Social Mobility and Support for Redistribution: Separating the American Dream from Policy Preferences

61 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2016 Last revised: 23 Mar 2017

See all articles by Michael George

Michael George

University of Oxford, Students

Date Written: February 12, 2017


This study examines the extent to which upward social mobility impacts preferences for redistribution and taxation in the United States. Evidence from national survey data (1993-2012) suggests that a strong relationship exists between social mobility and support for the Republican party, but not with redistributive policy preferences. This effect is then confirmed in a randomized survey experiment fielded in 2014 which shows that shifting perceptions of social mobility does not impact policy preferences, but does increase support for the Republican party. This relationship is then confirmed in election outcomes from 1980-2016, which suggests that individuals translate their preferences into political behavior. Surprisingly, all three data sources suggest that this effect does not depend on one's position in the income distribution: individuals are more Republican wherever low-income children do well. Furthermore, while recent evidence shows that Americans are overly optimistic when estimating national social mobility, survey evidence here suggests that they possess relatively accurate perceptions of local rates of economic mobility. Together, these results complicate conventional models of individual preferences, such as the prospect of upward mobility (POUM) hypothesis, which argue that preferences for redistribution depend on beliefs about future gains or losses from taxation or the effects of government redistribution. Instead, this evidence suggests that individual attitudes toward redistribution and social mobility are separable and ideological, which implies that opposition to greater redistribution may not be driven by false belief in the ‘American dream.'

Keywords: social mobility, inequality, redistribution, American Dream, elections, public economics

Suggested Citation

George, Michael, Social Mobility and Support for Redistribution: Separating the American Dream from Policy Preferences (February 12, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Michael George (Contact Author)

University of Oxford, Students ( email )

United Kingdom

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