4. In Search of Greater Equality
Even under the difficult conditions discussed above one should neither overlook the countervailing forces that work in favor of realizing social equality of opportunity nor underestimate the amount of effort that is made in this direction. The economic prosperity that prevailed for so long and the common striving for success have to be seen as countervailing forces. So, too, are the egalitarian ways of dealing with others in everyday communication and the uniformity of the educational system, at least on a formal basis.
Most of the inequalities in the economic wealth of the United States do not take the form of a rich minority and a poor majority (for example, the contrast between rich capitalists and poor workers). Rather they take the form of a well-off majority and a poor minority (Potter 1954). This reality is fundamentally at variance with the usual theories of class inequality. Within the ranks of the well-off majority the general prosperity functions as a great leveler, as expressed in equal participation in mass consumption. Striving for success is the commonly shared philosophy and the conversion of that success via consumption the commonly shared practice.
Most of the families in this majority category have a detached house in the suburbs, two cars, color TV, dishwasher, and freezer. The family members deck themselves out generously in the latest fashions, wear blue jeans, eat hamburgers at McDonald's, Burger King, and Howard Johnson's, watch "E.T." and "Dallas," and take vacations in places like Florida every year. A leveling in life-styles has occurred in the United States via mass consumption. Such a leveling has not been reached in Europe. A family in which both the husband and the wife work has sufficient income to be able to satisfy most conceivable middle-class wishes. To a fair extent both the university professor and the newspaper
vendor on the corner share this style of life, and in this respect they are much more equal than their European counterparts.
In everyday communication Americans do not stress the differences between higher and lower social echelons. Top-level professionals, once outside their occupational spheres, are treated as ordinary citizens. This can be seen in typical day-to-day interactions. Newspaper vendors, for example, do not take a reverent stance in their dealings with professors, particularly if they make more money than the professors. Within the occupational sphere differences of rank are not automatically reflected in forms of address. The sales assistant's approach to the sales manager is not one of subordination, just as the latter does not an authoritarian stance in relation to the assistant. This equality in everyday dealings is highlighted by the normal practice of keeping communications throughout all levels of ranks on first-name terms (Collins 1979). In the occasional awkward situation where the lower-ranking person feels the difference is too great, he or she tends not to address the other directly in order to avoid embarrassment. A student, for example, might avoid direct address rather than call the professor "Professor Smith."
The most important factor in social leveling, however, is the breadth of the educational system, which gives a vast majority of Americans the opportunity for twelve years of education before they complete high school and allows half of those graduating each year to attend college for a further two to four years. Accordingly, educational differences are less of a social barrier than they are in Europe. Nevertheless, the uniformity of the educational system cannot be taken altogether literally. There are likely to be greater differences of quality between high schools in Harlem and the Upper East Side than there are between the secondary modern (Hauptschule ) and the grammar school (Gymnasium ) in the same suburb of Cologne. In additional, the high dropout rate in the United States is a major problem. There are also huge differences in the quality of colleges and universities. An Anglo-American graduate of the Harvard Law School will not mix with his or her Mexican-American counterpart from a less highly regarded law school in Texas by dint of having the same formal qualification alone. Because informal vertical differentiation exists, the formal uniformity in the educational system cannot, in and of itself, level out social differences. The children belonging to the lower groups and strata also attend the poorer schools, colleges, and universities in most cases.
The decentralization of the political system in the United States, especially the autonomy of municipalities, counteracts the tendencies toward a political differentiation into a ruling elite and a mass of ruled subjects. By European standards there are more varied possibilities for participating in political life. Although this does not make political involvement
something that is shared by all groups, it does at least make it a matter where a far greater number of citizens are active, and where they develop a common awareness of being active citizens with equal rights (Dahl 1967).
