There is broad public agreement that economic inequality has grown over the past decade. But as President Obama prepares for Tuesday’s State of the Union, where he is expected to unveil proposals for dealing with inequality and poverty, there are wide partisan differences over how much the government should – and can – do to address these issues.
The new national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted Jan. 15-19 among 1,504 adults, finds that 65% believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years. This view is shared by majorities across nearly all groups in the public, including 68% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans.
Yet there is a sharp disagreement over whether this gap needs government attention. Among Democrats, 90% say the government should do “a lot” or “some” to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else, including 62% who say it should do a lot. But only half as many Republicans (45%) think the government should do something about this gap, with just 23% saying it should do a lot. Instead, nearly half of Republicans say the government should do “not much” (15%) or “nothing at all” (33%) about the wealth divide.
The differences are somewhat less stark when it comes to views of government action in reducing poverty: Nearly all Democrats (93%) and large majorities of independents (83%) and Republicans (64%) favor at least some government action. However, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans say the government should do a lot to reduce poverty (67% vs. 27%).
In part, these differences reflect divergent beliefs about the effectiveness of government action on inequality and poverty. Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to say the government can do a lot to reduce poverty and especially inequality.
When asked what would do more to reduce poverty, 54% of all Americans say raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor. Fewer (35%) believe that lowering taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment and economic growth would be the more effective approach.
Three-quarters of Democrats favor raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to expand programs for the poor as the better approach to lessen poverty. Republicans, by about two-to-one (59% to 29%), believe the government could do more to reduce poverty by lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations in order to encourage more investment and economic growth.
Divisions are comparably wide when it comes to the effect of government assistance programs to the poor: By a 66% to 26% margin, most Democrats think aid to the poor helps because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met. But by a 65% to 28% margin, most Republicans believe these programs do more harm than good by making people too dependent on the government.
Two current policy proposals backed by the Obama administration to address poverty and the plight of the long-term unemployed draw substantial public support, although partisan differences are evident here as well.
Overall, 73% of the public favors raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. And 63% back a one-year extension of unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work a long time. Both issues receive nearly unanimous support from Democrats and are favored by wide margins among independents but divide the GOP.
Among Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party, 70% who agree with the Tea Party oppose an extension of unemployment benefits and nearly as many oppose raising the minimum wage (65%). Yet 52% of non-Tea Party Republicans favor a one-year extension of unemployment benefits and an even higher percentage (65%) supports increasing the minimum wage.
Similarly, more say that factors beyond an individual’s control have more to do with someone being rich. About half (51%) say having greater advantages than others generally has more to do with why a person is rich, while 38% say it is because they worked harder than others.
Moreover, by a 60% to 36% margin, most Americans feel the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, as opposed to being fair to all.
Yet amidst these skeptical views, most Americans continue to believe that opportunity exists for those who make the effort. Six-in-ten (60%) say most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard. Some 38% take the more pessimistic view that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people. While opinions about the nexus between success and hard work have changed little since 2011, a decade ago just 28% were of the view that hard work and determination were no guarantee of success.
Government’s Role in Reducing Poverty and Inequality
Most also believe the government should be addressing the gap between the rich and everyone else, but there is substantially less agreement in this area. While 69% say the government should do something, fewer than half (43%) say it should be doing a lot and roughly a quarter (26%) say the government should take some action.
Majorities of Americans believe the government can do at least something to reduce poverty and the gap between the rich and everyone else. But fewer believe the government can do a lot to lessen poverty (40%) than say it should take a lot of action to achieve this goal (53%).
While Democrats support a great deal of government action on both issues, Republicans see addressing poverty and addressing inequality as two different things. A majority of Republicans (64%) support at least some government action in reducing poverty. But only 45% of Republicans favor government action on reducing the gap between the rich and everyone else. Instead, 15% say not much should be done, while 33% of Republicans say the government should do nothing at all to address the gap between the rich and everyone else.
Independents also are more likely to favor a lot of government action to reduce poverty (56%) than the gap between the rich and everyone else (42%). Nearly three-in-ten independents (28%) say the government should do little or nothing to deal with inequality, almost double the percentage who favors little or no action on reducing poverty (15%).
Some of these partisan gaps reflect a difference of opinion about how much the government can do to address these issues. About half (53%) of Democrats think the government can do a lot to address poverty, a view shared by 37% of independents and just 25% of Republicans. Among Republicans, about as many say there is little or nothing the government can do to reduce poverty (26%).
These divides are similar when it comes to what the government can do about income inequality, though this is met with even greater skepticism in the GOP. Nearly half (49%) of Republicans think there is little or nothing the government can do about the divide between the rich and everyone else.
Opinions about the Rich and Poor, Economic Fairness
Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (57%) say that hard work generally has more to do with why a person is rich; 32% say it is because of the advantages they had in life. Most Democrats (63%) say greater advantages have more to do with a person being rich, with just 27% saying it is because they have worked harder than others.
These differences carry over into attitudes about the fairness of the American economic system. Three-quarters of Democrats say the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy; just 25% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. About half of Republicans (53%) say the economic system is fair to most Americans; 42% say it unfairly favors the wealthy.
Meanwhile, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say that hard work and determination lead to success for most people. Fully 76% of Republicans say most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard; just 20% say that hard work is no guarantee of success. Democrats are evenly divided: 49% say most can get ahead through hard work, but 48% say hard work is no guarantee of success.
Opinions about the factors that result in wealth and poverty differ across income categories. But higher and lower income Americans are in greater accord when it comes to their views of the fairness of the economic system.
Among those with family incomes of at least $75,000, more say hard work (51%) is a bigger factor in someone being rich than extra advantages (39%). Among those with incomes of less than $30,000, about twice as many cite more advantages than harder work for why someone as rich (59% vs. 29%).
However, majorities across income categories see the economic system as tilted toward the wealthy. Yet majorities also say most people can get ahead through hard work.
People with lower incomes express more positive views of government programs to aid the poor than do those with higher incomes. A majority of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 say aid to the poor does more good than harm (60%) and favor raising taxes on the wealthy to expand those programs (56%). Those with incomes of $75,000 or more are divided over whether aid to the poor does more good than harm and in opinions about raising taxes to expand programs that help the poor.