Economic inequality in the United States is at its highest level since the 1930s, yet most Americans remain relatively unconcerned with the issue. Why, asks Michael W. Kraus, Shia Davidai, and A. David Nussbaum in May 3rd’s New York Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/opinion/sunday/american-dream-or-mirage.html)
Why is the information from these studies important to us? Perception is reality. Politicians and political campaigners know that because of these false beliefs in social mobility people can be swayed to think along certain lines and thus they can avoid fixing the reasons the social mobility we used to have no longer exists.
They found that Americans, regardless of what economic quintile they belong to, severely overestimate the ability to be upwardly mobile in the good ole US of A. They deduced that there was a self-serving reason for this across the board. Those at the top justified their wealth and even those at the bottom thought it would lead to a brighter economic future. In fact, when compared to actual mobility trends reported by the Pew Research Center, “Participants in the survey overshot the likelihood of rising from the poorest quintile to one of the three top quintiles by nearly 15 percentage points. (On average, only 30 percent of individuals make that kind of leap.)”
In a Cornell study entitled, Building a More Mobile America—One Income Quintile at a Time, Shia Davidai and Thomas Gilovitch found that “Americans seem willing to accept vast financial inequalities as long as they believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”
Additionally they found, “(a) people believe there is more upward mobility than downward mobility; (b) people overestimate the amount of upward mobility and underestimate the amount of downward mobility; (c) poorer individuals believe there is more mobility than richer individuals; and (d) political affiliation influences perceptions of economic mobility, with conservatives believing that the economic system is more dynamic—with more people moving both up and down the income distribution—than liberals do.” (file://localhost/(http/::pps.sagepub.com:content:10:1:60.abstract)
In another study, “Americans Overestimate Social Class Mobility” by Michael Krauss and Jacinth J.X. Tan, (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103115000062), the authors found respondents substantially misjudged the rate (5 times greater) at which families from the lowest quintile of our population attended college. And when Krauss and Tan asked them to predict the upward mobility of “those like them” they were even more likely to overestimate social mobility.
Interestingly, “For those lower in income or educational attainment, lower standing was associated with greater overestimation of upward mobility. Those with the most room to move up were more likely to think that such movement was possible.”
When examining this phenomenon by variables other quintiles the Times article not surprisingly went on to say, “Across both sets of studies, political liberals were less likely to overestimate upward mobility relative to conservatives.” and “that members of ethnic minority groups tended to overestimate upward mobility more than did European Americans. This result indicated that those with the most to gain from believing in an upwardly mobile society tended to believe so more strongly.”
These findings explain why some of our poorest Americans are some of our most conservative. It explains why Republican candidates still win across huge portions of America by still yapping about “tax and spend socialist Democrats” and worse.
As long as Americans believe we can “still make it if we try”, American politicians from both parties (although especially Republicans) can still tell us the status quo works for most Americans, and blame some Americans for not trying hard enough.
They can also say there is no need to reexamine the role of government in leveling the playing field, or supporting measures like increasing the minimum wage to a real living wage, or investing in building our infrastructure, or finding ways to lower education and medical costs, or overturning Citizen’s United, or reducing the influence of banks, hedge funds, and corporations on all of our governments- from local to national.