April 28, 2014

Americans agree inequality has grown, but don’t agree on why

Chart listing some of the reasons Americans give for economic inequalityIssues of economic inequality (however one defines it) are a part of the public discussion in a way they haven’t been for a long time, driven both by economists such as Thomas Piketty and people’s own experiences since the 2007-09 global financial panic. Americans have few doubts that inequality has grown: In a Pew Research Center survey from January, about two-thirds of respondents (65%) said the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased over the past decade, versus just 8% who said it’s decreased.

But ask people why the gap has grown, and their answers are all over the place.

Among people who said the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown, we asked an “open-ended question” — what, in their own words, the main reason was. About a fifth (20%) said tax loopholes (or, more generally, tax laws skewed to favor the rich) were the main reason. Ten percent pinned the blame on Congress or government policies more broadly; about as many (9%) cited the lackluster job market, while 6% named corporations or business executives.

But well over half of the people who saw a widening gap cited a host of other reasons, among them (in no particular order): Obama and Democrats, Bush and Republicans, the education system, the capitalist system, the stock market, banks, lobbyists, the strong/weak work ethic of the rich/poor, too much public assistance, not enough public assistance, over-regulation, under-regulation, the rich having more power and opportunity, the rich not spending enough, and simply “a lot of greedy people out there.”

Here’s a sampling of the comments our respondents made:

  • “I think the wealthy have political clout that protects them from fair taxation.”
  • “Congress favors laws that help them accumulate wealth. Congress is bought by money.”
  • “Bringing in immigration has a lot to do with it.”
  • “The internet has made a lot of people richer.”
  • “Greedy people in positions such as banking.”
  • “Economics drilled our manufacturing jobs offshore. The middle class will continue to shrink until we can get some of those jobs back in the country.”
  • “It takes money to make money, and they have the money to make it.”

Within the welter of responses, there were some clear partisan distinctions. More than a quarter (26%) of self-identified Democrats and those who lean Democratic cited the tax system as a main reason for the gap. Just 14% of self-identified Republicans and those who lean Republican said the same. Among self-identified liberal Democrats, roughly a third (32%) cited taxes. By contrast, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were more likely (14%) to mention Congress or government policies than Democrats (8%).  About one-in-ten (9%) Republicans and GOP-leaning independents cited poor people’s work ethic and government assistance programs, compared with less than 1% of Democrats who said that.

See the questionnaire results and survey methodology here.

Topics: National Economy, Income Inequality

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Jonathan Vernot3 years ago

    The internationalization of economies, accelerated by increasingly powerful and fast technology has encouraged dramatic cultural shifts and consequent governmental action which benefits the few and harms the rest. A confluence of fortunate events gave the postwar US economy advantages previously unknown, raising the standard of living for its citizens, especially the middle class. The beginning of our current decline began with the 1973 oil embargo and the loss of American prominence in the international auto industry. Over time, parallel shifts in the ability of the most wealthy to increase said wealth and the loss of the same ability to the middle class steered us in the direction we continue to head.
    We can, without much thought, toss blame around; there is a great deal to assign. However, the fact that the rich are becoming historically more wealthy while the balance of the population skews poorer is unassailable. The enthusiastic and sometimes emotional participation in forums such as these provided by Pew Research demonstrates that we do care, and passionately.

  2. Joel Frese3 years ago

    I like this research because I can see where it could be easy to make both Republican and Democrat leaders, and constituents, happy in policy. I don’t think anybody would disagree with welfare reform. For example, what if food program gets reduced if participants refuse to get a college education? What if we merely added some performance points? I would not take away everything completely like the extremists so loudly support because that was be cold, heartless and economically damaging. There really is a rational middle ground where we can be very compassionate and responsible while still saving money and expecting people to progress.

    1. Matthew Lee Allen-Goebel3 years ago

      I believe what you are proposing with your statement “For example, what if food program gets reduced if participants refuse to get a college education?” would require a whole bevy of other government assistance programs. One for making sure a person is ready to go to college, which would mean more funding for public education, more funding for programs that target districts with a population that has a high ratio of poor and under educated. Next there would need to be either a complete slashing of the price of a college education to make it affordable for those who cannot afford it now, or a heavy government subsidy to put that education in reach financially. On top of all of all of this, it might be very surprising to find out just how many people are on government assistance who are college educated.

  3. Jack Hilift3 years ago

    I live in a poor neighborhood and have lot of poor friends. But my observation is that much of what I see that is a cause of the “poor”, is that they have a long acquired dependance on subsidized govt systems. And, they are, or have become comfortable with a life of minimum subsistence. There is definitely a poor work ethic and an unwillingness to increase their productivity by self education and other training.

    Our education system has failed us because it does not adequately teach economic basics in that as products become obsolete and new and better products are created, it involves people loosing their jobs and finding new ones and this involves new skills.

