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New poll: 2 in 3 Americans affirm that rich-poor gap is wider

Harry BruiniusThe Christian Science Monitor

As the nation’s Democratic leaders prepare to focus on rising income inequality as a major campaign theme this year, a new survey indicates that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the gap between the rich and poor has indeed widened over the past decade.

Though this theme has drawn the attention of voters, there is also a predictable partisan divide over what, if anything, the government should do about it. While a vast majority of Democrats – 90 percent – say government should be doing more, nearly half of Republicans say it should do very little, or even nothing at all, according to a Pew Research/USA Today survey, released Thursday.

Last fall, President Obama declared income inequality – as well as its corollary, equal opportunity for anyone to rise up the income ladder and pursue the American Dream – as “the defining challenge of our time.” A major goal of the Affordable Care Act, he said, is to address this very issue.

Since then, raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits have dominated the Democratic congressional agenda – and are expected to be important themes in Mr. Obama's State of the Union message next Tuesday.

Since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009, 95 percent of all income gains, fueled by record-smashing years on Wall Street, have gone to the nation’s top 1 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent also now take in 20 percent of America's total pretax income, up from a 10 percent share in the 1970s.

At the same time, middle- and working-class income, as measured by the amount that wages and salaries make up in US total economic output, fell from more than half the gross domestic product in 1970 to less than 43 percent in 2012 – the smallest it’s ever been.  

Still, while Republican leaders and voters appear ambivalent, at best, about the growing gaps between the top rungs of wealth and those in the middle and bottom, more of them are responding to the issue of poverty. Almost 2 in 3 Republicans favor some kind of government action to help the poor, according to the Pew survey, compared with most Democrats (93 percent) and a large majority of independents (83 percent).

As a result, support is broad for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, as proposed in a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa and Rep. George Miller (D) of California. Nearly three-fourths of the Pew poll’s respondents favored the increase, including 53 percent of Republicans.

In addition, 63 percent of the public back extending long-term unemployment benefits for a year – although only 43 percent of Republicans support this measure, according to the survey.

These issues, including ongoing debates over the Affordable Care Act as it begins its first year of enrollment in health-insurance marketplaces, promise to become campaign focal points as the parties battle for control of the House and Senate heading into November’s elections. 

Yet, when it comes to other ways to address growing income disparities, the public divides along deep ideologically lines.

Three in 4 Democrats say raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and then expanding programs for the poor, is the best way to combat poverty, according to the poll. Republicans generally believe the opposite, with nearly 60 percent saying the government would do a better job addressing poverty by cutting taxes for both these groups, thus encouraging economic growth.

Programs for the poor do more harm than good, creating a culture of dependence, say nearly two-thirds of Republicans. By contrast, two-thirds of Democrats say such programs help to provide the basic needs for the poorest Americans – a prerequisite for getting out of poverty and pursuing the American Dream.

These differences also shape partisan views on social mobility – or the ability to climb up the economic ladder – a value that remains a bedrock cultural principle for most Americans. Indeed, Obama has said that stark income disparities are starting to threaten this long-held social principle.

Almost 6 in 10 Republicans believe hard work has more to do with climbing the economic ladder and becoming wealthy, with only a third of GOP supporters saying it is the result of advantages in life. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats, meanwhile, say becoming wealthy stems from certain social advantages, with 1 in 4 saying it is simply because of hard work.

While a majority of those surveyed said America’s economic system unfairly favors the rich – by a margin of 60 percent to 38 percent – the exact same percentage still believe in the possibility of the American Dream. Six in 10 said people who are willing to work hard can get ahead, if they want to.

Yet more Americans are beginning to doubt this. Nearly 40 percent say hard work and determination are no guarantee of economic success – up from 28 percent a decade ago.