Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility

Eunji Kim, University of Pennsylvania


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 of 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, 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. Importantly, the rags-to-riches programs, with their narrative emphasis on meritocracy, legitimize income inequality and dampen public support for redistribution. My results shed light on the lingering puzzle of why public preferences for redistribution have not shifted much despite rising disparities in wealth. By boldly expanding what constitutes politically relevant information in this post-broadcast democracy, my dissertation also carries important implications for the study of public opinion more generally.

Subject Area

Political science|Communication

Recommended Citation

Kim, Eunji, "Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility" (2019). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI22587871.