Public Square

Envy on the Upswing in America

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Is envy is on the upswing in America?

Echoing what Mike Rowe said recently about wealth envy, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks pushes further to say wealth envy is on the upswing in America.

In a New York Times article, he says,

Unfortunately, in the wake of the Great Recession, such a shift may well be underway, given the increasing anxiety about income inequality and rising sympathy for income redistribution. According to data from the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. In January, 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”


Why the shift? The root cause of increasing envy is a belief that opportunity is in decline. According to a 2007 poll on inequality and civic engagement by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, just 30 percent of people who believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed describe income inequality as “a serious problem.” But among people who feel that “only some” Americans have a shot at success, fully 70 percent say inequality is a major concern.


People who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution will follow.

After stating the problem, Brooks offers solutions. He says the only way to break the back of envy and rebuild the optimism in America is to…

  1. Increase mobility for more Americans with a radical opportunity agenda.
  2. Recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.

Only biblically-based messages of freedom and individual uniqueness, paired with opportunity for all, will, as Brooks says, “cure us of envy and remind us who we truly are.”

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Photo courtesy of Sharon Drummond.

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