    Unfortunately, policy makers live much of their lives in the clouds, or are using the situation to buy votes and power by promising the “poor” something for nothing.

    There is a growing tendency to think that giving people money, increases our standard of life. It doesn’t. The only thing that does is by having more people being more productive, and being at work creating goods. For instance, Increasing the minimum wage without an corresponding increase in goods produced, (soft as well as hard) will only result in inflation!

  4. Eric Roche3 years ago

    I’m independent, leaning Democrat, and think the education system is the biggest source of inequality and the shrinkage of the middle class. Most of the nation’s higher education institutions are nearly exclusively for those who feel they can afford it, not those with the most drive for a better life.

    Capitalism is amazing in how jobs and wealth are created to meet EVERY demand out there. As long as we continue to lead the world as a technological leader and encourage the education to leverage technologies to CREATE demands, our middle class will stabilize and grow. (Pontificating of course)

  5. Mike Capraro3 years ago

    Very surprised not to see mentioned what I believe are two significant contributors, uneven educational opportunities and self-selection, the tendency of people to marry those of similar educational level and earning potential.

  6. Brian Fidler3 years ago

    Both taxes and ineffective government are symptoms of the issue. Inequality stems from eroding governance of our election process and the ability of the wealthy to influence that process using PACs and lobbyists. Unfortunately our politicians no longer work for the masses, they work for those that financed their trip to Washington.

  7. David wolter3 years ago

    It would be interesting to see how personal experience changes attitudes. Dick Cheney was able to acknowlege lesbianism as a viable life style when his daughter admitted her proclivity. I am waiting for my daughter that is wading through huge debt issues and survived on unemployment for almost two years to make room for government as a legitimate safety net for all hard working Americans.

  8. Moi3 years ago

    George Borjas, Harvard economist, has pointed out that immigration (legal and illegal) brings little benefit to the average American. It does suppress their wages, and results in a wealth transfer from the poorest, lowest skilled Americans to the wealthiest Americans. Enforce the immigration laws. It is what most Americans want. The CBO reported that the Senate immigration bill would expand the economy while reducing wages another 2%.

  9. James L3 years ago

    I have to say it’s a combination of items generally going back to big business wielding far too much influence over government to get their way. Just like good government should fear the people I think corporations should fear more than just the shareholders. Those of us who do the work and buy the products should demand a greater share of the benefits and work toward more of a balance.

    It really should not be that families HAVE to have 2 wage earners to get by in this world. When you do that and something happens like a layoff or illness there just isn’t the safety net there used to be. Yes, in some ways we’re buying more now that previous generations but as a % of income we’re spending less on food, clothing, etc. What happened to the wealth that funded the middle class? It’s all gone into the hands of a few.

    1. slk3 years ago

      you mention big corporations, yet our present potus gets a huge amount from “the big corporations”!!! then he surrounds himself with”big corporation” officials, jeffrey imelt, to name one!!! and there’s no reason in our present economy, any couple should have more then two children!!! but to often, they start at 4, and go up!!! and please tell me why, with no skill in getting better then a mccdonalds job, any has any children!!! there was no wealth, “funding” the middle class, people actually were fiscally “RESPONABLE”!!! and finally, there are couples who can get by, with one working parent, but too many, want a cadillac or big truck, then an economical car!!!

  10. Juliska3 years ago

    Exponentially increased executive pay with little to no sharing with the workers who increased productivity. IE: Top 1% greed

    1. slk3 years ago

      greed is another word for envy and jealousy!!! if you work, when was the last time a poor person employed you??? odds are, a “rich” person will hire you!!! because of human nature you’ll always have poor people!!! give a million to a million people, and after time blows by, how many will be worse off then before??? 46% of all jackpot winners, go broke!!! thats sad!!! get desire and a job, and you’ll never know how high you can go!!!

  11. DHFabian3 years ago

    We aren’t even at the starting line when it comes to discussing American inequality. The Dem/lib inequality discussion has been restricted to the gap between the better off and the well off, middle class workers and the rich. A legitimate socioeconomic discussion requires including our poverty crisis, and I don’t think Americans even grasp the meaning of “poverty.” The same people who say that minimum wage workers are truly struggling, going hungry, also insisted that those who were trying to get back on their feet on roughly $4k welfare were living in comfort — “Better than the working class.” It’s impossible to strengthen, much less rebuild, the middle class as long as we have our current socioeconomic policies.

