Perceptions of Privilege: An Inherent Income Inequality



With the advancement of communications technology, discussion on social issues has become rampant, especially regarding the disparity due to income inequality. The existing inequality in income is perceived to benefit the wealthy, giving them a privilege above others and creating a disparity in the justice and education system. The disparity that we will focus on includes the impact that privilege has on securing better chances for advancement and receiving leniency in a criminal penalty. On the other hand, some people believe privilege is not evident, and that it is nothing more than a method for the poor to victimize themselves. The goal of this study is to provide evidence of inequality and disparity caused by unbalanced and unprecedented income levels. This paper aims to explain the different perceptions of privilege and is a conceptual analysis of the following questions:

  • Identify different hypotheses of perception on privilege based on income.
  • Explain the methodology of the research methods.
  • Discuss different perceptions in inequality.
  • Explain the reasoning behind the different perceptions.
  • Provide evidence of disparity due to inequality and its negative impact.
  • Discuss any limitations of the study and any ideas for future research on the topic.

Keywords: privilege, perception, income inequality, social mobility, disparity



Concept Selection

When one group receives additional benefits, another group becomes oppressed as the resources are finite. Privilege is the causation of the oppressed. Bob Pease, a professor of social work, believes that to solve the problem, we need to look at fixing the cause and not the result. Nevertheless, many politicians’ focus has been on what the oppressed can do instead of identifying the disparity caused by the privilege of the wealthy. In 2010, Pease noted that “we cannot understand oppression unless we understand privilege” (ix). He argued that many people with privilege do not even realize that they have it. My theory, echoing his sentiment, is that people who have lower income are likely to see more inequality and benefits for the rich; likewise, people with higher income are less likely to recognize their benefits or realize the disadvantage of others with low income. In this report, we will review the literature regarding the perspective on income inequality, state my hypotheses, analyze data and variables, and summarize the findings.

With news coverage regarding the disparity in treatment between the low and high-income group, it is understandable that many people feel that the wealthy has leverage over almost everything than the poor. According to a study from Louisiana State University, Americans can have different beliefs about increasing income inequality, based on their political ideology and media exposure (Xu & Garand, 2010).

Political influences also played a significant role in establishing the perception of wealth. Policies made by each political party can fluctuate a corporation’s wealth and the benefits for the impoverished followers for each party, which will establish a persistent attitude and opinion towards inequality. John Chambers from St. Louis University has collected may polls and surveys in his research (2015). He noticed a pattern that liberals tend to be unhappy with inequality and often underestimate the chances of social mobility, while conservatives will overestimate conversely. Low-income and minority groups tend to be liberals, and they have general disbelief when it comes to fairness in this capitalistic world, and often exaggerate the disparities between income levels (Chambers, Swan, & Heesacker, 2015). On the other hand, conservatives believe that, regardless of income level, hard work will bring success.

Nonetheless, we cannot disregard the common tendency that wealth brings dominance. When there is dominance, there is oppression. Pease (2013) believed that oppression and privilege not only manifested in terms of accessibility to resources but also is embodied in a person’s character. It also enables them to have a bigger and better selection of resources, such as housing, which will likely be in better school districts to raise children (Killewald, 2013). The children will then have better education, job, and mate selection. Wealth is also passed down to many generations and is a mediator for inequality (Killewald, 2013), which empowers a person to assert dominance over others continually.

We can see examples of inequality through private colleges, which have a historically significant role in establishing the elite class and privileged status across generations. These elite universities are accompanied with great promise for a better-paying career and upward mobility. However, research shows that, even with the same level of intelligence as the wealthy, children from working-class parents may merely be unable to pay the tuition and thus not attend elite schools (Martin, 2012). Even if they do, many will not have the same level of support for tuition and other expenses as the wealthy. As a result, they are more likely to have a job to help pay for college expenses, which will take time away for campus activities and study time (Martin, 2012). Upon completion of the degree, student loans are carried through the young life of the working-class graduate. Education can have a lasting impact on a person’s lifetime. The types of school attended and the amount of debt that accumulated all could depend on wealth. Parental wealth, or wealth inherited from family members can be granted to their decendents without merit. For the working class, money has barred many talented individuals from entering a prestigious school, something that will continue to impact them down the road.

Similar to education, the justice system also has a long-lasting impact on people’s lives, based on income level. Magnus Lofstrom (2016), a professor of public policy, has found that the social costs created by these correctional facilities have a disproportionally more significant impact on poor communities. The inmate populations have been those who are minorities, low-income, or both, especially for the United States—a nation with the highest incarceration in the world (Lofstrom & Raphael, 2016). The US criminal justice system is also costly, whether regarding its operation or for the defendants. Furthermore, Loftsrome (2016) stated that the direct punishment and incarceration of the inmates could have an indirect, unintended punishment on their family. Fines and bail will impact not only the people involved in the justice system but also the members of their household. To explain, when the person involved with the justice system becomes unable to work, it will cause a drop in income for his or her household. Contrastingly, higher-income households have better access to lawyers, and better affordability to post bond. “The prevalence and magnitude of these hard-to-measure direct and indirect social costs have increased and in an unequal manner over the past four decades,” Loftsrome (2016) said. “This has disproportionately affected poor minority communities.”

