Over the last four decades the gap between rich and poor in America has widened. According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the share of pre-tax income held by the top 1% of US earners has increased dramatically since the 1970s; in 2012, the top 1% held nearly a quarter (23%) of total pre-tax income. To be sure, liberals and conservatives disagree about the causes of inequality and government’s responsibility to address growing income disparities. My contention here is not to weigh into these debates, but rather to examine attitudes about income inequality more broadly. What do Americans think about this growing inequality and what, if anything, should be done about it?
Public opinion data can provide some insight. For example, the General Social Survey (GSS) polls Americans on whether respondents think “income differences in the United States are too large.” The data suggest that over the past 25 years, a majority of Americans have consistently rated the income gap as too large. There has also been a modest uptick in public concern over that period, as actual income differences have increased. The share of respondents who “strongly agreed” that income differences are too large nearly doubled between 1987 (15.7%) and 2010 (27.1%), though the change in the overall share of respondents who either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” was not nearly as dramatic (58.5% in 1987 versus 64.6% in 2010). Opinions on the matter have also become slightly more polarized.
Ascribing meaning to these public opinion data can be tricky though because Americans have varying understandings of the real distribution of income in the US. One study asked respondents to first estimate the actual income distribution and then to construct their ideal distribution. Both the estimated and ideal distributions of wealth were vastly more egalitarian than the status quo. And interestingly, the authors found remarkable consensus across demographic and partisan groups. But does this mean Americans want government to intervene to decrease income inequality? Although the ideal income distributions constructed by respondents looked more like Sweden than the United States, would more Americans support a Swedish-style welfare state if only they knew the true extent of income disparities? The evidence here is mixed.
My colleague Meghan Condon (Loyola University Chicago) and I are investigating this question. One idea we are testing is that frame of reference—how you view your own social position—will shape your attitude about inequality. If you see yourself as lower on the economic ladder, you will be more likely to view income inequality as a problem and believe government should do something about it. To test this theory, we included a survey experiment on the latest Marquette Law School Poll. Respondents were presented with the following:
Think of the people in the United States who are the (worst/best) off—those who have the (least/most) money, (least/most) education, and the (least/most) respected jobs. In particular, we’d like you to think about how you are different from these people in terms of your own income, educational history, and job status.
Respondents were randomly assigned to either think about the least or most advantaged in society (reflected in the parenthetical text above). Following this prompt, we asked respondents to place themselves on an income scale. We then asked a series of questions about income inequality.
Our results provide evidence that frame of reference does matter. Respondents who were told to think about the most advantaged in society placed themselves lower on the income scale than those who were told to think about the disadvantaged. Further, those primed to think about the wealthiest Americans were more likely to say that income differences in the United States are too large. Our findings are consistent with other research showing that people are more likely to endorse generous donations to charity when they are induced to think of themselves as relatively lower than others in socioeconomic standing.
Most respondents believed that society should ensure equal opportunity for all (87 percent), but respondents were more divided on what explains income inequality and what government should do about it. Overall, 34 percent of respondents agreed that income inequality exists because it benefits the rich, and 40 percent agreed that the government should try to reduce income differences. Priming respondents to think about the worst or best off in society did little to move opinions on these issues.
Thus, thinking about social position relative to the rich (as opposed to the poor) caused people to express greater concern about income disparities, but did not change how people view the causes of or best solutions to inequality. Seeing yourself as lower on the economic ladder might make you more likely to view inequality as a problem, but would not necessarily make you more likely to want government to do something about it.
In the real world, perceptions of social position like this are influenced by media coverage, neighborhood contexts, and workplace interactions. How these experiences matter for public opinion about inequality remains largely unexplored. For example, the share of families living in neighborhoods that are mostly poor or mostly affluent has doubled since 1970. Rich and poor Americans are increasingly segregated from one another and fewer live in what we might call “middle-class” neighborhoods. Researchers have speculated that this spatial segregation of affluence will reduce wealthy Americans’ support of policies that benefit the broader public, such as schools and public transportation.
We find on the contrary, however, that individuals express the most concern about income inequality when they are primed to think of themselves as living lower down the income ladder, not when they are spurred to think about others living on the bottom rungs.
Amber Wichowsky is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.
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