Interest in income inequality is all the rage in public debate nowadays, with political figures from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the left to Republican presidential prospect Jeb Bush on the right decrying the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.
But Americans aren't nearly as fascinated by the issue as their leaders seem to be. The public's focus on income inequality has remained stagnant over the past 36 years, according to the General Social Survey, which measures trends in opinion. Republican support for the government doing something to narrow the gap between rich and poor reached an all-time low in 2014, and even Democrats were slightly less interested in government action to address the issue than they were two years ago.
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The survey is conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. Because of its long-running and comprehensive set of questions about the public, it is a highly regarded source of data about social trends. Numbers from the 2014 survey came out last week and an analysis of its findings on income inequality was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the General Social Survey.
Less than half of Americans — 46 percent — say the government ought to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor, a level that has held fairly steady since the survey began asking the question in 1978. Thirty-seven percent say the government shouldn't concern itself with income differences, while the rest don't feel strongly either way.
Division between Democrats and Republicans on the issue is at its widest point ever, with 64 percent of Democrats, but only 24 percent of Republicans, saying the government ought to do something to address it. The survey also finds a significant gap between different income groups. Only a third of those making more than $75,000 a year, but more than half of those making less than $30,000, want the government to take action. Younger adults — those under age 35 — are more likely than older adults to say the government should do something about the gap.
"This is an elite debate, and it's filtered through partisan lenses," said John Halpin of the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington. "It hasn't been strong enough to change the public's mind."
It's not necessarily the case that Americans don't see income inequality as a problem. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2012 found 65 percent of Americans think the income gap has grown in the past 10 years, and 57 percent think that's a bad thing. Halpin noted that polls consistently find high support for increasing taxes on the wealthy.
And an AP-GfK poll conducted in January and February found 66 percent of Americans think the government does too much to help the wealthy, while 72 percent think it does too little to help the middle class and 58 percent think it does too little for the poor. Even among Republicans, half think the government does too much to help the wealthy and 74 percent think it does too little to help the middle class. But only 38 percent think it does too little to help the poor.
Still, the new poll findings suggest limited interest in government action to change that.
The results also find that American attitudes are sensitive to the way the issue is talked about. For example, 6 in 10 Americans think the country spends too little on "assistance to the poor." But only 2 in 10 think it spends too little on "welfare," a word that is more likely to carry negative connotations.
Veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres has tested extensively whether Americans respond more to cries to do something about income inequality or to increase middle class opportunity. The latter is a key part of the platform of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose nascent presidential campaign Ayres is advising.
"Defining the problem as the difference between the rich and the poor is fundamentally not resonating with the vast majority of Americans — that is a more European definition," Ayres said. "Most Americans don't believe inequality is the problem. They want to make sure there are avenues of success for their children."
Ayres' ideological opposite, Larry Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, agreed — to a point. "People may not rally around income inequality — that's a bloodless thing," he said. But then he noted some common political applause lines. "If someone is talking about the middle-class squeeze, wage stagnation or trying to lift people out of poverty, they're talking about income inequality," he said.