Most important in establishing equality in the United State is the belief that the unequal distribution of opportunity is illegitimate. This belief has led, first and foremost, to an active state policy of establishing equality of opportunity, which has been driven forward by the liberals. Although the conservatives can put a damper on this policy, they cannot eliminate it (Burkey 1978; Slawson 1979). Today the vast majority of the population supports measures securing equality of opportunity in all areas when these measures are explicitly intended to improve an individual's qualifications in the competitive job market. The majority does not, however, offer such support for efforts to redistribute income in a way that bears no relation to individual performance (Wilson 1980).
American individualism, which blocks income redistribution that bears no relation to individual performance and which resists state-administered care in the place of individual responsibility, provides the explanation on the ideological level for the fact that it was not until 1935 that the first comprehensive and effective social legislation was introduced in the United States. In response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the lead with his New Deal (Leiby 1978). The Social Security Act of 1935 incorporated two programs. One was an insurance scheme to provide pensions and unemployment pay, under which the insured were required to pay contributions; the other was state support, not based on contribution payments, for the aged and the blind (later also for other invalids) and for needy families with dependent children (Piven and Cloward 1971). This social legislation was expanded on in 1964 and 1965 by Lyndon B. Johnson and the liberal majority in Congress. The intent of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act was to bolster the fight against poverty. State assistance was granted to training programs aimed at improving levels of occupational qualification. The following programs were supported: training schemes for unemployed youth, English lessons for adults having no command of the language, neighborhood programs intended to give work experience to the young, corporate student programs enabling college students from needy families to take part-time work, and community action programs allowing residents of poor neighborhoods to participate in the planning and provision of services for their own benefit (Sundquist 1969; Plotnik and Skidmore 1975; Slawson 1979). The Medicare Act, another piece of major social legislation, was passed in 1965. It provided for health care among the aged and the poor, to be paid for from the federal budget. The growth in social welfare payments has made a marked impact on the
federal budget over the years. Between 1950 and 1976 expenditures in this sphere rose from $10.5 billion to $198.3 billion, their share of federal expenditures increased from 26.2 percent to 56 percent, and their share of the national product rose from 4 percent to 12.3 percent (Wilson 1980; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1978).
Despite this tremendous increase in social expenditures, there is no doubt that even today, the United States still lags well behind the European countries, which in this respect lead the world (Thurow 1969; Beeghley 1983). The prevailing public opinion continues to favor direct support designed to establish equality of opportunity, but opposes the collective redistribution of income. In an opinion poll carried out in 1976, although 94 percent believed on one should be allowed to starve for want of government aid, 89 percent believed there were too many welfare recipients who actually were able to work, and 64 percent expressed the view that the criteria for welfare payments were not strict enough (Wilson 1980).
A further indication of the American resistance to the collective establishment of social equality is given by the limited place socialism has had in the political arena. Any moves to initiate socialist parties have quickly run into the quicksand of American individualism. Insofar as socialist ideas have been formulated, they have never seriously demanded that there be a collective leveling of the distribution of goods. Rather they simply demand that the state give active support to those beginning the race for success with more limited chances and that true equality of opportunity be actively created (Lipset 1974; DeLeon 1978; Gilbert 1977).
The same applies to the policies of the trade unions. Although the American labor unions have never fought to have the economic system remodeled along socialist lines, they are among the toughest in the world when it comes to asserting the interests of their own member. These interests, however, are not conceived of as the collective equalization of the distribution of income, but as obtaining the best possible wages for relatively limited groups of workers with homogeneous interests. Unions are very strongly differentiated according to different industries and job specializations, and their duties are to interests of the particular groups concerned and not to those of working people as a whole. Thus unions are no more than instruments workers use to more effectively promote their own positions in the competition for better wages, and the individual worker does not expect any more than this from his or her union. Far from producing an increasing equality in wage levels, trade-union policy actually gives rise to increasing differentiation. The unions improve the positions of particular groups of workers, not only in opposition to the corporations but also in the face of competition from other groups of workers (Lipset  1979).