Income inequality in the United States has been on the rise for decades, and the Great Recession of 2007-2008 only made things worse for many groups. The immense gulf between the small group at the top and those at the bottom has led to protests and lively debate in recent years: Would reduced inequality be better for the country, or is the wealth of individuals a private matter?
A 2011 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Harvard Business School and Duke University, “Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” attempted to find the wealth distribution that was most preferred by Americans. The researchers conducted an online survey in 2005 using a sample of 5,522 people randomly drawn from more than 1 million Americans. Respondents were shown three unlabeled pie charts of countries’ income distributions: One was equal, with all quintiles holding 20% of national wealth. Another was based on Sweden’s income distribution: The upper quintile held 18% of the wealth, followed by 36%, 15%, 21% and 11% for the other quintiles. The last chart was, unbeknownst to participants, that of the United States: The upper quintile held 84% of the wealth, followed by 11%, 4%, 0.2% and 0.1%.
The study’s findings include:
Given the respondents’ desire for a more equal distribution of wealth in the United States, the authors questioned why there wasn’t more support for redistribution of wealth. They suggested that this was a result of lack of awareness about the actual wealth distribution in the United States, and a widely held belief in more social mobility than actually exists.
A related study, “Earnings Inequality and Mobility in the United States: Evidence from Social Security Data Since 1937,” used longitudinal data to better understand the reality of both short-term and longer-term mobility in the U.S.
Tags: economy, survey, inequality