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Why Americans Don't Care About Income Inequality


Americans aren’t incredibly concerned about the wide income gap between the very rich and the very poor, even though it's bigger issue in the United States than any other advanced economy. And it's growing.

According to recently released figures from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. has an income ratio more than triple the ratio in countries like Italy, Britain and France. Americans in the top fifth of the income stream make an average of nearly 17 times what those in the bottom fifth earn. Yet, while three-quarters of Italians, half of Britons and about two-thirds of French people think the (much smaller) gaps in their countries are a very big problem, less than half of Americans feel the same.[...]

Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist with the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, thinks an opportunity myth is partially to blame.

“I think there are a lot of myths about opportunity in the United States,” she said. “There’s this definite idea or belief in the American Dream and ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ that can happen here, but it’s a lot less common than people think.”

The best predictor of your income, she pointed out, is your parents’ income, which indicates that there is very little movement in reality.

Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning policy center Demos, agrees.

“There’s this Horatio Alger story which was always a myth,” she said, referring to the author famous for writing tales of impoverished boys who climbed their way to economic security. But, she added, upward mobility used to be more of a reality than it is now and public opinion hasn’t caught up to the new, somewhat harsher, circumstances.

“There used to be a lot of truth to that idea,” she said. “It’s going to take time for the idea that we have tremendous opportunity for upward mobility to be eroded by reality.” [...]

Both Shierholz and Traub think American concern about the income gap might see an upturn in the future, though.

It’s now part of the public discourse where for so long it was “fringey,” Shierholz said. President Obama has made it the focal point of several recent speeches. The Occupy movement gained widespread coverage and more recent fast-food worker strikes have gained attention. Stories about companies like Walmart holding holiday food drives for employees who do not earn enough to support themselves have generated public outrage.

“People are taking a stand at least in their own lives in a way that we haven’t seen until recently,” Traub said, noting that Americans continue to believe that everybody should work but that workers who are doing their jobs shouldn’t be stuck in poverty.

She pointed to polls that show support for raising minimum wage and cities that have increased their own minimum wages as a “kind of awareness and concern that actually changes policy.”