Greg M. Shaw and Laura Gaffey, “The Polls—Trends. American Public Opinion on Economic Inequality, Taxes, and Mobility: 1990–2011,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2012

Equally Unequal

It’s been hard to ignore various responses to growing economic inequality. Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and politicians have concentrated our attention on wealth, corporate greed, and governmental spending. Yet, a compilation of polls examined by Greg Shaw and Laura Gaffey (Public Opinion Quarterly) shows that these movements haven’t done much to sway public opinion. Assembling polls on inequality, taxes, and mobility from 1990 to 2011, the authors reveal that American public opinion has remained fairly stable on these issues. For instance, in 1990, 28% of those polled believed that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is “fair.” In 2011, 26% said the same.

Dozens of similar poll results lend support to the argument that, while street protests may have impacted national conversation on inequality, Americans have not dramatically shifted their views. The authors describe the public striking an “awkward but lasting balance” between endorsing a belief in equal opportunity and acknowledging very unequal outcomes. This stable trend reflects American reluctance to embrace redistribution, even in light of heated criticism of income inequality. Fundamentally, these polls also reflect a difficult-to-dislodge cultural view that a tougher work ethic will lead to greater individual American wealth—that is, work hard, and the rewards will come.

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