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What Do Americans Want to Do About Inequality?

David Callahan

For all the talk about inequality over the past two decades, scholars have known surprisingly little about what Americans think about the growing class divide and what they'd like to do about it, if anything. 

Now we know a lot more, thanks to the publication of Leslie McCall's new book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution. McCall's book is the most in-depth look yet at public attitudes toward inequality and how those attitudes may influence people's policy preferences. 

McCall, who is Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Northwestern University, authoritatively debunks the longstanding conventional wisdom that Americans don't care about inequality. Not so, she says: "many if not most Americans are dissatisfied with the degree of inequality in their country" and this not a new phenomenon, as survey data going back decades clearly show. 

McCall's big contribution is to drill into the question of why Americans care about inequality and what solutions they may embrace. 

Americans don't have an overall problem with the wealthy, according to McCall, and they believe that unequal rewards are needed to motivate people to work harder. What bothers Americans, though, is when the wealthy are doing great while economic opportunity is restricted for everyone esle. The rich are seen as "undeserving" when they are "prospering when others are not" and their "own poor stewardship of the economy may be a cause of the turmoil." 

In other words, if the rich are getting rich while helping build an economy where prosperity is broadly shared, and all boats are rising, that's okay with most Americans. What's not okay is when we have ever more wealth piling up at the top and the rich aren't helping the rest of us do better, too: 

Pay disaparities are unfair when earnings exceed the contribution and performance of those in the driver's seat of the economy, those who are seen as economic leaders and are expected to deliver economic prosperity for all.

And, of course, this has been the case lately. Not only did the rich drive the economy into the gutter in 2007-2008, but they have been the only folks doing well since that time, scoring big gains in wealth and income while the rest of us have been treading water. 

So what do Americans want to about inequality when this sort of thing happens?

Well, you might think that they'd favor redistributive policies that take some of that wealth from the undeserving rich and give it to the rest of us. But McCall says this isn't especially the case:

Although we find that Americans have become increasingly concerned about inequality, and that their support for government action to address [it] rose modestly, the action Americans have tended to favor is not traditional redistributive programs.

Rather, it appears that concerns about income inequality prompt Americans to want to do more to ensure equality of opportunity -- e.g., by boosting spending on education. 

Of course, though, helping more poor kids go to college, say, doesn't necessarily reduce income inequality. It may just mean that more former poor kids are able to join a wealth elite that continues to pull away from the rest of the country

McCall holds out another strong possibility, in terms of what solutions to inequality Americans favor: Which is that most of the public just isn't sure what to do about what McCall calls a "new social problem." 

That sounds right to me. After all, plenty of elites are unsure what to do as well, as McCall notes. In short, there is lots of room for political leaders, activists, the media, think tanks, and scholars to shape a national debate on inequality that is still very much evolving.