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.
Why don’t Americans care?
It’s a complicated question, but before we tackle that it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. is a definite outlier on the issue.
In other wealthy nations, there is a correlation between public concern about the rich-poor gap and how bad it is in reality. Just a third of Australians are very concerned about the gap but that’s because there isn’t much of a gap. More than 80 percent of Greeks think the gap is a major issue and the country does have a very big disparity. The same is not true in the United States.
According to Pew, Americans know there is an income gap so the lack of concern is not attributable to complete ignorance. One potential reason Americans are fairly nonplussed is that many have no idea just how bad the gap actually is.
But a more nuanced approach to the question is one that considers our culture and our view of society. Europeans, who tend to have governments with stronger social safety nets, think income inequality is a very big issue, when it’s actually much smaller than in the U.S. That’s likely because it’s something that’s talked about more often in those countries and something that Europeans are accustomed to the government helping to remedy.
In the United States, people have come to view government involvement as meddling over time. David Simon, an American journalist and executive producer of The Wire, beautifully summed this up during recent remarks at an event in Sydney that were then edited and published by The Guardian. The whole piece is worth a read but a crucial excerpt is below.
“Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought,” Simon said. “It's astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don't need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I'm not connected to society. I don't care how the road got built, I don't care where the firefighter comes from, I don't care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It's the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.”
“We have become,” he continued,” something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.”
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.”
Economic inequality would arguably be a lot less of a problem if there were a lot of mobility, Shierholz said, and people seem to think mobility is standard, when it’s not.
There’s also the idea that where inequality does exist, it’s somehow inevitable, a sort of natural phenomenon, she said. People might see it as more of an issue if they felt that deliberate policy interventions could have an impact. In reality, Shierholz said, the country has allowed the real minimum wage to erode and unionization has gone down. There are real concrete changes the country could make that would likely alter circumstances, but many Americans don’t believe policy changes will lessen the gap.
“It makes sense that if you think nothing can be done about it, why dwell on it,” she said.
Another possibility, noted by the Associated Press, has to do with the rising “new rich” population in the U.S.
“Made up largely of older professionals, working married couples and more educated singles, the new rich are those with household income of $250,000 or more at some point during their working lives,” the AP said. “That puts them, if sometimes temporarily, in the top 2 percent of earners.”
What makes this group relative to the income gap is that they are economically fragile. These are people who reach the top two percent of earners at some point in their careers but don’t always stay there. Many fall below that level again. As a result, they’re more fiscally conservative than other Americans and less likely to support public programs like food stamps or early childhood education because they’re unlikely to need those programs themselves but nervous about losing what money they do have.
“The group is more liberal than lower-income groups on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, according to an analysis of General Social Survey data by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research,” noted the AP. “But when it comes to money, their views aren't so open. They're wary of any government role in closing the income gap.”
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.”
“There’s more attention being brought to who has reaped the benefits of the overall economic growth of the last four decades,” Shierholz said. “My guess, given that, is that the trajectory could be toward more interest in the issue.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.