Five Myths About Economic Inequality in America

28 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2016

Date Written: September 7, 2016


Economic inequality has risen to the top of the political agenda, championed by political candidates and best-selling authors alike. Yet, many of the most common beliefs about the issue are based on misperceptions and falsehoods.

Although we are frequently told that we are living in a new Gilded Age, the U.S. economic system is already highly redistributive. Tax policy and social welfare spending substantially reduce inequality in America. But even if inequality were growing as fast as critics claim, it would not necessarily be a problem.

For example, contrary to stereotypes, the wealthy tend to earn rather than inherit their wealth, and relatively few rich people work on Wall Street or in finance. Most rich people got that way by providing us with goods and services that improve our lives.

Income mobility may be smaller than we would like, but people continue to move up and down the income ladder. Few fortunes survive for multiple generations, while the poor are still able to rise out of poverty. More important, there is little relationship between inequality and poverty. The fact that some people become wealthy does not mean that others will become poor.

Although the wealthy may indeed take advantage of political connections for their own benefit, there is little evidence that, as a group, they pursue a political agenda designed to suppress the poor or prevent policies designed to help them. At the same time, rather than reducing economic inequality, more government intervention may actually make the situation worse. Since policies to reduce inequality, such as increased taxes or additional social welfare programs, are likely to have unintended consequences that could cause more harm than good, we should instead focus on implementing policies that actually reduce poverty, rather than attacking inequality itself.

Keywords: Income inequality, wealth, capitalism, redistribution of wealth, income mobility

JEL Classification: D31

Suggested Citation

Tanner, Michael, Five Myths About Economic Inequality in America (September 7, 2016). Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 797, Available at SSRN:

Michael Tanner (Contact Author)

Cato Institute ( email )

1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-5403
United States

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