It’s not unusual for people to react to economic downturns by becoming more self-interested. The recession of 1990-1991 was followed by a drop in the share of people who said the government has a responsibility to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Opposing welfare programs just when they’re needed most seems perverse, but it may also be human nature.
What’s different today is the duration of those shifts. Six years after the 1991 recession ended, public attitudes on the virtues of helping the needy had started to move back up. Today, six years after the onset of the last recession, those numbers are still moving down.
One explanation could be that the financial crisis was so shocking that its impact on American values was correspondingly severe, and those values will take longer to recover. Another interpretation is that the political culture shifted during the past recession, with groups such as the Tea Party encouraging and reinforcing attitudes that would already be fading in their absence. Yet another view is that the epidemic of narcissism has made us less equipped to care about others.
Perhaps the most pessimistic reading is the possibility that, as Paul Krugman wrote yesterday in the New York Times, the U.S. could be entering a permanent economic slump. If it’s true that Americans react to downturns by caring less about the welfare of others, then an enduring downturn could start to chip away at public support for programs that once seemed sacrosanct.