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Understanding public beliefs about equality, inequality, and meritocracy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UnEquality (Understanding public beliefs about equality, inequality, and meritocracy)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2022-05-31

Who is worried about income inequality? Wealth and income inequality have reached levels last seen in the years leading up to the Great Depression – a time of huge disparity between the rich and the poor. A survey of public opinion since the 1980s however reveals little evidence of growing public concern. Why does the concentration of affluence in the hands of a few fail to register public consternation? The EU-funded UnEquality project investigates how people understand economic inequality, and when it worries them. Combining sociological, political science and communication science methodologies, its focus is on the tacit information, assumptions, and experiences underlying people's beliefs about inequality. It asks under what conditions people are likely to stick with their beliefs or change their mind.

Through this project, we learned that the Dutch express some level of concern over wealth disparities and barriers to opportunity faced by children from low-income families. Participants in the study were less convinced that ethnic minorities face unequal opportunities. When asked to explain why people become rich or poor, participants pointed to hard work as the key factor explaining 'success' or 'failure'. As such, they expressed a strong belief that society functions like a meritocracy. A person's family resources or ethnic background were deemed less important factors. On the whole, then, the Dutch are ambivalent about the need for more income redistribution. Whereas many people do not think ethnic minorities face an uneven playing field, they do think that the government has a role in combating discrimination if and when it occurs.

Study participants who were provided with factual information about social inequality in the Netherlands became more concerned about economic disparities. They also came to see family resources and ethnic background as more important factors than participants who did not receive this information. As a result, informed participations became more supportive of income redistribution, felt more strongly that government needs to combat discrimination, and were less likely to blame ethnic disparities on minorities.
An original survey experiment has been designed, fielded and analyzed. The findings present a rich tapestry of public beliefs about equality, inequality, and meritocracy. They also provide key insights into the conditions under which people are or aren't likely to change their mind. Preliminary findings have been disseminated to the general public in radio, newspaper and podcast interviews. A scientific article based on project results has been submitted to an academic journal and has been accepted for presentation at international conferences taking place in the summer and fall of 2021.
UnEquality has produced important insights into the variety of public beliefs about equality, inequality and meritocracy; described nuanced yet crucial differences between perceptions, explanations and attitudes about inequality; and uncovered the pliability of public beliefs when people are confronted with factual information about various forms of inequality. Project findings present crucial lessons for informational interventions and campaigns targeting misinformation and other efforts to facilitate a fact-based public conversation about inequality.