Social Mobility and Preferences for Redistribution

Awarded Scholars:
Stefanie Stantcheva, Harvard University
Alberto Alesina, Harvard University
Project Date:
Nov 2015
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

While income and wealth inequality have grown over the past decades, public support for redistribution has remained flat. One conjecture is that Americans believe that everybody gets a fair chance to make it and that one’s income is mostly the result of one’s own effort, rather than of one’s background—that is the "American Dream." Are these perceptions of social mobility consistent with reality? Do they evolve with reality or are they resistant to change?

Economists Stefanie Stantcheva and Alberto Alesina will examine how perceptions of social mobility affect support for redistribution. They will use the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform, as well as a representative commercial survey panel (CT Marketing), to collect data and perform experiments with a sample of 5,000 respondents. Specifically, they will document Americans’ perceptions of, and views about, social mobility, and compile a large, representative and comprehensive new dataset. Stantcheva and Alesina will consider the effect of social mobility perceptions on the support for various redistributive policies: “equality of opportunity” policies, which level the playing field (such as education policies and inheritance taxation), and “equality of outcome” policies (such as income taxation and direct transfer policies). They will also perform online randomized experiments that manipulate people’s perceptions of social mobility, by showing respondents in treatment groups various sets of (true) information regarding social mobility. They will study whether the effects of the treatments are amplified or dampened by a respondents’ own subjective experience of social mobility, by whether they have children, and by how risk averse they are.


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