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Author ORCID Identifier
Open Access Dissertation
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Year Degree Awarded
Month Degree Awarded
American Politics | Inequality and Stratification | Politics and Social Change | Race and Ethnicity | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology
Why has economic inequality in the U.S. continued to grow despite widespread and strong public opinion in favor of reducing it? In this dissertation, I argue that Americans are upset by current levels of economic inequality and support downward redistribution as a means to reduce it. At the same time, many have hesitations about or resistance to the mechanisms through which such redistribution might be carried out. This resistance, I found, varied across respondents’ class and race (and, to some extent, gender). Across groups, respondents’ desires for change were stymied by a social and political context of differential visibility that serves the interests of the already powerful—including cues about class, racial and gendered inequality, the lives of the rich or the poor, the work of the government, policies themselves, and respondents’ own relative privilege and disadvantage. Although elite commentators often focus on (mis)perceptions about economic inequality among less powerful groups, the (mis)perceptions among the more powerful groups in my project were equally, if not more, striking, especially given their relatively greater political power. I approached this dissertation as a re-visit to Jennifer Hochschild’s 1981 project (What’s Fair?), returning to her site, engaging with similar questions, and using an interview approach modeled after hers. Hochschild limited her investigation to low- and high-income Whites. I added Black respondents in both income groups and extended the analysis to take into account race and gender in addition to class. In-depth interviews allowed me to explore people’s reasoning in the context of their lives. I conducted 122 hours of interviews with 42 respondents who were high- and low-income, White and Black, women and men. My findings reinforce the suggestion among policy feedback scholars that understanding American opinions about economic inequality requires attention not only to the ways public opinion shapes policy, but also to the ways those opinions are shaped by policy. Thus, questions about why the American public does not take action in their own best interests must also engage with questions about the forces that keep U.S. systems from responding to a widespread public desire for greater economic equality.
Stein, Jacklyn, "American Understandings of U.S. Economic Inequality: Redistribution and Resistance" (2021). Doctoral Dissertations. 2363.
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