Political and policy responses to problems of inequality and opportunity: Past, present, and future

Leslie McCall*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


There is surprisingly little research on American norms of economic inequality and opportunity, particularly in the era of rising inequality since the 1980s. In this chapter, I describe three political and policy responses to problems of inequality and opportunity and examine how they square with public opinion. Each approach is characterized by a particular mix of views concerning inequality (of outcomes) on the one hand and opportunity on the other. The “equalizing opportunity” approach places greater emphasis on equalizing opportunities than on equalizing outcomes, and even goes so far as opposing the equalization of outcomes in principle. This approach tends to be more identified today with conservatives than with liberals, but it has had broad-based appeal for much of American history. The “equalizing outcomes” approach places greater emphasis on equalizing outcomes than on equalizing opportunity, but it embraces both. It typically sees the goal of equalizing opportunities as being met implicitly through government tax and transfer policies that reduce disparities in disposable income. This approach is identified strongly with liberals. The “equalizing outcomes to equalize opportunity” approach is the one introduced in this chapter as the most consistent with public norms today. It occupies the middle of the political spectrum and fuses concerns about both opportunity and inequality. The way forward is to eschew a one-sided focus on either equal outcomes or equal opportunities so that Americans’ views are better reflected in both political discourse and public policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Dynamics of Opportunity in America
Subtitle of host publicationEvidence and Perspectives
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9783319259918
ISBN (Print)9783319259895
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Economic inequality
  • Economic opportunity
  • Equalizing opportunity
  • Equalizing outcomes
  • Equalizing outcomes to equalize opportunity
  • Gender inequality
  • Human capital
  • Income inequality
  • Income redistribution
  • Media coverage
  • Political campaigns
  • Public opinion
  • Racial inequality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)


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