NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Redistribution Attitudes Vary in United States

February 15, 2002

Do Americans support government redistribution of wealth as a means of reducing social inequality? Within the United States, the nation perceived as offering the greatest social mobility, there are significant attitudinal differences, say researchers, based on personal experience and belief in the possibility of improvement.

Researchers have made some thought-provoking refinements to widely accepted generalizations about how rich and poor are likely to view redistribution of wealth via tax and spending policies.

  • Among persons below the mean or median income levels, endorsement of redistribution is inversely proportional to their perceptions of opportunity for social mobility; in other words, the more firmly "poor people" believe in the chance of bettering their economic situation, the less likely they believe in wealth redistribution.
  • Additionally, those who are closest to the median income level have the highest expectation of improved future income; hence their weaker attachment to redistribution.

Researchers have also examined the expected correlation between redistribution preference and risk aversion.

  • An individual's personal history with social mobility (upward or downward) and actual experience of unemployment is likely to influence that person's attitude towards redistribution policies.
  • By the same token, the self-employed are probably less risk-averse than wage earners and accordingly are less supportive of wealth redistribution.
  • However, the self-employed are likewise less likely to be beneficiaries of such redistribution.

Thus opposition to redistribution is positively correlated to belief in the possibility of social and economic betterment. But such attitudes exist only when individuals perceive "equality of opportunity" in pursuit of upward mobility. The people most opposed to government redistribution believe that everyone has the same opportunities to move up in life. Conversely, those who most firmly believe that discrimination interferes with equality of opportunity, including African-Americans and women, are its strongest proponents.

Source: Matt Nesvisky, "Redistribution, Inequality, and Happiness," NBER Digest, August 2001; based on Alberto Alesina, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch, "In Inequality and Happiness: Are Europeans and Americans Different?" NBER Working Paper No. 8198, April 2001, and Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, "Preferences for Redistribution in the Land of Opportunities," NBER Working Paper No.w8267, May 2001, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER Digest text


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