December 5, 2013

Americans see growing gap between rich and poor

growing gap

The issue of income inequality is back in the news at a time when the U.S. public believes there is a growing gulf between rich and poor that is likely to continue, according to recent Pew Research Center surveys.

President Obama focused on the issue in a Wednesday speech in which he said there was “a dangerous and growing inequality” in the nation which now stood as “the defining challenge of our time.”

A substantial majority of Americans (65%) said in an July 2012 Pew Research survey that they believed the income gap between the rich and poor had widened over the last decade. Just 20% said it had stayed the same and 7% said it was smaller. Most of those (57%) who believed the gap had grown said it was a bad thing for society.

The public sees this gap as an ongoing fact of life. A separate survey conducted in April 2012 found that Americans agreed by a 76% to 23% margin with the statement that “today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” That gap had grown since Aug. 2002 when the margin was 65% to 33%, but the size of it was not much different than it was in 1987.

There was a large partisan gap when it came to the perception of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The share of Democrats (92%) who agreed with that statement had increased eight points since 2009 and was as high as it has ever been in Pew Research polling. A much smaller number of Republicans (56%) agreed. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of independents subscribed to the “rich get richer” perception.

One of Obama’s assertions is that the growing gap between rich and poor has undermined “America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” Indeed,  just 35% of Americans agreed that “hard work offers little guarantee of success” while 63% disagreed in our survey last year. Those opinions have not changed substantially in recent years.

Despite widespread perceptions of economic inequality, there was little indication that it had fueled class resentment.  Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) said they admired “people who get rich by working hard.”

Perceptions of the Rich

What do Americans think of the rich? Views are mixed: Americans view the well-to-do as more intelligent and more hardworking but also greedier, our survey this summer found.

About four-in-ten (43%) said the rich were more likely than the average person to be intelligent (with 50% saying there was no difference or expressing no opinion) and 42% said they were more likely to be hardworking compared with 24% who said less likely and 34% seeing no difference or offering no opinion.

More than half (55%) saw the rich as more likely to be greedy compared with 9% who said less likely, and 36% who took neither side.

Republicans were more likely to describe the rich as hardworking, by a 55% to 33% margin. About two-thirds (65%) of Democrats saw the rich as greedy compared to 42% of Republicans.

Perceptions of the Poor

When it comes to the question of why people are poor, less than half (46%) of those surveyed said that circumstances beyond one’s control were more often to blame while 38% said an individual’s lack of effort was more to blame. About one-in-ten (11%) cited both factors. In addition, 65% believed that most poor people in the U.S. do work but were unable to earn enough money. Just 23% said the poor do not work.

There are sharp ideological divides on both those findings.

Democrats said by a 61% to 24% margin that circumstances beyond one person’s control were primarily to blame for them being poor. Republicans took the opposite view: 57% blamed individuals who were poor for lack of effort compared with 28% who said it was due to circumstances beyond their control.

On the question of being able to earn enough money on the job, 89% of liberal Democrats and 78% of moderate and conservative Democrats said poor people work but do not earn enough money. But only about half (53%) of moderate and liberal Republicans agreed. Conservative Republicans were evenly divided: 43% said the poor do in fact work but cannot earn enough while 40% said most poor people do not work.

Topics: Barack Obama, Income Inequality

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a Senior Editor at the Pew Research Center.

Leave a Comment

Or

All comments must follow the Pew Research comment policy and will be moderated before posting.

30 Comments

  1. Ray2 months ago

    Those that can’t remember are doomed to repeat. It seams history has shown civilized countrys going down the same road have not lasted. Rome, France and many others… They wonder, Who would join these terrorest groups? Look around, 90% are not making it. It’s all going to boil over, and many they count on to protect come from the same back-ground as those they must control… Ain’t going to work, It’s there blood and familys rebeling…Ray…

    Reply
  2. Mark Elia7 months ago

    So why exactly are you surveying the American people on their opinions concerning income inequality?
    That’s like asking a fast food worker about human physiology. What do the American people know? Nothing.
    Was hoping for more concrete and objective data here rather than subjective opinions from a pool of clueless people.

