Inequality is getting worse, but fewer people than ever are aware of it

By: | May 3, 2017

Inequality in America is on the rise. Income gains since the 1980s have been concentrated at the top. The top 10 percent today take home 30 percent of all income, and control over three-quarters of all wealth. We have returned to the level of income inequality that marked the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. The Conversation

Who gets what in America continues to be impacted by a person’s race, gender and family resources. What’s striking, however, is how little people seem to notice.

Evidence from the International Social Survey Programme suggests that people increasingly think their society is a meritocracy – that success in school and business simply reflects hard work and talent. This belief is held most dearly by Americans, but citizens across the world are growing more convinced.

The data show a surprising pattern: The more unequal a society, the less likely its citizens are to notice. Paradoxically, citizens in some of the most unequal countries think theirs is the paragon of meritocracy. How can we explain this phenomenon?

Origins of inequality beliefs

In my dissertation research, I explored the idea that people’s beliefs originate in their childhood experiences.

My research suggests that people in more socioeconomically and racially diverse environments are more likely to appreciate how life outcomes are shaped by structural factors such as race and wealth – that is, the ways in which a person’s family wealth, gender or skin color may impact their chances of getting into college or finding employment.

However, increasing levels of income inequality and segregation mean that modern-day Americans are growing up in less economically diverse environments than in the 1970s. Consequently, people on either side of the income divide cannot see the breadth of the gap that separates their lives from those of others. As the gap grows wider, other people’s lives are harder to view. Rising inequality prevents people from seeing its full extent.

I asked 300 respondents in an online survey to explain why a person graduates from college or drops out; what makes for success at work; what keeps a person out of trouble; and what may land a person in jail.

People typically explained these outcomes in terms of meritocratic factors: Being smart gets you into college, working hard earns you a promotion and being polite to the police may save you from a speeding ticket. In the words of one respondent, “I think people are mostly capable of getting what they want out of life. If they don’t, they either didn’t try hard enough or are too lazy, unmotivated or whatever.”

But respondents were not blind to how structural factors can shape life outcomes. They recognized that some schools better prepare their students for college; that family contacts can help you get that good job or promotion; and that living in a poor neighborhood means you’re on the police radar. As one person put it, “I think that in a lot of cases, outcomes are determined by privilege and race