Entertaining Belief in Economic Mobility

 
 Custom-designed by Karen Kim, a former  Harvard Crimson  cartoonist. See more  here . 

Custom-designed by Karen Kim, a former Harvard Crimson cartoonist. See more here

“And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class Americas basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. [...] The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”

Barack Obama, December 4, 2013.

It employed thousands [...] and changed how America does business [...] Shark Tank has become an American phenomenon. And the support of the president just goes to show you that the American Dream is alive and well. From their humble beginnings, the Sharks are all self-made and understand what it takes to build business empires from nothing.

The Shark Tank promotional trailer

 

Job Market Paper
Abstract

Despite growing wealth disparity, many Americans continue to believe in the prospect of upward economic mobility. I argue that past studies on perceptions of economic mobility failed to recognize one defining feature of the contemporary media landscape: the exponential rise of entertainment programs emphasizing ''rags-to-riches'' narratives. I assess whether and to what extent such programs play an important role in perpetuating beliefs in economic mobility, which carries important implications for politics of redistribution. Using Nielsen ratings data and detailed content analysis, I document the sheer availability and popularity of the programs that lionize the modern-day Horatio Alger. Using national surveys and experimental data collected both online and in rural Pennsylvania counties, I find that exposure to ''rags-to-riches'' programs increases belief in the American Dream, more so among Republicans.  My results inform broader questions about the competing types of information that affects citizens' economic perceptions in a high-choice media environment, and carry implications for the study of American political culture and redistributive democracy.

—  University-wide winner, 2018 GAPSA-Provost Fellowship Award for Interdisciplinary Innovation ($6,000)