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Do They Know and Do They Care? Americans’ Awareness of Rising Inequality

Publication Date:
Jan 2005
Project Programs:
Social Inequality

Inequality now stands at pre-World War II levels but it seems to have received little attention by politicians or the media. Does the lack of attention reflect a lack of knowledge or a lack of concern among the general public? Presumably in a democracy public policies are shaped by the public’s awareness and tolerance of social problems and yet we have little information about Americans’ awareness and tolerance of rising inequality. An analysis of survey data from 1987 to 2000 shows that despite the prevailing image that Americans are tolerant of inequality, well over half of the population thinks that inequality is too high, and more importantly, this share rose significantly over the period of rising inequality and then fell significantly during the late 1990s economic boom, suggesting that Americans were indeed aware of some trend. I examine the economic and political underpinnings of this shift—who was most likely to oppose inequality and whether there was increasing consensus or polarization in views about inequality. I also examine media coverage of the issue and its role in shaping attitudes towards inequality.

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