Subjective beliefs about the income distribution and preferences for redistribution

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Journal Article
Social Choice and Welfare, 2016, 47, (1), pp. 25-61
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We investigate whether beliefs about the income distribution are associated with political positions for or against redistribution. Using a novel elicitation method, we assess individuals’ beliefs about the shape of the income distribution in the United States. We find that respondents’ beliefs approximate the actual distribution on average. However they tend to overestimate the median income and underestimate the level of inequality. Surprisingly we find that beliefs about overall inequality, measured in terms of income dispersion, play only a marginal role in political positions as well as prospects of future wealth. Political preferences, however, are predicted by first, beliefs about the level of income of the poorest members of society, and second, a belief in an open society with equal opportunities for all. Support for redistribution is lower for people who give higher estimates of the income level of the poorest members of society and for people who perceive that opportunities for upward mobility are available.
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