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This is what happens when Americans are told about rising inequality

- September 14, 2017
A woman holds a sign as she attends an event in support of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive agenda against income inequality outside the Capitol in Washington on May 12, 2015. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The sharp growth in economic inequality — and its visibility as an issue in both the 2012 and 2016 American political campaigns — has led to an important debate about how to respond.

Some in this debate suggest that economic inequality isn’t that important after all. Instead, they argue, it’s economic opportunity that Americans really care about. Americans just want good jobs and the prospect of upward mobility. It’s not so important to them that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else continues to grow. Indeed, some Democratic strategists believe that focusing on inequality could backfire.

Our work suggests, however, that this view is mistaken. When Americans are told about the growth in economic inequality, they become more skeptical that opportunity exists. They also become more supportive of policies that redistribute income and pay.

We conducted experiments in which survey respondents were either exposed to irrelevant trends in baseball statistics or were given objective information about trends in economic inequality.

The information about inequality included this graph, which comes from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office:

Accompanying the graph was text that read like a news article and summarized the data in the graph as well as related data about stagnation in worker earnings and large increases in the compensation of chief executives. (You can read the full text of the experiments and see question wordings here.)

Here, we focus on one experiment conducted in a sample of 1,501 Americans. This survey took place online through the Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences program. The respondents came from the GfK’s KnowledgePanel, which is a probability sample recruited to be representative of the American population. The survey was conducted from November to December 2015.

What effect did this information have? First, more respondents came to believe that “coming from a wealthy family” and “having well educated parents” were essential or very important to “getting ahead” (43 percent, compared with 27 percent among those who did not get the information).

Conversely, fewer respondents who saw information about inequality said that individual factors, such as “having ambition” and “hard work,” were essential or very important (81 percent vs. 90 percent).

In short, being told about rising inequality made Americans a bit less likely to believe that economic success was about individual effort and much more likely to think it was about luck.

Information about rising inequality also changed people’s views of economic policy. In particular, we asked separate questions about whether “the government ought to reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor” and “major companies ought to reduce the pay gap between employees with high pay and those with low pay.” Respondents could answer on a scale of 1 to 7, ranging from strong opposition to strong support. Among the people who read about inequality, 53 percent indicated some degree of support for government efforts to reduce the income gap, compared with 43 percent among those who did not read about inequality. Similarly, people became more likely to support efforts by major companies to reduce pay gaps (58 percent vs. 51 percent).

Of course, it is important to note the limitations of experiments like this one. Experiments can isolate the impact of political information and arguments in a way that may not resemble political debate in the real world.

Moreover, other studies have not always found a clear link between Americans’ concerns about inequality and their views of public policy. For example, Americans tend to support greater spending on education when their opposition to inequality rises or inequality itself rises, consistent with a link between concerns about inequality and opportunity. But this pattern may be limited to particular time periods and does not extend to support for other kinds of spending or government redistribution generally.

With those caveats noted, our results still suggest that informing Americans about the extent of economic inequality, or simply making the issue salient, can change attitudes about economic opportunity by foregrounding the role of luck in getting ahead — and that in turn tends to increase support for policies designed to reduce inequality. For this reason, the instinct to focus on economic opportunity instead of inequality seems misplaced. In the minds of Americans, the two can be linked quite readily.

Leslie McCall is in the departments of sociology and political science, and at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Jennifer Richeson is in the department of psychology, and at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, at Yale University.