In June 2022, Wisconsin lawmakers approved a new drinking water standard for two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Prized for their water and stain-resistant properties, PFAS are found in an array of industry and consumer products, including firefighting foam, cosmetics, waterproof fabrics, nonstick cookware, and food containers. These human-made compounds are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.” Resistant to chemical breakdown, they persist and accumulate in our bodies and environment. A growing body of scientific…
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.