In 2007, during meetings of the Tobin Project’s Government & Markets initiative, scholars and policymakers repeatedly identified rising economic inequality as potentially the greatest threat to the American economy and democracy over the long term. Their concern sparked an interest at the Tobin Project in launching a research inquiry into the potential consequences of high and rising economic inequality in the United States.

In May 2010, the Tobin Project held a conference to explore what the dramatic rise in inequality might mean for the health of our economy and democracy and the wellbeing of American families. The opening conference brought together a diverse group of leading scholars, policymakers, and practitioners and instilled a new sense of urgency around understanding the consequences of inequality. Chaired by Bruce Western (Harvard University, Sociology), the meeting generated over a dozen papers with new thinking, research, and analysis on rising inequality and its potential implications for the United States.   

Following the conference, the Tobin Project solicited feedback from scholars in several small meetings and conversations to further develop the range of ideas and perspectives on the consequences of inequality and to identify potential points for productive intervention. Events included a September 2010 policymaker roundtable in Washington, D.C. dedicated to fostering communication between scholars of inequality and policymakers; an October 2010 meeting on increased income concentration at the top-end of the income spectrum; and meetings in December 2010 and January 2011 on whether and how inequality might contribute to financial crises.

In 2011, the Tobin Project launched a new research inquiry on Inequality & Decision Making. Despite significant scholarly attention paid to the study of inequality, we continue to lack a detailed understanding of inequality and its consequences. The Tobin Project believed that looking at inequality’s effects on individuals might offer new insights into its effects on the economy more broadly. The inquiry’s strategic research question reflected two overlapping aims: first, to isolate and identify the effects of economic inequality on individual behavior and decision making; and second, to study how inequality’s effects on individual behavior might illuminate the mechanisms by which it impacts our economy, democracy, and society.

By 2012, several prominent social scientists had joined our Inequality & Decision Making initiative and, with support from Tobin, began experimentally investigating the behavioral effects of economic inequality. As these collaborations progressed, the Tobin Project expanded its outreach, widely soliciting research proposals in November 2015 and holding a Conference on Inequality and Decision Making in August 2016. The conference generated exciting new directions for the project, and a number of scholars presented findings from innovative pilot studies. Tobin is now soliciting additional research proposals and plans to award a prize for rigorous, innovative research on inequality and decision making in 2018.