Interview , News of 8 December 2017

SOEP People: Five questions to Judith Niehues

“Income Inequality, Inequality of Opportunity, and Redistribution” was the subject of economist Judith Niehues’ doctoral dissertation and has been a central focus of her research since then. Niehues earned her doctorate at the University of Cologne after completing undergraduate studies there and at San Diego State University in the United States. She is a Senior Economist at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln*), where she heads the Microdata and Method Development Research Group. In her research, she makes regular use of SOEP data to study inequality and perceptions of inequality within the population.

1. Much of your research deals with the middle class. What’s your most important finding on the middle class to date?

It was clear to me from the research on income distribution that Germany is a middle-class society. But in a data analysis, I found that the majority of Germans don’t believe that at all. Most Germans think that our society is shaped like a pyramid, with most people at the bottom. That surprised me. I was even more surprised to find out that more Americans than Germans believe they live in a middle-class society—despite the fact that the middle class is much smaller in the United States than in Germany.

2. Do Germans think the social situation here is worse than it actually is?

Yes. And there is also evidence that Germans are too pessimistic about how inequality in our society is changing over time. Eighty percent of Germans think the gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years. In fact, around 70 to 80 percent of the population of every country in the developed world has this perception, independent of what the actual development of inequality has been like.

3. How do these kinds of perceptions arise?

I always had the idea in the back of my mind that these perceptions might be driven by the mass media. And the SOEP offered a unique opportunity to test this idea. The SOEP data include information on the specific date respondents were interviewed. There are also media data that show what was being reported on in the media on what date. Our study found that when there is extensive reporting on inequality in the media, respondents are likely to report being less satisfied, for instance, with social justice in our country. This shows that media reporting can influence people’s subjective perceptions and concerns.

4. How important is it to you that your findings get out into the public?

It’s important to me to give people facts and clear up misconceptions. So bringing my findings out into the public sphere always plays a role in my work. And when I see that my findings are being picked up by the media and that they’re making it into the political discourse, I feel like I’m having at least a small influence on the public debate.

5. Is there anything else you’re as enthusiastic about as you are about research?

Yes—I really enjoy playing soccer and also watching it. It must be great to be a professional player. Not because of the hype around it, but playing soccer every day and getting paid for it sounds like a dream.

Our SOEP People video interview with Judith Niehues can be found here

* The IW Köln is a private research institute founded by several trade and employers' associations as well as businesses.