Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download campus access dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users: Please talk to your librarian about requesting this dissertation through interlibrary loan.

Dissertations that have an embargo placed on them will not be available to anyone until the embargo expires.

Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Naomi Gerstel

Second Advisor

Don Tomaskovic-Devey

Third Advisor

Laurel Smith-Doerr

Fourth Advisor

Emily West

Subject Categories

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.


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.