Recent news has documented the gap in education and the justice system, with mainstream examples such as Brock Turner and Lori Loughlin. Their cases leave a mark on the nation that disparity is real, and it benefits the wealthy. It permanently left the impression that money can buy your way into elite college and out of proper criminal punishment. However, it is not logical to assume that disparity is as prolific as some may perceive. Not all people, particularly those who are economically vulnerable, are equally motivated to rationalize a perception from a larger, national data (Xu & Garand, 2010). Many people tend to build criticism from one or two sensational news articles, such as the previously mentioned cases

Analysis Plan

My hypothesis is that people with lower income have a higher tendency to believe that inequality is apparent and benefits the rich; contrastly, people with higher income will have a lower tendency. On the other hand, my null hypothesis is that the wealthy could also be just as aware of disparity as the poor. Many successful entrepreneurs started small and later became wealthy. They might be able to acknowledge the struggle and the challenges of people with low income through their “been there, done that” experience. The last hypothesis could be no correlation between people’s income level versus their perception of privilege. It is because this perception of privilege may be more evident and relatable based on other variables such as race or gender. I chose to chi-square for my calculation because I am testing two nominal variables. My goal is to see whether the perception regarding disparities is different among different income levels.


The survey data collected in Table 1 supports my theory. The data shows that while the majority of people, regardless of the income level, agree that inequality exists or benefits the rich. The percentage of people who agree went down as the more income increases. There are over 75% of people who make less than $25,000 a year who agree there is inequality, while only 58% of the people with higher income concur with it. The chi-square value is significant (<.05); the p-value is .015, and thus we reject the null hypothesis that there is no significant difference between the specified income level.

[Insert Table Here]


The American dream is a notion that any individual can succeed with hard work and perseverance (Chambers, Swan, & Heesacker, 2015). Nevertheless, more and more people are starting to think that America is no longer the land of opportunities envisaged by its founders. Xu’s research (2010), published in the Social Science Quarterly, discovered that incomes have apparent growth at a faster rate for individuals at higher income percentiles in the United States; for example, the top 0.1 percent is accounted for a significant amount of the entire country’s wealth. Such a difference in income level has a direct effect on an individual’s perceptions of rising income inequality (Xu & Garand, 2010).

Although Americans differ in their perceptions of rising inequality, income inequality in the United States has been evident, as well as the disparity caused by it. Nonetheless, attitudes toward inequality are often more emotionally than logically charged. Chambers had stated that liberals, with greater pessimism about the general economy, exaggerate income disparities; Xu also suggested that “low-income Americans will be most sensitive to a higher level of income inequality” (Xu & Garand, 2010, p. 1227). Thus we can safely assume that if the perceptions do not refer to larger-scale data and studies, it is likely not the reality. On the other hand, we should not just discredit the perception entirely. “To what extent can we charge those who are oppressed who are not doing enough to challenge their oppression, while those who are privileged to acknowledge the role they play in the oppression?” (Pease, 2010, p. 5).

To conclude, collecting a survey on people’s perception is easy; the data from the survey in the table supported my hypothesis that people with higher income have a lower agreement with the existence of disparity. However, it is difficult to find a balance between perceptions and disparities, and many other variables can skew the data on perception. In addition to income, the race and political affiliation of a person all played a role in shaping perspectives. A future study could research the amount of impact each has on forming the opinion, which will help to rationalize the solution behind the emotionally-charged perception from the poor, or emotionally-detached perception from the wealthy.


Chambers, J., Swan, L., & Heesacker, M. (2015). Perceptions of US social mobility are divided (and distorted) along ideological lines. SAGE Journals, 26(4), 413–423. doi:10.1177/0956797614566657

Killewald, A. (2013). Return to being back, living in the red: A race gap in wealth that goes beyond social origins. SpringerLink, 50(4), 1177-1195. doi:10.1007/s13524-012-0190-0

Lofstrom, M. & Raphael, S. (2016). Crime, the criminal justice system, and socioeconomic

inequality. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(2), 103-126. Retrieved from

Martin, N. (2012). The privilege of ease: Social class and campus life at highly selective, private universities. SpringerLink, 53(4), 426-452.

Pease, B. (2010). Undoing Privilege: Unearned Advantage in a Divided World. London, England: Zed Books.

Xu, P. & Garand, J. (2010). Economic context and Americans’ perceptions of income inequality. Social Science Quarterly, 91(5), 1220-1241.

Table 1.

Agreement on Inequality Based on Income Level

Does Inequality Exist or Benefits the Rich? Respondents Income Level
$25k $25k – $50k $50k Total
Agree Count 101 66 67 234
% within income level 75.4% 64.7% 58.3% 66.7%
Disagree Count 33 36 48 117
% within income level 24.6% 35.3% 41.7% 33.3%
Total Count 134 102 115 351
% within income level 100% 100% 100% 100%
Chi-Square Test Value df Asymptotic Significance (2-sided)
Pearson Chi-Square 8.404 2 .015
Likelihood Ratio 8.519 2 .014
Linear-by-Linear Association 8.235 1 .004
N of Valid Cases 351

Note. From “gss08pfp-b” by M. Lizotte, 2019, Augusta University.


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