What Do Americans Think About Economic Inequality?

 ows3.jpg
 media.salon.com

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Are Americans disturbed about growing economic inequality in the United States?

Numerous opinion surveys in recent years indicate that substantial majorities of Americans not only recognize that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has grown, but favor greater economic equality.  A Gallup poll conducted in April 2015 found that 63 percent of respondents believed that wealth in the United States should be distributed more evenly.  Similarly, a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in late May 2015 revealed that 66 percent of Americans favored the redistribution of  “the money and wealth in this country” along more egalitarian lines. 

A key reason for Americans’ desire to share the wealth more equally is that many of them think that riches are amassed unfairly.  A Pew Research Center survey in January 2014 found that 60 percent of respondents believed that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”  Asked about why someone was wealthy, 51 percent said:  “Because he or she had more advantages.”  The New York Times/CBS News poll reported that 61 percent of respondents believed that “just a few people at the top have a chance to get ahead.”

Furthermore, despite the many billions of dollars U.S. corporations lavish on advertising and other forms of public relations to give themselves a positive image, Americans are remarkably wary of these giant economic enterprises.  According to a Gallup poll of June 2014, only 21 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in big business.  By contrast, 40 percent of respondents said they had very little or no confidence in it.  A year later, another Gallup survey found that Americans’ confidence in big business remained stuck at 21 percent -- below historic norms.  A survey done by the public relations industry in 2014 reported that, although Americans valued corporate products, 47 percent of the public said that, when it came to ethics, they had little or no trust in major corporations.  Health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, banks, and energy companies were viewed as the least trustworthy. 

By contrast, Americans have a more sympathetic attitude toward considerably less wealthy groups that challenge corporate dominance.  The June 2015 Gallup survey found a higher rate of public confidence in unions and, especially, in small businesses.  In August 2014, another Gallup survey found that Americans approved of unions by 53 to 38 percent.  That was up from five years before, when 48 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved of them.  Questioned in the New York Times/CBS News survey, 74 percent of respondents said that large corporations had “too much influence” in “American life and politics today.”  When it came to unions, however, only 37 percent said they had “too much influence,” while 54 percent said they had “too little influence” or “about the right amount of influence.”

In an apparent attempt to downplay these signs of public dismay with the economic playing field, the American Enterprise Institute -- a leading champion of the wealthy and corporations -- argued recently that “inequality does not appear to be a top-tier concern” for Americans.  This big business think tank also trumpeted the claim that 70 percent of Americans “believe that most people are better off in a free market economy even though some people are rich and some are poor.”

Nevertheless, this dismissive appraisal of public concern is called into question by the widespread demand for government action to counter economic inequality.  The Pew Research Center’s January 2014 opinion poll found that 82 percent of American respondents favored government action to reduce poverty and 69 percent supported government action “to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”  In May of this year, the New York Times/CBS News survey reported that, by 57 to 39 percent, Americans favored using government to “reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in this country.”

Furthermore, most Americans back specific government programs along these lines.  The New York Times/CBS News survey found broad public support for the following programs:  raising the minimum wage (71 percent); increasing taxes on the rich (68 percent); and requiring employers to provide paid family leave (80 percent).  Even the more unusual approach of limiting the pay of top corporate executives received the backing of 50 percent.  Other recent polls reveal similar priorities:  between 71 percent (CNN/ORC) and 73 percent (Pew) of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage; 52 percent favor “heavy taxes on the rich” (Gallup); 54 percent support raising taxes on the wealthy and the corporations (Pew); and 70 percent support federal funding of pre-school education (Gallup).

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that a relatively unknown figure like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, long a sharp critic of the economic divide in American life, is surging in the polls and drawing large, enthusiastic crowds in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Nor is it any wonder that Hillary Clinton, in her own campaign for that nomination, has started to emphasize economic unfairness.  Indeed, even some Republican aspirants for the presidency have begun to adopt a populist rhetoric -- although the specific policies they advocate continue to advance the narrow economic interests of the wealthy and the corporations.

Even so, when the electioneering is over, will the U.S. government really take action to promote greater economic equality?  That’s anyone’s guess.  But it’s clearly what most Americans want.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark? 

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
· 60 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 95 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 27 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 14 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.