According to a new Gallup poll, almost 60% of Americans believe that money and wealth is currently not fairly distributed amongst the U.S. population, while a third consider the current distribution is fair. Additionally, 52% of Americans feel that the “government should redistribute wealth” via “heavy taxes on the rich,” an all-time high. While income inequality was not a major issue in the elections last year, and indeed, have generally not been an issue for discussion in the political sphere, things seem to now be changing.
With the increasing prominence of income inequality as an issue in popular and social media, with a video based on a 2011 study of income inequality receiving millions of views of YouTube, it would seem to follow that worries over income inequality would be higher than ever before in recent history. Yet the historical results of Gallup’s polling of this issue seem to run contrary to such conclusions. While this number is up from 2009 and 2011, where 58 and 57% of respondents declared that, and although Americans' attitudes on this topic have fluctuated somewhat over time, the current sentiment is virtually the same as when Gallup first asked this question in 1984. The graph below plots the results of twelve Gallup polls (two were taken in 2008) taken since 1984.
Why is it that despite the large increases in media attention paid to income inequality, this increase is not correlated with in the actual perceptions? Are these perceptions correlated with something? Are perceptions linked to, rather than media attention, actual income inequality? Certainly, then, such a correlation would fly in the face of the recent narrative of starkly increasing income inequality, meaning that either the narrative was incorrect, or rather there was no correlation. The next graph plots the trajectory of the Gini coefficient (a measure of income equality, where zero is complete equality and one is complete inequality), also since 1984.
So we see that income inequality has been rising on a fairly consistent basis over that time period, which would suggest that no positive correlation between concerns over income inequality and actual income inequality could be gleaned from this group of statistics. Indeed, the next chart puts this graphically:
It appears then, that a negative correlation between concerns over income inequality exists — that the higher the Gini coefficient, the less people are concerned about income inequality, or conversely, the lower it is, the more people are concerned about it! It does not follow logically, it is precisely the opposite as to one would expect. How could this be so?
Gallup asked another question along with the poll, as mentioned earlier, on whether the “government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,” which is fairly similar but, obviously, somewhat different.
The results for that question are more predictable, with a positive correlation between the proportion of respondents saying the government should redistribute wealth and the Gini coefficient. Even still, for example, the Gini jumped by 70 basis points from 2009 to 2010, yet the percentage of those in favor of wealth redistribution fell by three percentage points.
So it is difficult to prove why exactly opinions on income inequality rise and fell as they did, thus raising the question of what exactly compels such thought. Namely, it becomes very difficult to make broad, sweeping statements such as people think that “we are living in a more unequal world than ever before,” because such a statement is patently false — Americans are less concerned about income than they have been in the past. To be fair, the truth is just that — income inequality is higher than it has been since the Gilded Age — but the statistics show that people don’t necessarily worry about that.