    1. essbird3 years ago

      And that begins a necessary but contentious and emotion-laden public policy debate. The pace of technology, automation, communication, energy, and transportation over the past hundred years has meant that the “left side” of the human intelligence/aptitude bell curve are falling off the bus. To illustrate: A guy with a shovel used to be able to at least feed a family. Now there aren’t many shovel jobs, there are more shovel operators seeking them, one backhoe can outwork fifty guys with shovels, and our treasury now subsidizes all the guys with shovels. Telling them all to go to college won’t work – many are just not capable of it. So while we ignore this challenge, the right seems to want them to starve in the ditch and the left seems to want to pay them to do nothing. What is the sustainable path that makes the most of human capital across the spectrum and guarantees a just outcome for all?

      1. Moi3 years ago

        Stop illegal immigration, and reduce legal immigration.

        1. slk3 years ago

          and get many parents to cut off the gravy train, and watch how many students drop their liberal arts classes and get a job!!!

      2. slk3 years ago

        many of the 49 others are making backhoes!!! but with long unemployment benefits, there’s no reason for many to do anything then spend free money!!!

    2. slk3 years ago

      four states welfare recipiants make more then the average “middle class” citizen!!! thats 50g’s a year!!! why isn’t hawaii all welfare???

  12. Packard Day3 years ago

    Let me suggest that crony capitalism, as it is currently practiced by our “Washington DC/Wall Street Patriot class” is responsible for much of the income inequity. Similar to the mass marketing of professional wrestling, I suspect there is a great deal more comity occurring among the political parties gathered inside DC’s backrooms than what is normally seen on TV. In the end, a lot of bi partisan players in this “power class” are finding ways to come together for a mutually shared objective, i.e. our money………………..Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.

    1. slk3 years ago

      whats the difference between a liberal/socialist/communist and a republican…the spelling, they both love to spend!!! make potus a one six year term, and congress no more then 2 terms of 2 years!!! and if you want to be reelected, you have to step down to campaign!!! and no more retirement pckg of full yearly salary, plus 50% if married!!! watch how fast social security gets fixed!!!

  13. Diane Farr Golling3 years ago

    Interesting. I came down to the “comments” to say that I would have stated the reason as “the systematic destruction of unions since the Reagan administration.” And lo and behold, the other comments are saying basically the same thing.

    Very odd that union-busting wasn’t even on the radar according to the article. If you look at graphs showing the decline of union membership and the decline of America’s middle class, the numbers march pretty much in lock-step.

    1. essbird3 years ago

      I agree, the loss of unions is a huge cause. However, we can’t return unions to the same type of defensive role as in the past. The world has changed. They can’t engage in “featherbedding” job protection, for one thing, because of competition. Think the coal-shoveling railroad firemen after the advent of the diesel locomotive, paid for years to sit on every train and do nothing. That was an overreach to begin with, a denial of progress that either doomed the union or the company that employed it.

      Unions can demand fair share, decent and safe conditions, health care, pensions, and perhaps some benefits to retrain displaced workers. Perhaps European unions have something to teach us.

    2. Bobby3 years ago

      The city of Detroit,Chicago,Los Angeles and many others have Federal,City and State workers that are Union.How is that working out.While the Auto Workers pushed their wages and benefits through the roof jobs left the big 3 and went over seas and to the South where Unions were not in control.I think if unions were left un checked we would lose many more jobs and not import jobs like we are now for BMW,Mercedes and .Texas is gaining jobs because of right to work and low taxes.Unions did some good in the 30;s thru 50;s bit they got to greedy at the top and spoiled the good work they had done.Unions are also not flexible enough in an ever changing work inviorment.

      1. slk3 years ago

        don’t forget honda and toyota!!! they both produce more cars here then gm!!!

    3. slk3 years ago

      the economies of mexico and canada, thank gm everyday!!! not to mention 2/3rds of ge’s over 250,000 foreign employees!!! how many would gladly work at gm for 30 bucks an hour, instead of the 80+ they’re paying union employees!!!

  14. celestus3 years ago

    Globalization/reduction in American privilege? Is that included in “corporations” ?

  15. Ethan Winters3 years ago

    This study really shows by how much unions have lost. Not only have they lost power in industry after industry and in state after state, but they are not even on people’s minds anymore when talking about workers getting their fare share. Remarkable.

    1. Drew DeSilver3 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, Ethan. You’re right that unions aren’t really part of this discussion: Fewer than 1% of the people we asked mentioned them. (And remember, this was an open-ended question, so people were free to come up with whatever answers they wanted.)

      1. DHFabian3 years ago

        Millions of workers are effectively denied the right to unionize. If you raise the issue with coworkers, there is a chance that word of it will reach the employer, and you’ll be put on “indefinite layoff.” Finding another job before you run out of money and are left homeless, destitute, can be very difficult. We spent years shipping out our working class jobs, and then ended welfare. Fewer jobs, more people absolutely desperate for any job, any wage. Because of this, workers no longer have any power. If you go on strike, you can easily be replaced by morning. Very few can risk losing their jobs by taking a stand, because there is nothing to fall back on.

        1. slk3 years ago

          and millions are forced to join!!!