How Social Class Shapes Attitudes on Economic Inequality: The Competing Forces of Self-Interest and Legitimation

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Using survey data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and national-level statistics from various official sources, we explore how attitudes toward economic inequality are shaped by economic conditions across 24 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Consistent with the economic self-interest thesis, we find that where income inequality is low, those in lower economic positions tend to be less likely than those in higher economic positions to favor it being increased. On the other hand, where economic resources are highly unequally distributed, the adverse effects of inequality climb the class ladder, resulting in the middle classes being just as likely as the working class to favor a reduction in inequality. Our results further suggest that people tend to see current levels of inequality as legitimate, regardless of their own economic position, but nonetheless desire economic change—i.e., they would like to see inequality reduced—if they perceive it could improve their own economic situation.

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