Mobility Optimism in an Age of Rising Inequality

Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Four decades of rising incomes at the top, combined with income stagnation and declining intergenerational social mobility for the majority of American households, have combined to produce what has been widely described as a “new gilded age” in the United States. Yet analyses of the best available survey data reveal little evidence of a proportional increase in policy demands for redistribution over time. What explains this puzzling pattern of non-responsiveness? One classical explanation, revived in recent economic literature, postulates that high and persisting levels of optimism about the chances for advancement and social mobility reduce Americans’ willingness to support redistributive public policies. Although seemingly paradoxical in the current economic environment, the “prospect of upward mobility” (POUM) hypothesis is consistent with cross-national survey evidence revealing relatively high levels of support for such beliefs. What about trends over-time? This raises an important and largely unexamined question: Have underlying beliefs about POUM also shaped Americans’ attitudes toward redistributive policies during the era of rising inequality? In this paper, we examine the POUM-policy preference link, and how it has changed in recent decades. We find that POUM beliefs have shaped how individuals form policy attitudes toward inequality and taxes, net of partisanship, income, and confidence in government. Study findings provide new and provocative evidence in support of the POUM hypothesis, and we discuss implications for models of inequality attitudes and more generally scholarship on the politics of rising inequality.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)1-26
    Number of pages26
    JournalSociological Quarterly
    StatePublished - 2020


    • Political sociology
    • inequality
    • poverty and mobility
    • social psychology

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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