There is no doubt that incomes are unequal in the United States — far more so than in most European nations. This fact is part of the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members claim to represent the 99 percent of us against the wealthiest 1 percent. It has also sparked a major debate in the Republican presidential race, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has come under fire for his tax rates and his career as the head of a private-equity firm.
And economic disparity was the recurring theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” the president warned, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.”
But the mere existence of income inequality tells us little about what, if anything, should be done about it. First, we must answer some key questions. Who constitutes the prosperous and the poor? Why has inequality increased? Does an unequal income distribution deny poor people the chance to buy what they want? And perhaps most important: How do Americans feel about inequality?