What Americans Have to Say About Opportunity, Inequality and the System They Feel Is Failing Them
How do people think and talk about opportunity and inequality in the United States? We hear about these themes frequently these days, from economists, from the philanthropic community, from political pundits and among the slogans and sound bites of recent political campaigns. But what do “regular” Americans think, and what helps people engage these themes and the challenges they represent in productive ways?
In a series of focus groups, we spent the past year talking with folks from small and large cities, including San Diego, Cincinnati, the greater metro area of New York and numerous points in between. The findings are summarized, together with quotes from focus group participants, in our report, “The Fix We’re In: What Americans Have to Say About Opportunity, Inequality and the System They Feel Is Failing Them.”
Many Americans feel trapped in worsening economic straits by an impenetrable and disempowering political system. They view our economic and democratic problems as deeply intertwined and feel stuck in a system in which opportunity to better one’s lot is increasingly limited by a public policy that serves wealthy special interests rather than people like them. Only a more empowering and responsive brand of politics, where citizens and communities have a real voice in the decisions that affect their lives, will enable us to create remedies that can give everyone a decent life and a shot at advancement.
Certainly, for a sizable subset of Americans, deficits of economic opportunity and political equality and empowerment are nothing new—that has been the experience of too many since the founding of the Republic. What our research suggests is that this sense of limitation and disadvantage has become a broadly shared American experience, contributing to a powerful and widespread sense of dissatisfaction, mistrust and frustration with our democratic process and institutions.
In undertaking this research, we set out to learn something useful about where the common ground might be in our divided country, if there are real-world remedies that most people might be willing to support and how to create the conditions that make it easier for Americans to engage these questions effectively.
While one should not draw broad conclusions about “Americans” with full confidence based on qualitative research, a robust series of well-designed focus groups can suggest strong hypotheses about broadly shared sentiments. Among those suggested by this research, elaborated on in the report, are the following:
- It is difficult to engage people in productive conversation on a sprawling and amorphous theme such as “opportunity and inequality.” But if the topic is broken down into more concrete subtopics, people do much better. We chose three: strengthening democracy, alleviating poverty and creating more middle-class jobs and economic security.
- To strengthen democracy, people in our focus groups gravitated toward measures that inform and empower individuals and communities, as well as those that limit the political influence of wealthy special interests.
- To alleviate poverty, people tended to place their bets on improving K–12 education, supporting kids in their communities and increasing the minimum wage.
- Many Americans believe that a better brand of politics, one that is more empowering for and responsive to people like them, is necessary if we’re to have a fairer economy with more opportunity for all.
- People often gravitate toward “magic bullet”–type answers as they begin to engage a knotty problem, a stage they often have to go through before they’re ready for the hard work of weighing trade-offs and settling on real-world solutions. Among the “easy answers” we encountered by some respondents was the notion that immigration is at the heart of our economic challenges or that job-replacing technology can be stopped by individual consumer choices.
- To strengthen the middle class, people want to make sure college is affordable, along with other fundamentals such as housing. Investing in infrastructure also makes sense to people as a means of creating jobs.
- To gain needed resources to do any or all of the above, people believe that moderate tax increases on the rich are warranted. This is not to bring the rich down, but rather to raise everyone else up through needed investments in opportunity and to make sure that all Americans contribute their fair share to support the common good.
- Compelling stories and data can have significant impacts on people’s thinking, especially once they’re in a problem-solving frame of mind. We give some examples of how we saw this in our groups.
- While our groups suggest that many Americans perceive a strong connection between political inequality and diminished economic opportunity, people of color and white people experience this somewhat differently, creating the potential for common cause on the one hand and for tensions on the other.
- The research offers a number of clues for effectively engaging the public on questions of inequality and opportunity, including framing the problem in ways that acknowledge and address the interconnection people see between poor economic opportunity and disempowering, unresponsive politics.
The task of engaging the public in a search for solutions to America’s crisis of opportunity and inequality could not be more important. As Dan Yankelovich, co-founder of Public Agenda, recently wrote, “My fifty-plus years of experience in interpreting public opinion tells me that if equality of opportunity continues to erode, extremist political movements will inevitably arise, making our present polarization far worse and ripping to shreds our social contract.” The bitter divisions put on display throughout the recent election season reveal these words as prescient.