Expert Commentary

American public opinion on economic inequality, taxes and mobility

2012 report from Illinois Wesleyan University published in Public Opinion Quarterly on income inequality and public opinion over time.


Income inequality in America rose during the Gilded Age over a century ago but declined in the wake of two World Wars for several decades. Inequality measures began to rise again in 1975 and by 2000 the country had returned to the same levels of income concentrations recorded in the 1910s. Income inequality has been linked to outcomes such as who gets to attend college or secure health insurance. Fueled by the events that precipitated the Great Recession, citizen groups such as Occupy Wall Street attempted to give voice to this rising inequality. But did Americans hear — and agree with — the message?

A 2012 study from Illinois Wesleyan University published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “American Public Opinion on Economic Inequality, Taxes, and Mobility: 1990-2011,” analyzed trends in Americans’ perceptions towards divisions of wealth and taxes over this two-decade period. Researchers compared responses from several Gallup and PSRA polls relating to the extent of income inequality fair taxation and government’s role in moderating income inequality.

Key findings include:

  • Over the two decade period, there has been a relatively limited range of sentiment on these issues: approximately 57% to 66% of Americans expressed interest in a more equitable distribution of wealth, compared to 28% to 35% of those satisfied with the existing distribution.
  • The recent recession had the greatest impact on people’s perceptions toward economic mobility. The percentage of people who were “very satisfied” with the opportunity for a person to get ahead with hard work has declined from 40% in 2007 and 35% in 2008 to 24% in 2009 and 21% in 2011.
  • Approximately 42% to 51% of low-income people claimed they paid too much in taxes between 1990 and 2011. Those in the middle income bracket were equally split between paying “too much” and “fair share.” While 77% of upper income respondents in 1992 said that they paid too little in taxes, in 2011 only 59% claimed that their tax burden was too low.
  • In a 1998 Gallup poll, 45% of respondents felt that the rich should be heavily taxed to aid in wealth redistribution, while 51% felt that they should not; in April 2009, after a year of escalating job losses, 51% favored heavily taxing the rich while 43% did not.
  • In recent surveys, Americans said they believed conditions will decline for subsequent generations: less than one-third of respondents felt that young people today have more opportunity to get ahead than they did at their age.
  • Most did not view the inequality divide as a stark contrast between the wealthy and not wealthy. When asked if America is “divided between haves and have-nots,” 60% disagreed — a figure that has remained relatively stable since 1998 through economic upheavals and three presidents.

Despite greater political polarization and economic turmoil in recent years, Americans have not appreciably changed their beliefs on taxation, equality and mobility, the study states. “The political furor over the growing concentration of wealth, corporate greed and the scope of government has certainly had its impact — in street protests, congressional elections, and the mobilization of political money — but, on the whole,” the authors write, “Americans have not dramatically shifted in how they respond to pollsters’ questions on these matters in recent years.”

Tags: metastudy, economy

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