Americans, Western Europeans Divided On Society's Role In Protecting The Impoverished

More than an ocean divides the United States and Western Europe.

Americans are significantly less supportive of a social safety net than Western Europeans, and they are more likely to say that success is determined by one's own hard work rather than outside forces, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

In fact, 58 percent of surveyed Americans said it is most important for people to have the freedom to pursue life's goals, much more than the 35 percent who said it is more important to make sure no one else is in need.

In contrast, at least six in ten people in Germany, Spain, and France said it was more important to make sure that no one else is left in need.

The difference in views may be partially explained by Europeans being more accustomed to a wider-reaching safety net than Americans. The social safety net in many western European countries includes universal healthcare, cheaper university education, and generous unemployment checks, according to MSNBC. Western Europe also provides more job protection, making it harder for companies to lay off full-time employees, according to The New York Times.

As a result, Western Europeans pay more in taxes than Americans: total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is 36 percent in Germany, in contrast to 28 percent in the United States, according to OECD data cited by MSNBC.

Western Europeans may also place more value on a social safety net simply because fewer of them have jobs. Employment has been consistently lower in western Europe than in the United States in recent decades; the average gap between employment in the U.S. and western Europe has been 10 percentage points between 1980 and 2007, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by The New York Times.

It appears that the recent recession has made some Americans less eager to help those worse off than themselves. While Americans became increasingly more supportive of a social safety net between 1994 and 2007, the percentage of Americans who believe that the government should help those who cannot help themselves fell nine percent to 63 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to the Pew Research Center.

There also was a sharp partisan divide: just 29 percent of Republicans said they believe that the government should help the needy even if it increases the national debt, while 65 percent of Democrats said they believe that the government should do so.

This divide has implications for the debate on how to rein in the burgeoning national debt as Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether to raise taxes or slash spending on certain programs to cut the budget deficit. A majority of Americans said they are willing to pay less in taxes and accept less in services, a recent Gallup survey found.

And Americans' views are split down party lines, Gallup found. Eighty-one percent of Republicans would choose lower taxes and fewer services, while about two-thirds of Democrats would either accept the current level of taxes and services or choose more services and taxes.