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.

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 82 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 47 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 19 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.