    Reply
  3. Rory8 months ago

    I see a disturbing trend among Republicans in that they seem to be conditioned by the media (by that I mean FOX and Limbaugh in particular) to think that if people are poor it is because they are lazy and the wealthy are in the position they are in because they are superior and work harder. They forget about how many of our wealthy are from old money families and probably haven’t worked a day in their life. There is a reason there are books, movies, TV shows and songs portraying some wealthy people as sitting around the pool in opulent mansions acting like arrogant jerks because they do indeed exist. I do applaud those who work hard and gain by it and I don’t want to go so far as to say your average Democrat has a better grasp of reality and that is why more than half believe the poor are that way because of circumstance but it makes you wonder. The stats back up the idea that many of our poor don’t have access to good paying jobs or the education that would bring such jobs into their lives. I saw a crass comment on a board the other day that said, “Maybe the poor should just get a better job”. What other better job is there? In order to make 30k per year you have to be making about 15 dollars and hour. Most hourly jobs pay less than that and discourage overtime. Even at thirty thousand a year that’s less than two thousand a month take home. If you want to own instead of rent your house payment at that pay rate should be one thousand or less per month if you want any money left for other expenses and some sort of savings. I looked and though it varies from state to state it appears that the average price of a house is over $150,000 which means your monthly payment will probably be more than a grand a month. Plus you have to factor in that almost all jobs have some sort of wage cap. You will never become a millionaire working as a teacher or firefighter. Also not all of us want to or have the interest in running a business or being the financial industry, i.e. Wall Street. Someone has to be an employee. It doesn’t even make sense to think that all of us can be our own boss.

    They say statistic don’t lie and the current economic ones indicate that basically if you aren’t in at least the top 5% right now you won’t make any gains and could possibly drop a rung or two on the ladder. I believe there is a system in place in the U.S. and has been for a long time that is controlled by a small handful of extremely wealthy people who have the game rigged to continue to benefit them and their heirs (which is the real reason there is so much negative publicity about the inheritance tax) to the detriment of the other 99.5% of us. Until this system is destroyed things will only get worse.

    Reply
  4. kathleen11 months ago

    The rich do get richer and greedier. My husband relies on an end of year bonus for a major part of our finances. He works for a large very successful company. In fact, the company made more money this year than ever. Still, the bonus pool was cut – so more of the greedy rich at the top could keep a bigger percentage of the record profits-. The workers who created the profits just keep working harder to barely hold on, and the rich keep stealing the benefits.
    Something needs to change in this country, but you cant pass legislation outlawing basic greed. The question becomes when will the ultra rich ever feel that they have enough, and become willing to share with everyone else. I have been talking to my husband about this for years, yet it keeps getting worse. Middle class workers don’t get raises, but prices on everything – food, gas etc keep going up. Really this country is no longer providing the “american dream”— it is just getting depressing and hard to live here.

    Reply
    1. Naduu5 months ago

      Perhaps you should stop relying on others for you financial security. The “Rich” don’t. Why should someone whose worked for what they have be forced to “share” with everyone else? And if my children inherit money, does it mean they are less deserving of it…must they too share with the likes of people who feel the world owes them something simply because they don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to actually pave their own path to financial freedom? I think not.

      I have spent years building my business…sacrificed, which is more than most people are willing to do. Now that my finances are better off than most I have to “share” more of my money?

      I wish people would stop whining about how unfair things are and learn to earn more by giving value to people’s lives…or at the very least, learn a skill that is in demand.

      Reply
      1. Kendel5 months ago

        You are very arrogant – or at least sound that way. The author said clearly that not everyone can own their own business. The business needs workers – people like her husband who do the day to day things that keep a place. humming along. And what do you mean by a “useful skill”? There are many educated people out there (young college grads) who did lean something useful like GIS and are struggling to get a job.
        When you are successful you must note that you have more on you now – to whom much is given, much is required. You also must bear in mind that you are your brother’s keeper.

