Skip to main content

Americans' Social Policy Preferences in the Era of Rising Inequality

  • Leslie McCall (a1) and Lane Kenworthy (a2)

Rising income inequality has been a defining trend of the past generation, yet we know little about its impact on social policy formation. We evaluate two dominant views about public opinion on rising inequality: that Americans do not care much about inequality of outcomes, and that a rise in inequality will lead to an increase in demand for government redistribution. Using time series data on views about income inequality and social policy preferences in the 1980s and 1990s from the General Social Survey, we find little support for these views. Instead, Americans do tend to object to inequality and increasingly believe government should act to redress it, but not via traditional redistributive programs. We examine several alternative possibilities and provide a broad analytical framework for reinterpreting social policy preferences in the era of rising inequality. Our evidence suggests that Americans may be unsure or uninformed about how to address rising inequality and thus swayed by contemporaneous debates. However, we also find that Americans favor expanding education spending in response to their increasing concerns about inequality. This suggests that equal opportunity may be more germane than income redistribution to our understanding of the politics of inequality.

Hide All
Alesina, Alberto, Di Tella, Rafael, and MacCulloch, Robert. 2004. Inequality and happiness: Are Europeans and Americans different? Journal of Public Economics 88: 2009–42.
APSA Task Force. 2004. American democracy in an age of rising inequality. Perspectives on Politics 2 (4): 651–66.
Bartels, Larry M. 2005. Homer gets a tax cut: Inequality and public policy in the American mind. Perspectives on Politics 3 (1): 1531.
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy. Princeton and New York: Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.
Berensky, Adam J. 2002. Silent voices: Social welfare policy opinions and political equality in America. American Journal of Political Science 46: 276–87.
Bowles, Samuel, and Gintis, Herbert. 1976. Schooling in capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.
Bowman, Karlyn H. 2000. “No Din Over Dollar Divide.” Chicago Sun-Times, July 31.
Campbell, Andrea Louise. 2007. “What Americans Think of Taxes.” Presented at the Conference on Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective, Northwestern University, May 4–5.
Cunha, Flavio, Heckman, James, and Navarro, Salvador. 2006. Counterfactual analysis of inequality and social mobility. In Mobility and inequality, ed. Morgan, S., Grusky, D., and Fields, G.. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
DiNardo, John, Fortin, Nicole M., and Lemieux, Thomas. 1996. Labor market institutions and the distribution of wages, 1973–1992: A semiparametric approach. Econometrica 64: 1001–44.
Feldman, Stanley. 1982. Economic self-interest and political behavior. American Journal of Political Science 26: 446–66.
Feldman, Stanley. 1987. Evaluation of new inequality items. 1987 NES Pilot Study Report.
Feldman, Stanley. 1988. Structure and consistency in public opinion: the role of core beliefs and values. American Journal of Political Science 32: 416–40.
Feldman, Stanley, and Steenbergen, Marco R.. 2001. The humanitarian foundation of public support for welfare. American Journal of Political Science 45: 658–77.
Feldman, Stanley, and Zaller, John. 1992. The political culture of ambivalence: ideological responses to the welfare state. American Journal of Political Science 36: 268307.
Free, Lloyd, and Cantril, Hadley. 1968. The Political Beliefs of Americans. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Freeman, Richard B., and Rogers, Joel. 1999. What Workers Want. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.
Gilens, Martin. 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gottschalk, Peter, and Danziger, Sheldon. 2005. Inequality of wage rates, earnings, and family income in the United States, 1975–2002. Review of Income and Wealth 51: 231254.
Greenberg, Stanley B. 1996. Private heroism and public purpose. American Prospect 7 (28): 3440.
Hacker, Jacob. 2006. The Great Risk Shift. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hicks, Alexander. 1999. Social Democracy and Welfare Capitalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer. 1995. Facing Up to the American Dream. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Huber, Evelyne, and Stephens, John D.. 2001. Development and Crisis of the Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Inequality, and the American dream. 2006. The Economist. June 17–23: 2830.
Jacobs, Lawrence, and Skocpol, Theda. 2005. Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Jacoby, Sanford. 1997. Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism Since the New Deal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jencks, Christopher, Bartlett, Susan, Corcoran, Mary, Crouse, James, Eaglesfield, David, Jackson, Gregory, McClelland, Kent, Mueser, Peter, Olneck, Michael, Schwartz, Joseph, Ward, Sherry, and Williams, Jill. 1979. Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America. New York: Basic Books.
Katz, Lawrence F., and Murphy, Kevin. 1992. Changes in relative wages, 1963–1987: Supply and demand factors. Quarterly Journal of Economics 107: 3578.
Katz, Michael. 1989. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon Books.
Kenworthy, Lane, and McCall, Leslie. 2008. Inequality, public opinion, and redistribution. Socio-Economic Review 6: 3568.
Kenworthy, Lane, and Pontusson, Jonas. 2005. Rising inequality and the politics of redistribution in affluent countries. Perspectives on Politics 3 (3): 449–71.
