HBS Professor Studies Wealth Inequality

Harvard graduates tend to underestimate the inequality of wealth distribution in the United States, according to a recent survey by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Michael I. Norton that was conducted through Harvard Magazine’s website.

On average, survey participants—most of whom attend the College, Business School, and Law School—guessed that 72 percent of the nation’s wealth was held by the top quintile, or 20 percent, of the population, when, in fact, the top quintile holds more than 80 percent.

Norton’s previous data has shown that these misconceptions are not isolated to University affiliates.

According to an earlier study by Norton, which surveyed Americans across a broad range of socioeconomic and political backgrounds, the average American estimates the top quintile to hold 60 percent of the nation’s wealth.

“The random sample of Americans that we polled included people from all walks of life: rich and poor, young and old, liberal and conservative,” said Norton, who co-wrote the nationwide study with Dan Ariely from Duke University.

“The latest data shows that inequality has not been this high since the Great Depression, and we wondered if people would be aware of what the wealth distribution looks like today,” he said.

In addition, the results of the study and of the Harvard survey both show that respondents agreed almost unanimously in their hope to see a society in which wealth was divided more equally amongst all people.

“Even in the Harvard sample, we found that while Republicans and Democrats disagreed a little, both groups indicated that they want to see an America in which wealth is more evenly distributed,” Norton said.

Rishab Mehan ’14, a prospective social studies concentrator, said that he doesn’t find the news too surprising.

“One would expect the college-educated population to know the realities of it, and the fact that even Harvard students don’t recognize the problem means that the solution should go beyond academics,” he said.

As a possible approach to achieving a more balanced distribution, Mehan said that he believes that media could play a more active role in spreading awareness.

“I think that the media should take the initiative to educate people about the effects of income inequality that people experience in their everyday lives,” he said.

—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck and be reached at mbeck@college.harvard.edu.

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