Understanding Public Perceptions of Growing Economic Inequality


While most Americans appear to acknowledge the large gap between the rich and the poor in the United States, it is not clear whether the public is aware of recent changes in income inequality. Even though economic inequality has grown substantially in recent decades, studies have shown that the public’s perception of growing income disparities has remained mostly unchanged since the 1980s. This research offers an alternative approach to evaluating how public perceptions of inequality are developed. Centrally, it conceptualizes the public’s response to growing economic disparities by applying theories of macro-political behavior and place-based contextual effects to the formation of aggregate perceptions about income inequality. It is argued that most of the public relies on basic information about the economy to form attitudes about inequality and that geographic context—in this case, the American states—plays a role in how views of income disparities are produced. A new measure of state perceptions of growing economic inequality over a 25-year period is used to examine whether the public is responsive to objective changes in economic inequality. Time-series cross-sectional analyses suggest that the public’s perceptions of growing inequality are largely influenced by objective state economic indicators and state political ideology. This research has implications for how knowledgeable the public is of disparities between the rich and the poor, whether state context influences attitudes about inequality, and what role the public will have in determining how expanding income differences are addressed through government policy.

State Politics & Policy Quarterly