Following the Public on Inequality

IPR sociologist’s book scrutinizes U.S. beliefs on inequality

Leslie McCall

Recently released income data shows that the income gap in the United States grew to its widest point ever, with the richest 1 percent showing the biggest income gains since 1928. Most research asserts that Americans generally care little about, or even ignore, such income inequality. But in her latest book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, IPR sociologist Leslie McCall is upending conventional wisdom on the topic.

Using public opinion data from the General Social Survey (GSS) and others, McCall has undertaken one of the most comprehensive examinations of actual public perceptions of inequality over the past 25 years. She uses the data to debunk several ideas, including the widespread one that Americans do not care about income inequality as long as they feel they are getting a fair shot at getting ahead through hard work, or what she calls the ‘American dream ideology.’


Her research shows that at any given point between one-half and two-thirds of Americans either want less inequality or find it unacceptable in other ways. While the public does not generally lump the rich into either one deserving or undeserving group, the view that they were undeserving peaked during post-recession periods when people did not see the trickle-down effects of economic recovery.

“Americans favor economic growth as part of the solution, but they also want to see that growth being shared and redistributed to the population at large rather than concentrated only in the upper classes,” McCall said.

As political leaders propose policies to help the middle and lower classes in this slow recovery, McCall’s work also offers insight into how the public views potential solutions.

“On the one hand, Republicans argue for greater growth, acknowledging Americans’ desire for the same. But the public also wants to see such growth benefitting Americans on the middle and lower rungs of the income ladder,” McCall said. “On the other hand, liberal solutions typically propose to fix inequality by raising marginal tax rates on wealthier households, but largely ignore efforts to reform the distribution of earnings and wages. As a result, my findings suggest Americans don’t immediately connect their concerns about inequality to a desire for increased taxes on the rich.”

See more of McCall's analysis of Americans' attitudes here.

McCall points out that there are situations in which many Americans do favor raising taxes on the wealthy, but she believes Americans would like to see a different kind of “redistribution” via long-term policy solutions that focus on expanded opportunity and equity in the workplace.

In fact, McCall found that the highest level of concern about income inequality coincided with a media focus on executive pay. Since the GSS began asking questions about income inequality in 1987, the highest rates of concern were recorded in the mid-1990s—as the economy was recovering from the recession of the early ’90s but employment had not yet rebounded. When McCall analyzed news coverage during this time, she found a great deal of coverage of inequality—specifically on executive pay and other kinds of pay disparities.

“Americans see opportunity as more than just a result of individual effort—they do believe that unfair social advantages and unfair pay can and do diminish labor market opportunities,” she said.

Ultimately, McCall hopes the book will “shift the question from whether Americans care about inequality to when and why they do.” Her nuanced framework shows that concerns and beliefs about income inequality are not contradictory, but rather inextricably linked to notions of equal opportunity.