The Great Inequality Debate
How Much Class Resentment Is There in America?

Over at the Brookings Institution, Richard Reeves and Nathan Joo summarize some fascinating recent academic research on Americans’ preferences about the ideal level of social mobility—that is, the percentage of people born in the bottom quintile who should move upward, and the percentage of people born in the top quintile who should move downward. The takeaway: Americans want a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter:

Americans across the ideological spectrum want to see people born at the bottom to rise up the income ladder to a much greater extent than they do.

… But when asked about ideal rates of downward mobility from the top quintile, a very different answer emerges. Americans are against people being stuck in poverty, but are much less worried about the persistence of relative affluence. In fact, the ideal rate of stickiness at the top closely mirrors the real data.

These results, which held for liberals and conservatives alike, would be untenable if actually put into practice. As Reeves and Joo note, mobility across quintiles is a “zero-sum game”; it’s impossible for the poor to get rich and the rich to stay rich without blocking mobility for the middle. Still, the findings might not be surprising given America’s history. The authors of the original study note that “the idea of upward social mobility is part of the American ethos,” and any comparable emphasis on downward social mobility has been “notably absent.”

While perhaps consistent with the American ethos, the results of this study are at least somewhat in tension with the prevailing wisdom about the country’s current mood. Many pundits have interpreted the rise of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders as evidence that Americans are deeply resentful of elites and elite institutions. This is probably mostly correct. But this study—if accurate—might suggest that Americans’ anti-elite sentiment isn’t quite as vindictive or all-encompassing as some analyses suggest. Americans want more upward mobility for the poor, but they don’t want it to come at the expense of the upper middle class. Americans want their elites to do a better job, but maybe they aren’t quite ready to throw them out just yet.

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