There is a dangerous tension for Democrats on the issue of economic inequality, which new research lays bare.

The more Americans learn about the widening income gap between the rich and everyone else, the research shows, the more they believe it's a serious problem. This would appear to be good news for Democrats, the party that has pushed inequality as a campaign centerpiece for several national election cycles now. It suggests that the more Democrats talk about the issue, the more voters might agree that something must be done about it.

The problem, for Democrats, is in getting voters to agree on what must be done. Many of the party's proposed solutions for inequality involve expanding the role of government, by tweaking the tax code to deliver additional benefits to low-income workers, for example. (This is best evidenced in President Obama's most recent State of the Union speech.) But Americans don't appear to favor those solutions -- even the Americans who have learned more about inequality and grown to see it as a bigger problem.

Those results, the authors write, "suggest that this aversion to government intervention is due to a deep level of distrust in government."


Emmanuel Saez

A quartet of researchers -- Ilyana Kuziemko, Michael Norton, Emmanuel Saez (one of the world's preeminent inequality researchers) and Stefanie Stantcheva -- conducted the study. It was previewed Thursday by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an inequality-centered think tank.

The economists conducted an online survey of 10,000 Americans about inequality. Half the respondents were shown a presentation about widening inequality, including information on "how much more income a respondent would earn if increases in economic growth since 1980 had been more evenly distributed" between the rich and everyone else. Those respondents were 35 percent more likely to call inequality a serious problem than those who did not see the presentation.

The respondents who viewed the inequality presentation were more likely to favor two policies that Democrats tend to favor to combat inequality: raising the minimum wage and raising the estate tax. They were no more likely to favor several other government-centric inequality proposals, including expanding the federal supplemental nutrition program that most Americans call food stamps, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers.

"This last finding is, to our knowledge, the first direct evidence of the causal effects of trust in government on redistributive policy preferences," the authors write. "Our findings highlight the potential role of mistrust in government in limiting enthusiasm among the general public to certain kinds of government policy programs ... designed to help close the wealth and income gap."

If the research is correct, it suggests that the challenge for Democrats will be finding a way to rebuild voters' trust in government -- or to target inequality with different sorts of policies. It also suggests an opening for Republicans, who have recently begun talking about inequality in ways they used to shy away from, to make the case for solutions that run not through government, but markets.