Kluegal, James R., and Smith, Eliot R.. 1986. Beliefs about Inequality: Americans' Views about What Is and What Ought To Be. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Kluegal, James R., Mason, David S., and Wegener, Bernd, eds. 1995. Social Justice and Political Change: Public Opinion in Capitalist and Post-Communist States. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Korpi, Walter. 1983. The Democratic Class Struggle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Krugman, Paul. 2007. The Conscience of a Liberal. New York: W.W. Norton.
Ladd, Carll Everett, and Bowman, Karlyn H.. 1998. Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Lane, Robert E. 1986. Market justice, political justice. American Political Science Review 80 (2): 383402.
Levy, Frank, and Murnane, Richard. 1992. U.S. earnings levels and earnings inequality: A review of recent trends and proposed explanations. Journal of Economic Literature 30 (2): 1333–81.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996. American Exceptionalism. New York: W.W. Norton.
Matusow, Allen J. 1984. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper and Row.
McCall, Leslie, and Kenworthy, Lane. 2009. “Explaining Americans' Beliefs about Income Inequality.” Unpublished ms. Department of Sociology, Northwestern University.
McCarty, Nolan, Poole, Keith T., and Rosenthal, Howard. 2006. Polarized America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McCloskey, Herbert, and Zaller, John. 1984. The American Ethos: Public Attitudes toward Capitalism and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mead, Lawrence M. 2004. The great passivity. Perspectives on Politics 2 (4): 671–75.
Meltzer, Allan H., and Richard, Scott F.. 1981. A rational theory of the size of government. Journal of Political Economy 89: 914–27.
Mettler, Suzanne. 2007. The transformed welfare state and the redistribution of political voice. In The Transformation of American Politics, ed. Pierson, P. and Skocpol, T.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mishel, Lawrence, Bernstein, Jared, and Allegretto, Sylvia. 2007. The State of Working America, 2006/2007. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
Moene, Karl Ove, and Wallerstein, Michael. 2001. Inequality, social insurance, and redistribution. American Political Science Review 95 (4): 859–74.
Moffitt, Robert, Ribar, David, and Wilhelm, Mark. 1998. The decline of welfare benefits in the U.S.: The role of wage inequality. Journal of Public Economics 68: 421–52.
Morgan, Kimberly J. 2005. “Financing the Welfare State: US Tax Politics in Comparative Perspective.” Unpublished ms., Department of Political Science, George Washington University.
Murphy, Kevin J. 1997. Executive compensation and modern industrial revolution. International Journal of Industrial Organization 15: 417–25.
Page, Benjamin I., and Jacobs, Lawrence R.. 2009. Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Page, Benjamin I., and Shapiro, Robert Y.. 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pew Research Center. 2007. “Trends in political values and core attitudes: 1987–2007.” Available at:
Piketty, Thomas, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2003. Income inequality in the United States: 1911–1998. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (1): 139.
Piketty, Thomas, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2007. Income and wage inequality in the United States, 1913–2002. In Top Incomes over the Twentieth Century, ed. Atkinson, Anthony B. and Piketty, Thomas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Saris, Willem E., and Sniderman, Paul M., eds. 2004. Studies in Public Opinion: Attitudes, Nonattitudes, Measurement Error, and Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Scheve, Kenneth, and Slaughter, Matthew. 2006. Public opinion, international economic integration, and the welfare state. In Globalization and egalitarian redistribution, ed. Bowles, S., Bardhan, P., and Wallerstein, M.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schlozman, Kay L., Page, Benjamin I., Verba, Sidney, and Fiorina, Morris. 2005. Inequalities of political voice. In Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn, ed. Jacobs, L. and Skocpol, T.. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Schneider, Sandra K., and Jacoby, William G.. 2005. Elite discourse and American public opinion: The case of welfare spending. Political Research Quarterly 58: 367–79.
Sniderman, Paul M., and Bullock, John. 2004. A consistency theory of public opinion and political choice: The hypothesis of menu dependence. In Studies in Public Opinion, ed. Saris, W. and Sniderman, P.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Soss, Joe, and Schram, Sanford F.. 2007. A public transformed? Welfare reform as policy feedback. American Political Science Review 101 (1): 111–27.
Steenbergen, Marco R., and Brewer, Paul R.. 2004. The not-so-ambivalent public: Policy attitudes in the political culture of ambivalence. In Studies in public opinion, ed. Saris, W. and Sniderman, P.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Teixeira, Ruy, and Rogers, Joel. 2000. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. New York: Basic Books.
Verba, Sidney, and Orren, Gary. 1985. Equality in America: The View from the Top. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilensky, Harold. 1975. The Welfare State and Equality: Structural and Ideological Roots of Public Expenditures. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolff, Edward N. 2006. Does Education Really Help? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zaller, John R. 2004. Floating voters in U.S. presidential elections, 1948–2000. In Studies in Public Opinion, ed. Saris, W. and Sniderman, P.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed