The Politics Of Income Inequality
Most Americans think that income inequality is a problem, but they don't all agree on what to do about it.
According to a new poll, Americans say that they are concerned about income inequality, but it’s unclear if that will have any impact on political races going forward:
Americans are broadly concerned about inequality of wealth and income despite an economy that has improved by most measures, a sentiment that is already driving the 2016 presidential contest, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
The poll found that a strong majority say that wealth should be more evenly divided and that it is a problem that should be addressed urgently. Nearly six in 10 Americans said government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but they split sharply along partisan lines. Only one-third of Republicans supported a more active government role, versus eight in 10 of Democrats.
These findings help explain the populist appeals from politicians of both parties, but particularly Democrats, who are seeking to capitalize on the sense among Americans that the economic recovery is benefiting only a handful at the very top.
Far from a strictly partisan issue, inequality looms large in the minds of almost half of Republicans and two-thirds of independents, suggesting that it will outlive the presidential primary contests and become a central theme in next year’s general election campaign.
“There is a small group of people in our country who own or control a vast majority of the wealth,” Stephanie Alteneder, 28, a Democrat and a high school teacher from Los Angeles, said in a follow-up interview. “There are a lot of systems set up so that the people who have money get to make more of it.”
The percentage of Americans who say everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in today’s economy has fallen 17 percentage points since early 2014. Six in 10 Americans now say that only a few people at the top have an opportunity to advance.
Seven in 10 Americans support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.2″People have to get a high school education and they have to go to college as well, and then they go out there and can only get a low-paying job,” said Betty Burgess, 70, a retired textile worker from Lincolnton, N.C., who is a Republican. 5 an hour, although Republicans are about evenly divided on the question.
Americans were also skeptical of free trade. Nearly two-thirds favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amending, a White House priority.
Still, it was Americans’ views on the distribution of money and opportunity in the country that were most striking. More than half of higher-income Americans said that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. Across party lines, most Americans said the chance to get ahead was mainly a luxury for those at the top.
“People have to get a high school education and they have to go to college as well, and then they go out there and can only get a low-paying job,” said Betty Burgess, 70, a retired textile worker from Lincolnton, N.C., who is a Republican.\
The poll also included a variety of intriguing findings about what Americans think should be done to reduce inequality.
Six in 10 Americans opposed requiring fast-food chains and other employers of hourly workers to raise wages to at least $15 an hour, the aim of a two-and-a-half year nationwide campaign led in part by a major union. (On Tuesday, Francis Slay, the mayor of St. Louis, threw his weight behind an effort to gradually raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour by 2020, following similar moves in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle in recent years.)
When asked about the other end of the income spectrum, two-thirds of Americans favored raising taxes on people with annual salaries exceeding $1 million. By 50 to 45 percent, they favored capping the income of top executives at large corporations, a measure that more than one-third of Republicans supported as well.
On some level at least, this result isn’t entirely surprising. It’s no secret that political messages that tap into economic anxiety and the perceived unfairness of people who make tremendous amounts of money, quite often thanks to sweetheart deals with government officials and legal protections for activity that at leas seems dishonest on the surface, can be successful. We can see that can of argument in American political rhetoric going all the way back to the Founding Era, and most especially at times of great economic dislocation such as during the late 19th Century and the Great Depression. It was one of the primary messages behind political movements ranging from the Jacksonian Democrats and the anti-immigration Know Nothings to the Populist and Progressive movements, and it still holds great force today although it manifests itself differently in each of the two major political parties. In today’s era, it’s a theme that can be found in the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and, in different ways, in the messages you hear from Republicans like Rick Santorum, who based much of his 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination on a populist message that should have sent warning signs to the Republicans getting ready to put Mitt Romney at the top of their ticket. We are likely to see several candidates in both major parties hit on these issues as the 2016 Presidential campaign moves forward.
When looking at a poll result like this, though, it’s important to keep in mind what it doesn’t tell us as much as what it does tell us. The poll tells us, for example, that Americans consider income inequality to be a series issue, and that they believe that the cards are stacked against average Americans in the economy. What it doesn’t tell us, though, is how important this issue is to voters and how much it will influence them when the election rolls around. In the end, the most important economic question that individual voters ask themselves before they vote is whether they believe that one candidate or the other will be the one that most helps their own individual situation, not what might be best for the nation as a whole or for some anonymous group of people at the lower end of the economic question. The candidate that wins, usually, is the candidate that’s best able to connect on that personal level rather than the one who tries to turn his or her campaign into a crusade for some abstract economic principle like “income inequality.” Additionally, as the fact that most Americans oppose laws raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour suggests, the fact that the public agrees that something like “income inequality” is a problem doesn’t mean they’re going to support every policy proposal that would supposedly combat it.
Americans are concerned about “income inequality,” then, because it’s an issue that is reflective of their own concerns about their personal economic position and their children’s future. This poll is far from being the victory for progressive ideas that some observers will likely attempt to claim it to be.