Using data from the European Social Survey, this visualization examines income fairness evaluations of 17,605 respondents from 28 countries. Respondents evaluated the fairness of their own income as well as the fairness of the income of the top and bottom income decile in their country. Depicted on a single graph, these income fairness evaluations take on a Z-shaped form, which we call the “inequity Z”. The inequity Z reveals an extensive level of consensus within each country regarding the degree of unfairness of top and bottom incomes. With rising income, respondents consistently judge their own income to be less unfair. Across countries, the gap in fairness ratings between top and bottom incomes rises with income inequality. Perceived underreward of bottom incomes is more pronounced in countries where bottom incomes are objectively lower. Thus, our visualization suggests, when confronted with information about actual income levels, perceived inequity increases with inequality.


income fairness, inequality, social justice, Europe

Scientific evidence shows that people accept certain levels of inequality, favoring equity over equality (Starmans 2017). But how much inequality is fair, and is unfair inequality related to objective inequality? The normative approach to answering this question estimates unfair inequality based on justice principles, including equality of opportunity and freedom from poverty (Ahrens 2022; Hufe et al. 2022). Instead, we take an empirical approach, using European Social Survey (ESS) data that asked individuals directly about their perceived fairness of own, bottom, and top incomes in a number of countries.

We use data from round 9 of the ESS fielded in 2019 in 29 European countries. Respondents were asked to rate the fairness of their own gross income, as well as the fairness of earnings of the top and bottom gross income deciles of full-time employees in their country on a scale ranging from extremely unfairly too low (-4) to extremely unfairly too high (+4). Importantly, respondents were informed about the absolute values of these top and bottom incomes ahead of the fairness evaluation. Our final sample includes only individuals currently employed or self-employed (n=17,605). Additional details are available in the Online Supplement; data access and replication code are available at https://github.com/fabiankal/inequityZ.

Figure 1 depicts all three fairness evaluations by respondents’ gross income in a single graph yielding a Z-shaped form that we call the “inequity Z”. The Z symbolizes the three main characteristics of the relationship between respondents’ fairness evaluations and income: widespread agreement across different income groups that (1) bottom incomes are too low; and (2) top incomes are too high; as well as (3) a nearly linear increase in fairness ratings of own income with rising levels of income. Most astonishingly, different income groups not only agree on the direction of the unfairness but, also on the degree of unfairness. This is particularly true for the degree to which bottom-income earners are perceived to be unfairly underpaid. Contrary to that, top incomes are evaluated slightly more just in higher income deciles in several countries, potentially revealing increasing levels of beliefs in meritocracy with rising levels of income.