        Reply
      2. Ray2 months ago

        Are you kidding me, They play a game where you have no say. They take money out of one’s pay and say , It’s your retierment. SSi and all that, Then they blow smoke up your… I had my first full time job at the age of 12. Hard work? I poured concrete for a living for many years.. They sell you a game out of a fantacy novel they call, The Bible. The first to abuse children, Lie and grovel for dollars… It’s all a joke and I don’t think it’s going to work all that much longer…. Ray..

        Reply
    2. UGO 6FT Below6 days ago

      agreed, thomas jefferson even said a revolution needs to happen every 20 years to keep the greedy corrupt from staying at the top…he was a smart man.

      Reply
  5. Silence DoGood12 months ago

    Some ideas on tax and wealth reform, for those who are interested. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Hope to hear from you.

    youtube.com/watch?v=s8ILdsfzQi0&…

    Reply
  6. Dan12 months ago

    Education helps. Working is critical. If you are not willing to work and rather live on foood stamps, entitlement benefits and subsidies you will always be poor. If you keep having children in order to qualify for government assistance, you will always be poor. Soon the “rich” will become poor supporting the poor. Isn’t Socialism wonderful.

    Reply
    1. Packard Day12 months ago

      Some of America’s worst kept secrets of the rich:

      1. Don’t have babies until you are married.
      2. Don’t get married until you are through with your education.
      3. Marry slowly, but try very (very) hard to marry for life.
      4. Spend less than you make.
      5. Learn to value and develop your own personal intellectual curiosity.
      6. Don’t allow yourself (are anyone in your immediate family) to associate with “social dead heads, intellectual slugs, or societal victims.” Outside of Christian charity or professional interactions, these types of losers (and their families) are anchors to not only themselves but to all those who come in contact with them.
      7. Work hard at what you do and always adhere to the Woody Allen 80% rule for success of “Just showing up.”
      8. Diversify your investments, think long-term (15-20 years out), and always remember to invest FIRST rather than last at the end of each month.

      Good luck

      Reply
      1. Mark Elia7 months ago

        This is awesome.
        Fantastic list.

        Reply
    2. timr12 months ago

      you quite obviously have never been forced to work 2-3 jobs that only pay minimum wage because you have to feed your family and there are no other jobs around. I OTOH, have been there and done that.(and have maxed out all my credit cards in order to pay my bills)
      If you think that people would rather get unemployment and food stamps than work, you haven’t got a clue about what things cost and how much is needed to pay your bills.
      Idiocy continues to rule the gop. Who would much rather continue to support megacorps like Walmart who pay their employees so little that over 80% qualify for food stamps and other govt aid.
      So it seems that the gop would rather pay more taxes than support a higher minimum wage so that those employees could start paying taxes rather than having to accept govt aid. Very interesting that.

      Reply
      1. Packard Day12 months ago

        When you refer to “gop,” I am thinking you might be more correct in identifying the rich (top 10%) in this country as being part of what is euphemistically referred to “Washington DC/Wall Street Patriots.”

        You surely do not think guys like Bill Clinton, Robert Gibbs, Bill Burton, Robert Rubin, Lanny Davis, Jack Quinn, Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner (Lifelong Democrats, one and all) have not been getting insanely wealthy these past five years, do you? Which of course, is not to say that guys like Carl Rove, Eddie Gillespie, Haley Barber, and Trent Lott (Lifelong Republicans, one and all) are not doing exactly the same thing. They are, along with many, many others.

        My original point was to recommend that readers ignore the rhetoric of the “Washington DC/ Wall Street Patriots.” For the most part, what they say is just what Pat Moynihan once called “boob bait for the bubbas.” Nothing more. Instead, watch very closely how America’s rich (i.e. Washington DC/Wall Street Patriots) behave in their own lives and then try to emulate it.

        For example, it is perfectly fine to be a strong advocate for public education in this country (like the Clintons & Obamas). Just don’t dare put your OWN child in such a place (like the Clintons & Obamas @ DC’s exclusive Sidwell Friends)*…..*see my original #6 secret.

