New Gallup poll numbers show Americans increasingly dispute the idea that government has a responsibility to make sure everybody can get health insurance. It’s tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks.

The number of Americans who think health care is the government’s responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year. The shrinkage of American generosity during that period wasn’t just about health care. The onset of the recession corresponded with a change in public opinion on a range of issues, and in most cases the effect was to make Americans less caring about others.

Starting in 2007, the portion of Americans who said the government should guarantee every person enough to eat and a place to sleep started falling, from 69 percent to 59 percent last year. People who said the government should help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, fell from 54 percent to 43 percent over the same period.

That increased callousness extends beyond Americans’ views of helping the needy. In 2007, 60 percent of respondents agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment; by last year, that figure was 43 percent. The share who said the U.S. should “pay less attention to problems overseas” rose from 76 percent to 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.

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 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 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 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.

That may already be happening. The House passed a farm bill in July that didn’t include food stamps for the first time since 1973. Meanwhile, Republican states have opposed expanding their Medicaid programs, even though the federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost indefinitely.

For Democrats, the challenge here goes well beyond defending an increasingly unpopular health care law. Their job now is finding a way to convince people that helping their neighbors is still worthwhile, even as the median voter becomes less likely to agree.

Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View’s editorial board.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.