeeding 2005; Mishel et. al. 2007; Brady 2009; Brady et. al. 2009; Mishel et. al. 2012; Rank et. al. 2014), leading David Brady (2009) to call the U.S. "iconically unequal" (2009:4). Some scholars argue that this inequality is a choice we have made collectively as a culture (Blank 1997; Alesina et. al. 2001; Smeeding 2005; Birchfield 2008; Brady 2009); as Timothy Smeeding (2005) argues, "We have more inequality and poverty than other [rich] nations because we choose to have more" (2005:980). Society exists in a certain form, according to this logic, because most people (at some at least minimal level) give such social organization legitimacy. It follows that the ideology of individualism that has dominated American culture has led to a "reluctant" (Feagin 1975:91) and minimal welfare state that performs poorly in terms of poverty reduction relative to other rich nations (Schram 1995; Blank 1997; Noble 1997; Kenworthy 1999; Rank et. al. 2003; Defina and Thanawala 2004; Brady 2009). Despite the claims of the dominant individualistic perspective, unlimited opportunity is not open to all Americans, but believing so "lets us off the hook for any collective or individual responsibility we may have for rectifying the situation" (Rank et. al. 2014:161). Our individualistic culture informs and is informed by individualistic social science research, bolstering the foundational logic behind the American welfare state: beliefs in free markets, limited government intervention and taxation, behavioral management, and a limited social welfare state overall.

     Contrary to what some may argue, some research suggests that poverty and inequality in wealthy nations are not natural, unavoidable phenomena; they are the results of the various ways in which societies have responded to flaws in capitalist markets. Despite the many positive aspects of capitalism and the desirability of many capitalist economic mechanisms, this research suggests we need collective action in order to manage some of the inherent flaws of capitalism—particularly the fact that it cannot provide for all people at all times; the question does not have to be whether to be capitalistic but which capitalism we prefer. All capitalist countries seem to have the problem of fewer living wage jobs than those who need them—even during the booming economy of the 1990s in the U.S., scholars estimated that approximately 50 million American workers (more than one-third of the potential U.S. workforce) were "subemployed" (9)  (Royce 2015:110-111, citing Sheak and Morris 2002:390-409). These market flaws seem unavoidable, so it is a country's response to them that matters. In fact, countries that have successfully managed these market flaws through the welfare state have seen drastic reductions in poverty and inequality (Kenworthy 1999; Rank et. al. 2003; Defina and Thanawala 2004; Brady 2009). David Brady's (2009) data from 18 wealthy democracies in Rich Democracies, Poor People support this assumption. Brady found that poverty rates are lower and equality is more likely to be established where stronger cultural support for government action exists, welfare states are generous, leftist collective political actors are in power, latent coalitions for egalitarianism exert influence, and all of this is institutionalized in the formal political arena. Brady and others have argued that the cultural assumptions and interests of the population are an important component of this process and can set equality in motion and then help to maintain it. The less a culture supports the ideology individualism, the more politicians feel pressure to build and maintain adequate welfare states to deal with poverty and inequality. Brady (2009) argues that, "Welfare states are both a cause and an effect of a society's ideologies about equality," and social equality or inequality can be said to have resulted "from the reciprocal relationships among welfare states, ideologies, and interests" (2009:8).  
     Unfortunately, while inequality in the U.S. has been growing (Piketty and Saez 2003; Boushey and Weller 2005; Smeeding 2005; Atkinson and Piketty 2007; Mishel et. al. 2009; Mishel et. al. 2012; Piketty 2014), the individualistic perspective has remained stable. Over this same time period the minimalist American welfare system, already known for its "general stinginess" and poor design (Kenworthy 1999:1135), has grown weaker (Handler and Hasenfeld 2007). It seems that as long as symbolic forms supporting individualistic assumptions dominate our culture and scholarship, separating individuals from structures in explaining poverty and inequality, our welfare state will continue to prove inadequate to deal with these problems; as Feagin (1972) posited, "As long as Americans attribute social problems to character defects, economic reform will be extraordinarily difficult" (1972:103) and "a major shift in American attitudes and values" is necessary to truly address poverty and inequality (1972:129). This is no easy task, as "knowledge cultures influence what is sayable, knowable and imaginable" at a particular moment in time (Rodriguez-Muñiz 2015:93). Individuals invariably have a difficult time conceiving of alternatives situated outside of what Noam Chomsky (1987) calls the "unstated framework for thinkable thought" (1987:132); after all, we cannot create what we cannot first imagine.


(1)  Indigenous peoples may disagree with this terminology.

(2)  I pulled common ideas from a variety of sources, including Althusser 1971/2001, Huber and Form 1973, Feagin 1972 and 1975, Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Kluegel and Smith 1986, Cullen 2003, Mennell 2007, Rank, Hirschl, and Foster 2014, Krause 2015, and Rosemont 2015, among others.

(3) See Berlin (1958/1969) for positive and negative liberty.
(4)I paraphrased these survey items.
(5)I paraphrased this survey item.

(6) This was subjective. A student who said the U.S. is a meritocracy, for instance, may not have been deemed “individualistic” if answers to other questions contradicted this answer.  

(7) "Compromise" language borrowed from previous research; see Robinson 2009. Of those that supported a compromise explanation I would argue there was a “weak structuralism” (Royce 2015) employed and that individualism still underpinned their fundamental conceptualization of the individual. This is a discussion beyond the scope of this paper, but following the logic of such scholars as Henry Rosemont (2015) it was clear that individualism was important and foundational in the thinking of the vast majority of these students.

(8) This is a pseudonym. No real names or other identifying information are contained in this manuscript in an attempt to protect the identities of participants.

(9) Subemployment classification includes those who are actively looking for jobs but are unemployed, discouraged workers, involuntary part-time workers, and full-time workers earning a poverty wage.


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Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Robert Wortham,
 Associate Editor,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Rebecca Adams,

Bob Davis,
 North Carolina
 Agricultural and
 Technical State

Catherine Harris,
 Wake Forest

Ella Keller,
 State University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Steve McNamee,

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

William Smith,
 N.C. State University