Sunday, July 10, 2016

Study casts a shadow on the American dream

UO-led study casts a shadow on the American dream
July 5, 2016
University of Oregon

According to UO psychology professor Azim Shariff, there is the idea — one that is touted by many politicians — that the ease to easily change our economic status by changing jobs is enough to make the nation's large levels of income inequality easier to swallow.

In reality, though, the United States has the second-lowest income mobility — the ability to make such job changes — among rich countries, according to recent economic studies noted prominently by Shariff and colleagues in a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.


They recruited an economically representative sample of 521 Americans — evenly split between the five pre-tax household income ranges used by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Participants read articles that portrayed American income mobility rates as being high or low, and then were given time to appraise what the articles meant for their own futures.

Those who had been led to believe that mobility was high, with people easily moving between different relative economic positions, were more likely to tolerate income inequality than were those in groups where mobility was portrayed as low. The level of frustration with inequality, however, rose when the mobility rates were seen as low.

"What we saw is that when people don't see much mobility their tolerance for income inequality drops, and their outrage starts to grow,” Shariff said. “They start to see the economic arrangement as fundamentally unfair."


"If there is no mobility, it's a sticky society where people who are born at the top will stay at the top. But if people see a mobile society — one in which their children have a chance of moving up — then they are willing to tolerate some discrepancies between rich and poor," Shariff said.

But people generally do a poor job estimating how much mobility actually exists, and despite low actual mobility in the U.S., Americans err on the side of being overly optimistic, he said. "In general, almost everyone thinks they are more likely to move up the ladder than they actually are. And no one thinks they’re actually going to experience downward mobility.”

Shariff noted that although these misperceptions may fill people with hope and optimism, the seductive narrative of the American dream may lull people into a sense of complacency about the country’s gross disparities between rich and poor.

The Take-Home Message: In reality, income equality is needed for mobility

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