Political and policy responses to problems of inequality and opportunity: Past, present, and future

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Abstract

There is surprisingly little research on American norms of economic inequality and opportunity, particularly in the era of rising inequality since the 1980s. In this chapter, I describe three political and policy responses to problems of inequality and opportunity and examine how they square with public opinion. Each approach is characterized by a particular mix of views concerning inequality (of outcomes) on the one hand and opportunity on the other. The “equalizing opportunity” approach places greater emphasis on equalizing opportunities than on equalizing outcomes, and even goes so far as opposing the equalization of outcomes in principle. This approach tends to be more identified today with conservatives than with liberals, but it has had broad-based appeal for much of American history. The “equalizing outcomes” approach places greater emphasis on equalizing outcomes than on equalizing opportunity, but it embraces both. It typically sees the goal of equalizing opportunities as being met implicitly through government tax and transfer policies that reduce disparities in disposable income. This approach is identified strongly with liberals. The “equalizing outcomes to equalize opportunity” approach is the one introduced in this chapter as the most consistent with public norms today. It occupies the middle of the political spectrum and fuses concerns about both opportunity and inequality. The way forward is to eschew a one-sided focus on either equal outcomes or equal opportunities so that Americans’ views are better reflected in both political discourse and public policy.

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McCall, L. (2016). Political and policy responses to problems of inequality and opportunity: Past, present, and future. In The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives (pp. 415–442). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-25991-8_12

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