Exposure to rising inequality shapes Americans’ opportunity beliefs and policy support

Leslie McCall, Derek Burk, Marie Laperrière, Jennifer A. Richeson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s and by some measures stands at levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Although the strikingly high and rising level of economic inequality in the nation has alarmed scholars, pundits, and elected officials alike, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. Considerable research has documented, for instance, the important role of psychological processes, such as system justification and American Dream ideology, in engendering Americans’ relative insensitivity to economic inequality. The present work offers, and reports experimental tests of, a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, two convenience samples (study 1, n = 480; and study 2, n = 1,305) and one representative sample (study 3, n = 1,501) of American adults were exposed to information about rising economic inequality in the United States (or control information) and then asked about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs). They then responded to policy questions regarding the roles of business and government actors in reducing economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9593-9598
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 5 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank James Druckman and Michelle Rheinschmidt-Same for superb assistance throughout the production of this work; Michael Kraus and the reviewers for their extremely helpful comments; and participants of department colloquia and conferences where this work was presented, especially Rachel Best and members of the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Inequality and Mobility Workshop (Duke University). This research was supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, Time-sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences, and the Institute for Policy Research (Northwestern University).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Economic inequality
  • Opportunity beliefs
  • Policy preferences
  • Redistribution
  • System justification


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