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The Economic OtherInequality in the American Political Imagination$
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Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226691732

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226691909.001.0001

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Social Comparison and Support for Redistribution

Social Comparison and Support for Redistribution

Chapter:
(p.108) Chapter 7 Social Comparison and Support for Redistribution
Source:
The Economic Other
Author(s):

Meghan Condon

Amber Wichowsky

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226691909.003.0007

Dominant theory predicts that support for economic redistribution will increase as income disparities widen and more people fall farther from the top. Yet public opinion in the United States has remained quite stable, even as the gap between the rich and the middle class continues to grow. Existing explanations for this puzzle focus on knowledge and ideology: Americans either don’t know or don’t care about increasing economic inequality. This chapter reframes this puzzle, focusing instead on perceptions of relative status. Drawing on a nationally representative experiment and survey questions about inequality, education spending, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and social security, the authors demonstrate that when Americans make social comparisons between themselves and someone who is socioeconomically advantaged, they become more supportive of social welfare spending. Downward social comparison, on the other hand, interacts with race, gender and class to produce a more mixed picture, with some Americans becoming more supportive of redistribution and others becoming less so. These findings are consistent with political economy studies that show greater support for redistribution when upper-tail inequality is greater than lower-tail inequality. The authors conclude that Americans respond to inequality with support for redistribution when conditions facilitate social contrast with the wealthy elite.

Keywords:   social comparison, redistribution, political economy, public opinion, social welfare, class, education spending, food stamps, unemployment insurance, Social Security

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