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What do average Americans think about inequality?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | April 10, 2014

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?

book coverIn 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 inthis 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 notnecessary 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 (herehere).

* 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 damagingpsychological 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.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “What do average Americans think about inequality?

  1. Founding values were responsible over time for the rise of an American dynasty that has been—though not without its mistakes—a constant force for good in the world, extending the benefits of liberty and prosperity to the largest number of people at any time in human history. America was
    made great through its founding values and exercised its greatness more in its
    generosity than in conquest or imposition. But now America faces headwinds of ruthless partisanship, imperial over reach, and economic implosion.

  2. It is heartening that most Americans support direct measures to increase opportunity, notably by funding education. Yet fewer and fewer Americans are finishing college simply because of cost. Consequently, our governmental and business elite are sons and daughters of the elite.

    What happened to social mobility? 47% of those selected for governmental posts came from the lower classes (commoners and those with no official connections) in Ming dynasty China, which reflects that society’s emphasis on a transparent selection process and decent access to education. Can’t we do the Ming one better?

    I mean, at this point we are positively Byzantine. My cousin’s daughter just went through the maze that is the college admissions process and, after all the trouble, isn’t even sure she can afford the first year at a UC. What happened to an affordable public education?

  3. The complexity of the apparent lack of rational response to economic inequality goes deeper than abstract systemic analysis. I am a family physician and make about 1/4 of the income of many specialists. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs for the world. I am self-actualizing at my income level and hanging with the people I want to hang with.

    I also care for safety-net patients in a Community Healthy Center. Some are non-English speakers who are upwardly mobile while others are English speakers who are downwardly mobile. Some are self-actualizing and some are feeling trapped in their situations.

    As a family physician my art depends on working with the anecdote to apply scientific findings to specific concrete people. Above listing of statistics, without acknowledging the stories behind individuals, may explain some of the writer’s bewilderment.

    By the way, ObamaCare has given hope to many of my patients who have felt trapped.

  4. “Average Americans”, being a statistical abstraction, do not think. People think, or so we believe, but we can’t b sure of it, since observations of their behaviour are inconclusive.

  5. Most Americans do not care about income inequality. Most Americans want to have the lifestyle of the rich – that is what makes Americans different from others who just sit and complain about what others’ have rather than getting off their butt and going to work. If you care about income inequality, chances are your are not an American.

    • What about Americans who won’t want the lifestyle of the rich, or want it less? They are less apt to work. The problem with our culture is that people need an incentive — actually, a rather big one — to “get off their butts and go to work.” Whatever happened to work for its own sake, or work to fulfill a social obligation?

  6. The fifth point (Americans do not want income redistribution) and the sixth point (What Americans do want government to do…is increase opportunity) are inconsistent especially in an economy based 70% on consumer spending. I suspect that most Americans believe in a kind of Lake Wobegone syndrome: that everyone can be rich if only there is more “opportunity” where presumably that implies “equal” opportunity.

    In our increasingly secular culture as God’s justice wanes the need to believe fair, just and soliticious government becomes more important. On the other hand the existence of evil does not appear to have undermined faith in a an omnescient, omnipotent and benevolent God so perhaps increasing economic inequality will not undermine faith in a just government?

  7. {ASJ: This is a major reason that Equality For All is a dead issue, and we are losing We The People Democracy today.}

    Don’t you mean “we, the sheeple”?

    When the T-Party took over control of the HofR at the 2010-midterms, only 38% of the American population voted. Of that 38%, barely half was necessary to install them into office.

    We can blame the Plutocrats all we want. But they do not BUY votes. By means of their contributions they empower candidates to get their messages across. Which is mostly mindless pap for the masses showing how – like soap powder – the candidate “washes whiter than white!”

    The American voter gobbles it hook, line and sinker. Then ambulates to the polls and votes accordingly. Yes, this is a Real Democracy. Where exist some very simple people who hear and follow the siren-song of a class of individuals that could not care one iota about their existence.

    The sole electoral purpose of the Plutocrat Class (aka 1Percenters or 0.1Percenters) is to maintain the status-quo of upper-level income taxation. See the history of taxation in the US here:

    Note that upper-income taxation, since the inception of the Income Tax in 1913 had always been very high. With two exceptions:
    *In the early 1920s, they were lowered drastically, which prompted the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s.
    *In the early 1960s, LBJ, of all people, started the movement to take them down from around 90% to the 70% level. In 1980, the Reagan Administration took them down to the ridiculous level of 30% as they are presently.

