Why Don’t Americans Care About Inequality?
There is no question that inequality is extreme in the United States, and some groups are clearly much worse off than others (Collins and Hoxie; Keister 2014; McCall and Percheski; Piketty). There are also some individuals and groups – social activists, some academics – who find this deeply troubling. Yet more general levels of dissatisfaction with the state of inequality in the United States are relatively low; that is, most people are just not overly concerned about inequality. Indeed, dissatisfaction is lower than social scientists predict it to be given the extreme levels of inequality that exist in many countries (Winship), and dissatisfaction is also lower than many activists would like given that apathy typically accompanies it. In this essay, I explore why levels of widespread outrage and calls for change are so low. I start by describing how unequally distributed income and wealth are in the United States, and I highlight some of the important group-level differences in well-being that social scientists now take for granted. I then identify five reasons that these extreme levels of inequality do not lead to more discontent. The reasons I offer are speculative but are based on well-established principles and evidence from the social sciences.