        Again, good luck

        Reply
      2. Dick5 months ago

        I made the mistake of working for the US Government for over 19 years, averaging over 80 hours per week for 14 of the 19. My thank you? After reaching senior management level with an excellent eduction to back my experience, I was replaced by a pollitical hack with no experience at all. No retirement, and divorce took my savings. I now live in poverty as I have found no organization that wants an ex-fed with rank. My brown recluse infested shack of a house is heated 4 hours per day in winter, the AC is NEVER turned on, and I eat chicken 7 days per week. Now, at age 70, my only hope is to die soon.

        Reply
  7. Troy Jones12 months ago

    There are hardworking intelligent people and hardworking less intelligent people and informed and uninformed in all groups. The nature of work is changing (obviously?).
    It appears to me that all work is becoming more intellectual and less manual resulting
    in differences of opinion… and pay. The ratio of eligible applicants to available jobs
    determines pay scales for all jobs. If these opinions are correct/valid, the situation will continue to result in statistical differences which may have catastrophic results. If
    those who cannot qualify for work become a majority of the population, violent action may
    result. The demographics displayed in our elections indicate that this effect is being felt
    already.

    Reply
    1. Fred Anderson10 months ago

      Troy;
      I think you’re correct, but I think there may be other elements to consider.
      (1) Measures of income inequality — esp., the Gini coefficient — have NOT changed significantly over the past 50 years for US PERSONS. But Inequality (at least, the Gini) HAS increased for US Households & Families — which are made up of those persons. That says the growing inequality must be rooted in changes in the composition of those Households / Families. The obvious change over those 50 years has been the decline of marriage as a social institution and the consequent explosion of single-parent families — who (surprise!) tend to be poor. (I can imagine some additional contribution arising from longer life-spans leading to more single-elderly Households — who, the folk-wisdom says, tend likewise to be poor. Then again, improvements in Social Security and Medicare are widely supposed to have largely eliminated poverty among those old folks.)
      (2) The numbers look quite different if, instead of examining merely take-home pay, one also adds in government transfers (e.g., the EITC and/or food stamps) and employer provided benefits — esp. insurance. Demagogic politicians see their own advantage in carefully ignoring those factors and motivating their supporters through emotion — esp., fear of the future and envy / hatred of their more successful neighbors.
      (3) Socio-Political policy has tended to militate against physical capital — it isn’t popular to reward factory owners. Yet jobs for people of lesser intellect and education were typically in those factories. A high school graduate of unremarkable intelligence could still be highly productive (and thus paid fairly well) working with sophisticated tools (capital equipment) supplied by someone else (the capitalists). (American workers today work with — on average — $334,000 worth of invested capital.) We HAVE encouraged education — the building of human capital: The right education can be a useful tool for increasing the productivity (and thus the pay) of its owner. But only about 30% of humans have the above normal IQ’s needed to make this work for them. The other 70% of us possess only normal (or sub-normal) intelligence. It is cruel of our college-educated leaders to propose to the guy with a 96 IQ that he should go to college and turn himself into a rocket scientist.
      (4) Back in the 1930’s, we passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which had the unintended effect of establishing forty hours as a standard work week. Then, whenever we learned how to do something better, we kept workers at that 40 hours-per-week and cut back the number of workers needed to get the total work done. Thus, if productivity doubled, we’d layoff half the workers — no longer needed — and double the pay of the survivors. We would likely have been better off if we’d kept them all on the payroll and let each of them earn their pay in 20 hours instead of the old 40. Our standard of living would still be much closer to what it was in the 1950’s, but we’d have MUCH more free time and (presumably) we’d not have the widening income gap we now face. Besides, in the 1950’s, people thought times were pretty good! It’s only from the perspective of our now inflated paychecks that the 1950’s look so spartan.

      Reply
  8. slk12 months ago

    it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, to figure that out!!! you have millions of people, doing nothing except cashing their government assistance checks!!! none of them are doing any better!!!

