Income inequality has become a hot-button issue during this political campaign. A recent Pew Research Center poll, for example, attracted an extraordinary amount of attention when it found that 66 percent of Americans believed there were “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor — an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.
But while Americans are hearing more and more about class conflict, there is little indication that they are increasingly divided along these lines. People don’t necessarily want to take money from the wealthy; they just want a better chance to get rich themselves. They care about policies that give everyone a fair shot — a distinction that candidates in both parties should understand as they head into the 2012 campaigns.
An awareness of economic inequality is not new. Pew surveys going back to 1987 have found an average of 75 percent of the American public thinking that the “rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” As far back as 1941, 60 percent of respondents told the Gallup poll that there was too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States.
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