Despite concerns the country will come to a halt if the “other side” wins, Americans still believe the United States is a land of opportunity for all people regardless of background. Disproportionate reporting of growing income inequality since the 1970s has led those in intellectual circles to conclude that the ladder of economic opportunity vanished after the Great Society. However, income inequality is not a sufficient measure of economic well-being and overlooks a substantial part of the story.
Studies by the Department of the Treasury of actual US tax returns demonstrate substantial income mobility in the US (1987-1996, 1996-2005). For instance, among those in the lowest income quintile in 1987, 60 percent of them experienced at least a fifty percent increase in their income by 1996 and median income increased 80.6 percent. Another way to look at this is that 61 percent of those in the lowest income quintile in 1987 were in a higher income quintile by 1996. Income mobility maintained approximately the same pace between 1996-2005. For instance, 64 percent among those in the lowest income quintile in 1987 experienced at least a fifty percent increase in their income by 2005, and median income increased 90.5 percent. Moreover, the second, third, and fourth income quintiles experienced 35, 23, and 17 percent median income growth respectively between 1996 and 2005. US Treasury data also show a great deal of volatility even for top income groups. For instance, incomes werecut in half among 59 percent for those in the top .01 percent between 1996 and 2005.
A great deal of income mobility coupled with increasing inequality suggests that people are traveling a further distance up the income ladder. In sum, it’s more meaningful to climb the economic ladder in the US than say, in Norway, where incomes are more equal, but the ladder doesn’t take you as far. Certainly, the 2008 financial crisis and pursuant sluggish economy have slowed down economic mobility, making income gaps more obvious. This may explain why in the September Reason-Rupe poll we found a sizable 37 percent of Americans who fear their children will have fewer opportunities to get ahead. At the same time 56 percent are optimistic their children will have more opportunities (27 percent) or the same opportunities (29 percent) to get ahead.
Experience with economic mobility has likely influenced how Americans perceive opportunity in the United States. The September Reason-Rupe poll found that 59 percent believe Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed, 39 percent say Americans do not have an equal opportunity to succeed. At the same time, a slim majority thinks the poor have “very little chance of escaping poverty,” while 42 percent think the poor have a “very good chance of escaping from poverty.”
Reason-Rupe asked Americans if they thought “the fact that some people in the United States are rich and other are poor represents a problem that needs to be fixed, or is an acceptable part of our economic system.” Interestingly, 61 percent say income inequality is an acceptable part of our economic system, and 67 percent think it is not the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income between people with high incomes and low incomes. This comports with what Jennifer Hochschild argues in her seminal book What’s Fair, that Americans expect equality in the household and political domains, but accept inequality in the economic realm.