The social maximum : do Americans believe there should be a ceiling to earnings?

Document Type


Source Publication

The 17th International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology : Sociology of the Move

Publication Date



International Sociological Association


Most Americans feel that no one should fall below a minimally decent living standard. If people perceive some as having “too little,” could others be perceived as having “enough” or even “too much”? In this paper, I investigate whether Americans think that there is a social maximum–a dollar threshold in earnings that, if exceeded, is viewed as unjustifiable. Using nationally representative data (N=1,026) from a survey which includes closed-ended, open-ended & vignette questions, I explore what Americans think about a cap on compensation; who favors a cap and who does not; among those who favor a cap, what determines the dollar amount of the chosen cap; whether earner characteristics matter for favoring or not favoring a cap & why people favor or disfavor a cap. Results show that 61% of all Americans favor a cap on compensation, & that more than 2/3 of those who favor a cap support a cap of /BFM2X4B|END5 million or lower. Among the studied factors, the only factor that has any effect on how people feel about a compensation cap is charitable giving: when earners are described as giving away half of their incomes to charitable causes, people are less likely to favor a cap. Finally, the top-most reasons for favoring & disfavoring a cap are, respectively, desiring more equality & seeing the idea of a cap as conflicting with a free market system.



Recommended Citation

Burak, E. (2010, July). The social maximum: Do Americans believe there should be a ceiling to earnings? Paper presented at the 17th International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology: Sociology of the Move, Gothenburg, Sweden. Abstract retrieved from http://www.isa-sociology.org/congress2010/isa-gothenburg-2010-book-of-abstracts.pdf

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