You would think people might be concerned when they live in societies with big, ugly, entrenched gaps between rich and poor. But those in the United States generally don’t, according to recent survey data from the Pew Research Center.
Don’t confuse caring with awareness: According to another Pew survey from July of 2012, nearly two-thirds of Americans know that income inequality has grown worse over the last decade. But despite having a measure of income inequality three to four times wider than most developed democracies, only 47% of the population thinks it’s a problem.
The statistics hint at, but don’t describe the more intimate and harrowing details of American poverty directly adjacent to luxury. (For that, read the New York Times’ bombshell account of 11-year-old Dasani, one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless kids.) But they do illustrate a larger thought pattern about this kind of juxtaposition.
In the United States, the top 20% of earners make 16.7 times what the bottom 20% makes. In the United Kingdom, the top 20% make 5.3 times that of the bottom 20%, yet 50% still highlight income inequality as an ongoing problem. France, Germany, and Italy’s top 20-percenters’ incomes don’t surpass 5.6 times that of the lowest 20-percenters’ incomes, yet half to three-quarters of those countries’ citizens see income inequality as an issue.
The idea of the U.S. as an inequality (and perception of inequality) outlier appears to hold true amid emerging and developing economies, too. In Chile, for example, the top 20% make 13.5 times that of the bottom 20%, but 79% of the population considers the gap a major problem.
Economists and cultural theorists have come up with a number of suggestions for why this is the case. It could be that, despite rising inequality, a risk-averse desire to stick with the status quo trumps sticking one’s neck out for better alternatives. Or it could be that we want to believe the myth that United States is an even-steven meritocracy, so we justify unfairness with a false understanding of who "deserves" what. Then again, our priorities could also reflect America’s unique history, demographics, culture, or varying levels of trust in government.
That said, perhaps it’s time to compare what we believe to be important to what we know to be true. In this instance, American exceptionalism can be degrading and destructive.