Where can I find evidence of unfounded US optimism on income mobility?
November 19, 2007 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a particular public opinion study that shows that Americans have unrealistic income expectations, e.g. that 40% of the population expect to end up in the top 1% income bracket.

I'm writing an opinion article which responds to the recent U.S. Treasury study on income mobility, linked on MeFi last week.

The study illustrating Americans' unrealistic income expectations (in relation to Europeans' more realistic ones) was referred to by a professor I once had (2006) who was obsessed with public opinion polls; I've checked the Pew site but I've got nothing so far. Help would be much appreciated!
posted by laconic titan to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
According to the New York Times, that statistic comes from a Time Magazine poll from 2000.
posted by so_necessary at 9:43 AM on November 19, 2007


There's also this which says the poll was by CNN and rubbishes it as urban myth.
posted by merocet at 9:55 AM on November 19, 2007


Curses. I know I've heard an anecdote from a past presidential candidate about stumping before an audience of steelworkers (auto?) who were rabidly opposed the estate tax, even though it would have been impossible for them to ever earn enough to have a taxable estate. This was in the 70's, I think. It wasn't altruism, either, but self-interest -- their income expectation was that skewed. Now, if only Google were on my side this morning, I'd have something for you. Not the poll you're looking for, mind, but something.
posted by mumkin at 10:10 AM on November 19, 2007


Not sure where these reports came from, but they seem ridiculous even at face value.

I grew up in a blue-collar home, and now lead a white-collar existence, and I can't imagine anyone (teenagers aspiring to be rap stars excepted)-- let alone 40% of the US population-- imagining for a second they would ever earn in the top 1%. The average American, AFIK, has a pretty good handle on the fact that the top 1% makes far more money than they will ever see.

...an audience of steelworkers (auto?) who were rabidly opposed the estate tax, even though it would have been impossible for them to ever earn enough to have a taxable estate. This was in the 70's, I think. It wasn't altruism, either, but self-interest -- their income expectation was that skewed.

Far more likely that those steel workers were buying into a line they heard from a political soundbite-- "The government even wants to tax your death, for crying out loud!" without having the faintest notion that the estate tax would most likely never affect them personally.

The American political system, in fact, depends on this kind of ignorance on the part of the population.
posted by Rykey at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2007


Here's a better version of the explanation of the Time/CNN poll results that are often quoted (in pdf format).

I originally saw it laid out as fact somewhere (No idea where but quite possibly on the blue here!) and copied it out as follows; "10% of the US population thinks they are in the top 1% and another 15% thinks they will be in the top 1% one day. The fact is that the top 1% changes less than 1% from generation to generation but this illusion that 24% of Americans hold is a key reason why the true 1% garner so much support among the general public when they oppose social programs that will benefit the vast majority of the public."

Annoying that it's been debunked because I enjoyed it as a "fact" too.
posted by merocet at 11:32 AM on November 19, 2007


The average American, AFIK, has a pretty good handle on the fact that the top 1% makes far more money than they will ever see.

Not sure how good the handle is in this thread, let alone the country. What's the top 1% that none of us will ever see? Best I can tell, Wikipedia has the top 5% starting at $150K or so.
posted by yerfatma at 11:35 AM on November 19, 2007


Wikipedia has the top 5% starting at $150K or so

Right, and look how much income goes up as you go from the top 5% to the top 1%: according to the same source (Wikipedia, citing the U.S. Census Bureau), for 2005 the top 1% earned $350,000 and higher.

Again, this is only speculation based on anecdotal evidence and personal observation, but if you were to walk up to a random American and ask, "Do you see yourself earning the equivalent of $350,000 per year, in personal income, at any point in your life?" my guess is that person would laugh.

The "American optimism" engendered by the post-WWII boom has taken a beating since, um, the post-WWII boom.

But as I have no evidence to support my speculations, I'd like to know the answer to this too.
posted by Rykey at 12:15 PM on November 19, 2007


"Do you see yourself earning the equivalent of $350,000 per year, in personal income, at any point in your life?" my guess is that person would laugh.

I get what you're saying, but I would qualify that it's Household Income, so the number you're talking about would be more like $200,000. Somebody's got to be making that. Can't just be Bill Gates ruining the curve for the rest of us.
posted by yerfatma at 12:55 PM on November 19, 2007


Merocet's answers led me to this Brookings article with more detail of the original question (although Eggers' description was also great), which led me down the rabbit hole to a description and proof of what I asked for in the first place, the POUM hypothesis (warning: last link contains dense statistics). Thank you internets!

The article should be published Wednesday and sink like a stone over the Thanksgiving holiday; will post a link if I can.
posted by laconic titan at 1:53 PM on November 19, 2007


Interesting presumption. Americans are too ignorant to know their proper place, unlike the far more sophisticated Europeans? Is that it? Granted we haven't had the centuries of class indoctrination so we are way behind on that score.

One difference between growing economies and failing ones (France, etc.) is the possibility of moving up economically. No, not everyone will and not everyone will want to but the chance needs to exists. If I work hard and smart and catch the right breaks it could very well be me.

And if I don't think it will be me, for whatever reason, should I want to take that chance from others?

The land of opportunity isn't the land of equal outcomes, nor should it be. In fact, history shows that it results in pretty poor outcomes for everybody.

Feel free to delete this if it doesn't sit well with your thesis.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:50 PM on November 19, 2007


Wow, hit a nerve there trinity8?

Clearly in a group where 40% expect to be in a particular 1%, there are unrealistic expectations. I don't think that statement makes any presumptions about 'those ignorant Americans' and their level of sophistication. I can't see how it implies that anybody wishes to reduce actual income mobility in the US, so much as that they wish to make people aware of their actual possibilities.

Also, the guy who asked the question cannot have your answer deleted 'for disagreeing', although the admins could delete it for being egregiously off-topic (making no attempt to answer the question). Someone who's been answering as many questions as you have should know that.
posted by jacalata at 6:35 PM on November 19, 2007


If I work hard and smart and catch the right breaks it could very well be me.


Those are big Ifs.
posted by Rykey at 5:18 AM on November 20, 2007


A note to all: e.g. means "for example." I plucked that 40% out of the air for demonstrative purposes.

Thanks to everyone for your answers. I ended up going with a eurocentric thesis for my article rather than focusing on US taxpayers' perceptions, since the stats are a little iffy. The op-ed is published here. I hope some of you will comment on it. Trinity8, I don't mention France specifically, but I think I prove you wrong anyway.
posted by laconic titan at 4:31 AM on November 21, 2007


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