Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Leslie McCall

Dismantling Perceptions of Inequality


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IPR sociologist Leslie McCall has been interested in income inequality since long before politicans started tuning in to public preferences on the issue.

Long before Occupy Wall Street or presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders raised the issue of income inequality, IPR sociologist Leslie McCall was fixated on the topic.

She harks back to her time as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the late 1980s and 1990s, an era when the barometer on “inequality started increasing,” and she, like her professors, began following its upward climb.

Since then, her interest in it has fueled two books and many journal articles and book chapters, as well as a growing list of projects. 

Nor is she alone in her attention to the issue. “Americans have been concerned about inequality—and desired less inequality—for at least the past 25 years,” McCall said. It’s politicians who are finally tuning in to public preferences, rather than the public finally becoming aware of the issue, as is often assumed.

Revealing Public Perceptions of Income Inequality

Her latest book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution (Cambridge University Press, 2013), uses a quarter century of public opinion data to closely examine people’s perceptions of income inequality.

The book’s major revelations? It’s not the level of inequality per se that matters most to Americans but the perceived consequences of inequality for making a good living. “If the country is doing well, but only for those at the top, that’s where they see the problem with inequality—that it’s not being shared,” McCall said. Thus Americans are most likely to believe the rich are “undeserving” of their wealth after a recession, when the economy’s growth is trickling up and not down.

She also sees flaws with how both parties aim to address inequality because they are not connecting the issue persuasively to problems of economic opportunity.

Democrats, she explained, tend to advocate programs that “equalize outcomes,” reducing income disparities by taxing the rich and then redistributing their money to the rest of Americans. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to push for policies that “equalize opportunity” by creating more educational and employment openings. However, according to McCall, neither of these policies addresses Americans’ true concerns about inequality. 

“Republicans tend to focus only on jobs and growth, but not the fact that [growth] needs to benefit everyone, not just those at the top. And it’s not at all clear how taxing the rich [an approach favored by Democrats] is going to help address the major concern Americans have, which is with the economy, and their jobs, and their pay and benefits,” she said. “There hasn’t been any connection, policy-wise, to fill this vacuum that Americans are really concerned about.” 

Surveying the American Dream

Setting out to obtain more insight into citizens’ perceptions of the relationship between inequality and opportunity, McCall has launched two survey projects.

In the first, she and IPR social psychologist Jennifer Richeson are measuring whether Americans who read a short article on how inequality is rising “are less likely to believe in an American Dream-type ideology,” and thus more likely to favor opportunity-enhancing policies over traditional government redistributive policies.   

In the second project, McCall is collaborating with researchers in Sweden and Denmark to construct new questions about opportunity-enhancing policies for the U.S.’s General Social Survey (GSS) and the International Social Survey Program. The responses will illustrate who these citizens hold responsible for reducing inequality—the government for reducing income inequality or major corporations for reducing pay inequality, or both.

Including these questions in the 2014 GSS provided “a really different sense of Americans’ support for redistribution,” McCall said. “Two-thirds of Americans support one form of redistribution or the other, whereas just under half support government redistribution alone.” Americans and Swedes thus look much less different in this regard than everyone thought.

Studying Overlap in Inequality

Though her recent research has focused on public perceptions of inequality, McCall hopes to devote more time in the upcoming months to another of her research streams: Studying how racial, class, and gender inequality overlap and conflict with one another.

These commingled inequalities formed the basis of her 2001 book, Complex Inequality: Gender, Class, and Race in the New Economy (Routledge), for which she drew data from hundreds of U.S. labor markets to determine how factors like the growth of contingent work and immigration affected inequality. Today, McCall and her colleagues are studying changes in patterns of gender and earnings inequality among families between 1970 and 2010. 

These days, she explained, more women are working and therefore depend less on men’s earnings, but it remains to be seen if men benefit from this change—that is, whether they depend more on their wives’ income to the same degree that wives’ depend less on their husbands’ income.

In looking into this question, McCall said she has found “some pretty counterintuitive” results. For instance, men do not increase their family income as much as women do when they marry, and this marriage premium for women greatly offsets the wage penalty they earn when they have children, even though the latter “motherhood wage penalty” receives much more attention from scholars.

The project’s results thus far highlight a common thread in all of McCall’s work, a willingness to overturn widely held beliefs about inequality, thereby increasing awareness and opportunities for conversation.

“We’re flipping the question around and saying, ‘To what extent has the old set of patterns for men really changed?’ McCall said of this final project. “Lots of things are changing, but they are not changing to the same degree for men and women.”

Leslie McCall is professor of sociology and of political science and an IPR fellow.