Despite historic levels of economic inequality that by some measures rival those of the 1920s, Americans are often said to be undisturbed by it. They appear steadfast in their belief in the American Dream, at least as evidenced by limited public support for higher taxes on the wealthy and other redistributive policies. But are Americans actually indifferent to rising inequality?
A new study led by Leslie McCall (pictured below), a sociologist and political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City of New York (CUNY), and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that when presented with straightforward, objective information about rising economic inequality, Americans become more skeptical about the American Dream and are more likely to support policies that redistribute income and pay.
McCall and Yale University social psychologist Jennifer Richeson, along with two graduate students from Northwestern University, Derek Burk and Marie Laperierre, designed and conducted three controlled experiments involving nearly 3,300 Americans. In each experiment, participants shared their beliefs about how people get ahead — whether through hard work and ambition or family and class background.
The researchers provided some of the participants with information about rising inequality, while other participants — the ones in the control group — received comparable information unrelated to inequality.
The experiments showed that, when exposed to information about rising inequality, Americans are more likely to say that structural advantages — being wealthy, having highly educated parents — are important drivers of success, and less likely to say that individual factors, such as hard work, are important.
The third experiment also revealed that those given the information about inequality are more likely to support government and business interventions, such as policies to reduce the pay gap between executives and unskilled workers in major companies and the income gap between the rich and the poor in broader society.
The study stands apart for its interdisciplinary approach — using both psychological and other social scientific approaches to understand how Americans respond to rising economic inequality.
“We know of no other research that has explored the causal impact of exposure to information about rising societal economic inequality on perceptions of opportunity and support for multiple types of equity-enhancing policies,” the authors write.
The authors acknowledge that faith in the American Dream remains strong, even in the face of rising inequality. In all three of the experiments, participants rated individual factors as more important than social and class advantages in getting ahead.
While the researchers point out that Americans are hardly unique in this respect, their main contribution is to show that greater knowledge about the recent leap in inequality dampens faith in the American Dream and engenders greater support for policy solutions.
The study has important implications for ways to increase support for policies that enhance economic equality.
“It reopens a conversation that many thought was settled,” study coauthor Jennifer Richeson said. “It also shows that we need to do more research, particularly looking at the role of racial and gender identities and inequalities in shaping beliefs.”
Leslie McCall is a presidential professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and associate director of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, which is based at the Graduate Center.