Now that economic inequality has become a focus of attention – mentions of “income inequality” in the New York Times went up five-fold in the 2010s compared to the 2000s, 200-fold compared to the 1990s – we know a few things about it clearly. For example: American inequality is unusually great among western societies; it has been growing substantially in recent decades; most recently, the gaps have widened especially between the very richest and the rest; and a good deal of inequality is subject to policy decisions (although some folks have been making that point for decades).
One thing that remains quite unclear is how average Americans think about inequality. Do they know about it, care about it, understand it, want to do anything about it?
In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. She disentangles the way Americans have answered a wide variety of survey questions on the topic over the last quarter-century or so, looking for the thread of logic that makes Americans’ knotted-up answers to all those questions coherent. In the end, she concludes that Americans are indeed aware, are concerned, and want action – and in a notably American way.
For decades, analysts have wondered why Americans have not become more supportive of policies that seem to be logical responses to widening inequality – essentially, taking more from the comfortable rich to help the struggling rest. But Americans have not shifted to the left on these issues. (Indeed, as noted in this earlier post, they appear to have shifted slightly to the right since the Great Recession.) Some researchers have therefore concluded that average Americans are unaware of the rising inequality; or, if they are aware of it, do not care about it, caring only about inequality of opportunity; or if Americans care, they hate government so much that they tolerate the inequality.
Here is what McCall found (updated a bit with new surveys):
* First, surveys show that Americans are aware that inequality has grown. They say it directly. For example, in a January, 2014 Pew Poll, 65 percent of respondents said that in the past ten years the gap between the rich and everyone else increased. However, McCall cautions (in an email exchange we had) that Americans seem to always complain that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Other data suggest, nonetheless, that Americans are seeing wider and wider gaps. For example, respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) in 2000 and 2010 estimated the difference in income between corporate executives and average workers as being much wider than GSS respondents in 1987 did.
* Second, Americans do not like high income inequality. Survey respondents describe what the executive vs. worker income gap “ought” to be as much smaller than what they believe it actually is. And respondents object directly: From the 1987 GSS through the 2010 GSS (and also in 2012, I checked), majorities agreed that differences in income in America are “too large.” Most Americans also increasingly agree that large differences in income are not necessary for prosperity – 39 percent in 1987, now 55 percent in 2012. And most respondents agree that inequality continues to exist because “it benefits the rich and powerful,” up to 65 percent in 2012. Similarly, other polls show that Americans increasingly describe this nation as divided into haves and have-nots.
* Third, most Americans find widening inequality objectionable because it seems to undercut opportunities for economic advancement. The rich getting richer is not itself a problem, they suggest, except to the degree that it makes it harder for other Americans to move up. Consistent with this claim, Gallup data show a large rise in the last 15 or so years in the percentage of Americans who are dissatisfied with the opportunities to get ahead in this country (here; here).
* Fourth, a growing percentage of Americans want something done about inequality. The percentage who said that it “is the responsibility of government to reduce differences between the rich and poor” rose from under 40 to over 50 percent between the mid-‘80s and the mid-‘00s. Similarly, in the January, 2014 Pew poll, 69 percent said the government should do some or do a lot to reduce the gap between the rich and the rest. (In another analysis of the GSS data, Lindsay Owens and David Pedulla found that specific respondents who had suffered a job loss or a serious drop in income from 2006 to 2010 were likely to shift their views toward agreeing that the government has a responsibility to reduce inequality.)
* Fifth, what Americans have not increasingly endorsed is having the government redistribute income. For example, in 2010’s, 46 percent of GSS respondents supported some effort by “Washington … to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor.” This was more than the 36 percent who opposed the idea, but it is virtually the identical percentage of Americans who supported the idea in the 2000s, 1990s, and 1980s. Thus, support for direct redistribution did not grow with growing inequality.
* Sixth, what Americans do want the government to do – and there is increasing support for this – is to increase opportunity, notably by funding more education. Americans’ strong endorsement of raising the minimum wage to over $10 an hour (73 percent favor it in the 2014 Pew survey) is also consistent with their focus on opportunity.
In sum, while it is true that Americans care more about equality of opportunity than about equality of outcomes, this does not mean they are indifferent to widening economic disparities. They are aware of inequality, dislike inequality, and want something to be done about it, McCall writes, because they fear that outcome inequality is “narrowing opportunities.” She further makes the point that Americans’ concerns grew despite strong messaging by conservative forces in recent years denying or excusing widening inequalities.
McCall does not compare Americans’ views on inequality to those of other peoples, but I am struck that, in her data and analysis, Americans generally do not object to economic inequality on grounds that perhaps other westerners might: not that it is morally, religiously offensive – Pope Francis speaks of “moral destitution”; nor on the grounds that everyone has a human right to a decent standard of living; nor because inequality might have damaging psychological consequences or social consequences; nor even because inequality slows economic growth. Generally, Americans object to inequality, it seems, because they think that it undermines the chances that individual ambition and hard work will succeed.
(Re-posted on the Berkeley Blog on April 10, 2014, and the Boston Review BR Blog on April 17, 2004.)