Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility
“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.”
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.
Americans have long believed in upward economic mobility and the narrative of the American Dream. Even in the face of rising income inequality, and substantial empirical evidence that economic mobility has declined in recent decades, most Americans remain convinced in the prospects for upward mobility. What explains this disconnect? I argue that Americans’ media diets play an important role in explaining this puzzle. Specifically, contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags-to-riches” narratives. Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades. In three national surveys—one original, two nationally representative—I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers, this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents. Experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans. My results underscore the long overdue need to expand the scope of political communication research in a high choice media environment. To the extent that belief in economic mobility can legitimize income inequality, my findings also have implications for the study of redistributive democracy and American public opinion more generally.
— University-wide winner, 2018 GAPSA-Provost Fellowship Award for Interdisciplinary Innovation ($6,000)
— Featured in Philadelphia Inquirer