Do Americans Care About Economic Inequality?

August 29, 2017

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has published a new report by RSF grantees Leslie McCall (CUNY Graduate Center) and Jennifer A. Richeson (Yale University), with Derek Burk and Marie Laperierre (Northwestern University), that examines Americans’ beliefs about opportunity and inequality in the United States today.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has been on the rise since the 1970s and is now higher than in any other developed nation. In the wake of the Great Recession, nearly 60% of new income gains have gone to the top 1% of earners. Yet, past studies have suggested that most citizens remain attached to the idea of the American Dream, or the belief that with enough hard work, anyone can get ahead, regardless of their family background.

In their study, McCall and Richeson conducted three controlled experiments designed to test whether exposure to information on rising inequality in the U.S. altered people’s conceptions of the American Dream and economic mobility. The researchers interviewed over 3,000 participants on their beliefs regarding the roles of structural advantages (such as being born into a wealthy family) and individual factors (such as work ethic). One group of respondents was given straightforward, objective information on the rise of economic inequality—such as a news article on inequality containing the graph above—while a control group was given information unrelated to economic inequality. The researchers found that respondents in the group that received information on inequality were more likely to say that structural factors were important for success and less likely to emphasize individual factors. Respondents who had been exposed to information on inequality were also more likely to support public policies designed to mitigate inequality and close the income gap.

In other words, their study shows that Americans’ attitudes toward opportunity and mobility may change as their awareness of economic inequality increases. “Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality,” the authors write, “the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.”

Read the full report from PNAS.

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