According to a recent study by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University, Americans overwhelmingly support a more just distribution of income in the United States. In fact, when respondents in the study were asked to pick their ideal income distribution in a blind comparison comparing income distributions in Sweden, the U.S. and a completely equal income distribution, respondents overwhelming chose either Sweden (47%) or an equal income distribution (43%). Only 10% of respondents chose the current income distribution in the U.S. When asked to compare Sweden, where the wealthiest 20% control 36% of the wealth, to the U.S., where the same 20% control 84% of the wealth, respondents (again in a blind comparison) chose Sweden over the U.S. 92% to 8%.
The study also had some other interesting results. First the majority of respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the U.S., most believing that the wealthiest 20% control 59% of the wealth (as noted above the actual number is 84%). When asked to construct their own ideal distributions of wealth the majority of respondents assigned 32% of wealth to the top quintile. To construct this more equitable system respondents favored moving wealth from the top quintile to the bottom three, leaving the second untouched, and evidencing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate. More startling, these views held across political, gender, and economic lines. Meaning that Americans of all different levels of income, genders, and political persuasions favor a more equitable model along the lines of Sweden and not the current distribution.
What this suggests to me is that the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not income redistribution is a good thing, since Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of it, but what is the best way to go about it. Here is where I suspect to find the most disagreement, probably because people who ascribe to different political ideologies understand the causes of such inequality differently. I also think, however, that some of this disagreement could be solved simply by educating people about what the actual wealth distribution is the U.S. is, something that people seem woefully ignorant of.
The most obvious answer to the question of how to change the current imbalance to a fairer one is through taxes, a subject on which I’ve already written from a Catholic Social Teaching standpoint. Other options include things like better wage laws and changes in the federal budget (notably a drastic reduction in defense spending). Whatever the answer is, this is clearly where the conversation should be focused. Something is clearly broken in the U.S., and as this study indicates, people overwhelmingly agree on the problem. Identifying the problem is always an important first step, now we need to get serious about finding the solution.