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Affluent Americans and the Common Good

Awarded Scholars

Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University
Larry Bartels, Princeton University
Project Date: June, 2010
Award Amount:$338,939
Project Programs: Social Inequality

The long-running rise in economic inequality in the U.S. is sometimes framed as a threat that the poor will fall further and further behind the rest of society. But in fact, most of the increase in inequality has occurred at the top of the distribution, not the bottom—it is more a matter of the rich pulling away from everyone else rather than the poor falling behind.  And, within the high-income group, it is those at the very top who have made the biggest gains. Tax records show that the share of national income taken home by the top 1 percent has doubled in the past half century, to almost 22 percent by 2005, while the share of the top .01 percent has more than tripled over the same period, now reaching almost 11 percent. This concentration of economic power at the top is now a fact of American life.  If these trends continue, they could obviously create severe economic distortions in the future.  But is the concentration of affluence a problem now – at current levels?

Political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) and Larry Bartels (Princeton University) argue that to understand the political and social implications of high-end inequality we need to know more about how the wealthy in this generation think about the nation’s problems and what role they are prepared to play in addressing them. To that end, the study aims to understand the political and social implications of economic inequality by examining how the wealthy in this generation think about the nation’s problems and what role they are prepared to play in addressing them. The project, to be conducted from late 2010 through 2011, will comprise a systematic survey of the political and social attitudes and activities of the very wealthy. The study will begin with a pilot survey of 100 affluent households in Chicago and will take up a range of topics, including civic engagement and charitable activities; beliefs about markets, government, and equal opportunity; and preferences concerning government programs such as welfare, Social Security, and education. Page and Bartels will supplement their survey with data from the Survey of Consumer Finances and WealthFinder. The first of its kind, the project will provide a better understanding of whether the concentration of wealth at the top is now or is likely to contribute to more severe economic divisions in the future.