    Should we have any wonder whatsoever that the Greed Feed is a prevalent notion in our society, whereby people are deeply motivated to make a megabuck in the quickest possible fashion. Aided and abetted by media stories of Internet overnight millionaires that have become our cultural heroes. They, along side Hollywood & Sport Stars, have become our Cultural Heroes – as did the gladiators of Roman times.

    Why should anyone in their right mind, with the mind-boggling emphasis upon Instant Megabuck Riches, be concerned with Social Justice? Particularly the kind that would exact high taxation on the 1Percenter Class. And perhaps distribute it to the rest of society, beginning with the 15% of Americans incarcerated below the Poverty Threshold. That makes for, btw, 50 million American men, women and children. Or about the populations of California and Illinois combined.

    No, we cannot have that! Because it was preordained by God himself that America should be riven and driven by plutocrats …

    • Lafayette, you make some very interesting points that need more discussion by our professors and scholars.

      What I am trying to focus on is getting our best “professors and scholars to unite, lead, speak out, inform and motivate the public to take action to restore American Democracy controlled by We The People today.”

      We must have better information or propaganda shall overwhelm our Democracy.

  8. Professors spoke out for civil rights in the 60s when we made our greatest advances in the 20th century. Professors are afraid to speak out today, except for those who post on the Berkeley Blog, because of the power of money over universities.

    This is a major reason that Equality For All is a dead issue, and we are losing We The People Democracy today.

    • Why do you think that? It bears no relation the truth. There’s no pot of money organization running around college or university campuses. But you’re not the first person to suggest it. The rise of this meme is interesting. Where did it come from? Was it intended to discredit faculty? Does it parallel a growing distrust of government? Is it an assumption that inaction must be due to corruption, rather than other proximate causes? Fascinating.

      • Susan, Eisenhower’s 1961 “Farewell Address to the Nation” included the following grave warning:

        “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

        Having been General of the Army, President of Columbia University and POTUS, no one has known more about the power of money, including military-industrial-corporate complex, over universities than Ike.

  9. It seems as if Americans are still locked into the Protestant Work-Ethic, which came with the Puritans to American shores.

    There seems not to have been any evolution in American thinking on the subject, despite LBJ and his Great Society. In fact, LBJ started the movement downward in upper-income taxation, that was completed by Reagan in the 1980s. Which is very largely responsible for having created our Trickle-up Economy and plutocrat class.

    The view from Europe could not be more different. Europe has come to terms with socialism, and invented Social Democracy – with its emphasis on Social Justice. Whereby, America’s extreme Income Disparity is seen as antiquated and anathema. (The Gini Coefficient describes the great difference between the two cultures in this info-graphic: )

    Besides, even the most cursory look at American culture today cannot help but see the accent upon Wealth Accumulation and what Thorstien Veblen first saw at the turn of the 20th century and called Conspicuous Consumption. That is, consumption the intent of which is show others one’s status in life.

    It is a shame, really, that American cannot get beyond its obsession with work and wealth. More so, it is amazing to see the number of Americans who come to Europe to escape that fixation and to broaden other, more cultural horizons.

  10. Most Americans have a conundrum about inequality – I think a lot of people think they will be rich someday, and in general, most Americans detest taxes. The reality is that most Americans will never be rich, and actually over the last 30 years taxes on income for the wealthiest households, such as top marginal rates, taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends have gone down substantially from where they used to be under Republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

    If you’ve read Larry Bartel’s book Unequal Democracy, you will see that what Congress does is respond to the wishes of the wealthiest folks that constitute the political donor class, so there isn’t much chance of politicians suddenly “biting the hand that feeds them.”

    I think the only way to turn the corner on this problem is through substantive campaign finance reform, followed by substantive tax code reform, and as long as we allow the political donor class to decide who gets to run (e.g., Sheldon Adelson) and then also decide what the Congressional agenda will be, there will be no reform, and the U.S. will become a failing state.

  11. Claude, Equality For All is now a dead issue since SCOTUS overthrew We The People Democracy with their McCutcheon decision and created an Oligarchy to rule us with their power of money.

    It is time for Berkeley professors and scholars to unite, lead, speak out, inform and motivate the public to take action to restore American Democracy controlled by We The People today.

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