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Americans Care About Economic Inequality

Public Opinion Shows Dissatisfaction with Our Economic System

SOURCE: AP/Andrew Burton

A fake check, made out to "The Top One Percent" for "$5 Billion" from the "99 Percent" sits outside 641 Fifth Avenue, where hedge fund owner John Paulson lives, during a march in New York, on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.

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Americans care deeply about our record-high levels of inequality and believe our economic system favors the wealthy. While some conservatives argue that Americans don’t care about economic inequality, a review of recent polling shows this claim to be utterly false. Moreover, Americans would prefer significantly less economic inequality than we currently have and think government should address the issue.

Americans are more concerned with equality of opportunity—97 percent of Americans think everyone in America should have equal opportunities to get ahead—than with equality of results. But as we show below, they are quite concerned about the level of inequality we currently have, and critically, Americans believe that high levels of inequality reduce the opportunity for people to get ahead.

To be sure, many Americans believe they will personally succeed in spite of inequality. But there is no doubt that Americans are deeply worried about economic inequality and the state of the middle class.

Concerns about inequality and a system rigged for the wealthy

Figure 1In a December 2011 poll the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans believe our economy unfairly favors wealthy Americans, while only 36 percent believe the system is “generally fair.”

Drawing a sharper contrast with the conservative narrative is an ABC News/Washington Post poll from January finding that 55 percent of Americans believe economic unfairness favoring the wealthy is a bigger problem than overregulation by the government hurting economic growth. Only 35 percent of respondents believe the latter is the bigger problem.

But Americans’ opinions on the topic don’t stop there. In an October 2011 survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the majority of Americans said they are not satisfied with an economy that just works for the wealthy few:

  • Eighty-one percent of those surveyed agreed that “[r]egular people work harder and harder for less and less, while Wall Street CEOs enjoy bigger bonuses than ever.”
  • Seventy-five percent agreed that “[o]ur economy works for Wall Street CEOs but not for the middle class. America isn’t supposed to only work for the top 1 percent.”
  • Seventy-two percent agreed that “right now, 99 percent of Americans only see the rich getting richer and everyone else getting crushed. And they’re right.”

In short, polling clearly indicates the public is greatly concerned about economic inequality and believes our economic system benefits the wealthy few at the expense of the middle class.

Inequality reduces opportunity and hurts the middle class

Figure 2Perhaps the most important reason that Americans care about inequality is that they believe it makes it harder for people to get ahead. Achieving the American Dream is more difficult when the rungs on the ladder are farther apart. In a 2009 Pew poll, 71 percent of the public agreed that “greater economic inequality means that it is more difficult for those at the bottom of the income ladder to move up the ladder,” while 27 percent disagreed.

Polls also consistently show that the public thinks the middle class is in decline, and economic inequality is harmful.

In a 2010 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll for Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America’s Future, the public endorsed the idea that America is no longer a country with a rising middle class by a 57–36 margin. Furthermore, an October 2011 Pulse Opinion Research poll for The Hill found that two in three Americans believe the middle class is now shrinking.

These sentiments are further supported by a Washington Post poll from that same month in which respondents were asked if they thought the gap between the wealthy and everybody else was increasing. Sixty-one percent asserted that the gap had grown compared to what it has been historically. Wealthy citizens are taking more and leaving the middle class behind in the process.

Americans prefer greater equality

Most Americans think greater income equality would be a good thing. In a November 2011 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 60 percent agreed that “our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” Further, 63 percent believed that “we need to dramatically reduce inequalities between rich and poor, whites and people of color and men and women.”

Research by behavioral economists has shown that Americans would choose a much more equal distribution of wealth if given the option. According to a study conducted by Duke and Harvard professors, 92 percent of Americans preferred the wealth distribution of Sweden over that of the United States. Sweden is a much more equal society, with the wealthiest fifth of the population holding only 36 percent of all wealth, compared to the United States where the top fifth has 84 percent.

Inequality should be addressed

Figure 3The public also believes the government should help lessen inequality. In a November 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 61 percent of respondents believed the federal government should “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans.” Only 35 percent believed the government should not pursue these policies.

Another November poll, this time by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, reported that 76 percent of respondents believed that the economic system favors the very wealthy, and that the power of banks and corporations should be reined in.

Conclusion

Academic researchers looking into these issues have found very similar results to those presented in this column. In the 2009 book, Class War: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, political scientists Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs found that 81 percent of the public thinks the gap between wealthy Americans and the middle class has grown over the past 25 years, and that 72 percent thought differences in income in America are too large. Similarly, public opinion reviews on inequality over time by sociologists Lane Kenworthy and Leslie McCall indicate that Americans have typically been aware of inequality, sensitive to its increase over time, and generally disapprove of the levels it has reached on our society.

In sum, there is little doubt that the American public is concerned that over the past three decades, income inequality has risen dramatically and the middle class has been suffering. The public believes that economic inequality is a problem, the system favors the wealthy, and life for the middle class is becoming more and more difficult. Policymakers should heed public opinion as they consider how to strengthen the economy.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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