Americans willing to sacrifice to reduce gap between rich and poor, doctoral candidate finds

Americans care deeply about economic inequality, according to research by doctoral candidate Paul Viotti. Photo by J. McNulty

Contrary to the stereotype of Americans as self-interested individualists, the majority care more about growing economic inequality than we've been led to expect, and many would sacrifice personal gain for the well-being of others, according to research by politics doctoral candidate Paul Viotti.

"Americans are portrayed as tolerant of inequality, which has been growing at an alarming rate since the 1970s. But my research reveals that Americans--especially women, Latinas, and African Americans--are much more egalitarian than the stereotype suggests," said Viotti, who has developed an experiment to test Americans' willingness to share their wealth.

By several measures, the gap between rich and poor is becoming a chasm: The ratio of pay between executives and workers was 40:1 in 1980 and is more than 400:1 today, and real income has remained flat or gone down for more than 80 percent of Americans during the same period, according to Viotti.

Yet all the cross-national studies of inequality conducted over the past 30 years show Americans as a group to have a high tolerance for inequality and to be far less likely than Europeans, for example, to think redistributing wealth is a good thing. "The literature is very clear on this," said politics professor Michael Brown, explaining why Viotti's work is attracting interest in the fields of political science and economics. "What Paul's data shows, contrary to many studies, is that some Americans really are quite egalitarian."

Viotti, curious about how Americans are responding to the widening gap between rich and poor, designed an experiment that asks respondents how they would slice up the proverbial pie--and with actual cash at stake, the experiment forced participants to "put their money where their mouth is." Viotti asked participants how they would distribute $100 among a group of five people, including themselves, if they didn't know in advance who would get what share of the $100. Participants overwhelmingly chose to share the money equally, each forgoing their chance to get the entire $100 and taking home $20 instead.

Those results conform with what political theorist John Rawls predicted, but Viotti wondered what participants would do if the "veil of ignorance" were removed and decision makers knew what share they would get before they started slicing. While economic theory predicts that people act to maximize their own gains, Viotti found that a surprising 42 percent still opted to distribute the money equally, even when given the chance to claim the whole $100 for themselves.

"White men proved to be the least egalitarian, while women much more than men--and Latinas in particular--seem to make the most egalitarian choices," said Viotti. In a third scenario designed to measure how much individuals would be willing to give up to preserve group equality, many participants chose to slice a smaller pie equally, rather than have a chance at a bigger pie.

"This work undermines the dominant idea that people will pursue their self-interest above the well-being of others," said Viotti. "This concern for the welfare of the group, as opposed to the individual, flies in the face of rational behavior as described by many economic theorists."

Viotti's initial findings, based on experiments, attitudinal surveys, and focus groups with 100 participants at UCSC, were so compelling that the National Science Foundation awarded him a dissertation grant, and he took his study on the road to Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and, closer to home, Watsonville. Viotti sought as much diversity as he could find, in geography, religion, gender, race, and income.

"I tell people that doing experimental economics on the road is harder than planning a wedding," said Viotti. "You have to find a location, advertise to find participants; then you need them to show up at a given place and time, and all you can tell them is that they'll be involved in an economic simulation."

Despite the difficulties, Viotti was able to reach an additional 200 people, and the results held up. Furthermore, the conclusions revealed even more demographic differences: African Americans, like Latinas and women generally, are more egalitarian at a personal cost, he said. "The values people have when they make choices differ according to their cultural groups," said Viotti, adding that documenting such differences, and understanding how they shape attitudes, is critical.

"I've found that certain groups--Latinos, African Americans, and women--are less averse toward downward redistribution of income and wealth," said Viotti. "They're more supportive of increasing taxes on those with disproportionate income and wealth. Yet the conventional wisdom is that Americans don't want to hear about raising taxes on anybody. As a social scientist, it's critical to document these differences."

Viotti's results may give policymakers a chance to revisit the issue of income inequality. "Even Alan Greenspan has said the current level of inequality threatens the stability of democratic capitalism," noted Viotti.

Viotti's work is getting attention in the field of political science, as well; it will be featured during the American Political Science Association's annual meeting in Boston this August. Soon, he and fellow UCSC alumna Alessandra Cassar (Ph.D. international economics, 2001), an assistant professor of economics at the University of San Francisco, have expanded the research to China, India, and Panama, and will soon add Uganda, as well.

"We really want to look at the question of how culture and other differences between groups affect the choices people make," explained Viotti. "Do the differences we see between men and women in the United States hold true in other countries? How do the attitudes of Hindus in South India compare with those of elites in Beijing? We want to see what gives rise to people's views of inequality."

In other words, perhaps at least some Americans have more in common with Europeans, who tend to view differences in income and wealth as largely a matter of luck and social connections.

"It's been exciting," said Viotti, who will join the faculty at California State University, Chico, after graduating this spring. "There's a renewed interest in this topic, and our findings are so interesting that the project has taken on a life of its own."