    Reply
    1. timr12 months ago

      so you think that keeping the minimum wage low is a good idea? If so then you are supporting the fact that the Walton family is making many millions a year, while their employees get paid so little they qualify for food stamps and medicade. Which you are paying for with your taxes.
      I don’t know, that seems to be pretty stupid to me.

      Reply
      1. slk12 months ago

        it’s pretty stupid, to have a lifestyle, that you cannot support through your job!!! who forced them to make babies??? smart people, set up their career, then play!!! and with the wage increase will come higher prices, and they’ll be back to whinning again!!! there are many skilled labor jobs out there, if you don’t mind working!!! you are what you’re worth!!!

        Reply
  9. Bill Low12 months ago

    The rich have prospered more and the poor suffered more under President Obama than under any other modern President. The disparity between corporate profits and wages paid is greater under Obama than anyone since the great depression. He maintains this “support of the middle class” deception by repeating it so often some folks think it is true. The website Political Prophet Predictions has just released a good report on the subject.

    Reply
    1. timr12 months ago

      this is something that has been happening since the 80s. And like the saying goes, figures don’t lie, but liars certainly can figure

      Reply
    2. per12 months ago

      You are partcially correct, just remember who Obama inherited the ploblems from!

      Reply
  10. M. C. Gilbert12 months ago

    I’ve always been intrigued by “the growing gap between rich and poor’.

    I believe that gap is growing because we have so many sit-on-their-butt low information citizens that drag the stats down. People have stopped working because it easier to put your hand out than WORK.

    We worked and saved for what my wife and I have and I don’t think it’s right that people should resent what we have because they lived pay check to paycheck and didn’t save.

    I have some college education and no truly marketable skills but, we’ve managed to eliminate our mortgage and car payments by working.

    The first person that tells me to my face that I should not have what I have is going to wish for the Inquisition when I’m done.

    Grandpa told me when I was a preteen that, “even if you’re the dish washer be the best damn dishwasher there ever was.”

    That advice never left me in the following 66 years.

    Reply
    1. slk12 months ago

      God Bless You!!!

      Reply
    2. timr12 months ago

      millions of people, thru no fault of their own, are unable to find jobs. Sure, sometimes there are jobs available, a thousand or more miles away, and due to not having a job you can not afford to move to a possible new job.
      In addition a brand new trend has appeared wherein businesses simply throw away applications of people who are long term unemployed.
      What is a person to do then? The system is now geared against people who have been unemployed for a few months. So you can’t get a job because you don’t have a job.
      Then we have age discrimination if you are over 50, experienced, and very qualified, you can not get a job because they say you are “overqualified” which is shorthand for you are too old.
      So, what say you now sir.

      Reply
  11. rob earl12 months ago

    Also, let me be the first to state the obvious, but with so many people out of work and either unemployed, under-employed or no longer looking for work … for something like 5 years now, is this “income gap” any surprise?

    And what exactly will raising the minimum wage do to correct that?

    How about raising the educational standards for graduation? How about offering more kinds of trade school alternatives for all those who don’t want to attend college? How about unemployment benefits that are paid through an employer who provides a job? How about re-thinking what we can do rather than trying to divide people by engaging in class warfare that accomplishes nothing but resentment?

    Reply
    1. slk12 months ago

      many career burger flippers, would lose their jobs!!!

      Reply
  12. rob earl12 months ago

    The fact is, more than a half century after The Great Society programs designed to lift people out of poverty, we have almost as large a percentage living in poverty. There is a permanent underclass in America and there is a strong correlation with lack of education, high birth rates among young, unmarried women and high rates of incarceration. We also know that getting a good education and not dropping out of school prematurely is one of the common denominators behind most successful people in our society. Yet in some school districts better than half of all students drop out of school before graduation and in many places graduates are not ready for college-level work. This certainly isn’t something to be blamed on the wealthy. Would it not make more sense to address these issues that we know hold people back than blame disappointing outcomes on everything but?

    Reply
    1. slk12 months ago

      many are taking remedial classes, to qualify!!!

      Reply