Two-Thirds of Americans Want Government Policies Introduced to Reduce Economic Inequality

Vast majorities count loss of manufacturing jobs going overseas, tax system, influence of big business and very rich individuals among the causes of inequality

Apr 22, 2014, 05:00 ET from Harris Poll

NEW YORK, April 22, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- A strong majority of Americans believe economic inequality in the U.S. today is a problem (79%), with over half believing more specifically that it's a major problem (54%). Overall, the perception of economic inequality being a problem in the United States has changed little from 2012 (80%).   

Opinions diverge widely along partisan lines, with seven in ten Democrats (70%) seeing it as a major problem, compared to just over one-third of Republicans (36%); Independents fall between the two parties, though it's worth noting that the majority of Independents (55%) sees economic inequality as a major problem.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,234 U.S. adults surveyed online between March 12 and 17, 2014. (Full results, including data tables, available here)

As might be expected, perceived urgency is also tied to income, with those in households earning less than $75,000 annually more likely than those earning $100,000 or more to see it as a major problem (59% among those with HH incomes under $35k, 61% among those earning $35k-$49.9k and 59% among those with $50k-$74.9k in annual income vs. 45% among those earning $100k+).

As for the nature of economic inequality in the United States, majorities of Americans agree both that it's a political issue (72%) and that it's a moral one (59%).

  • Majorities agree across the political spectrum that it's a political issue, albeit with Democrats most likely to agree with this (82%), Republicans least likely (60%) and Independents in the middle (72%).
  • A strong majority of Democrats (73%) and a more moderate majority of Independents (55%) also agree that it's a moral issue, while just over four in ten Republicans (43%) agree with this.

Pushing for Policy
Two-thirds (66%) of Americans feel it's important that the government introduce policies to reduce inequality in the U.S. (up from 62% in 2012), with four in ten (40%, up from 34% in 2012) identifying it as very important.

  • The vast majority of Democrats (86%) believe such action is important, with six in ten (60%) specifically calling it out as very important. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to perceive such action as important (43% Rep.) and more than three times as likely to specify that it's very important (18% Rep.); Independents fall between the two parties on both measures, with nearly two-thirds (65%) seeing it as important overall and nearly four in ten (37%) seeing it as very important.
  • Millennials are the generation most likely to see such government action as important, while matures are least likely to say this (76% Millennials; 68% Gen Xers; 64% Baby Boomers; 50% Matures).

How did this happen?
When asked how much a series of factors are causes of inequality in the United States today, strong majorities see each as contributing either a great deal or somewhat. Roughly eight in ten see the loss of manufacturing jobs to China, India and other low cost countries (83%); the tax system (81%); the influence of big business on government policies (80%); and the influence of very rich people on government policy (78%) as causes of inequality. Three-fourths (75%) point to the failure of the public school systems to educate many people, while roughly two-thirds each perceive the globalization of the world economy (67%), restrictions on businesses which prevent them from creating more jobs (66%) and the current minimum wage (65%) as causes. Most factors' perceived contributions to the issue have changed little since 2012, though the perception of the tax system as a contributing factor has risen slightly (from 77% to 81%). 

  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans to point to the tax system as a cause of the problem, though strong majorities of both groups see it as a cause (84% Dem. vs. 77% Rep.).
  • Democrats and Independents are both considerably more likely than Republicans to point to the influence of big business on government policies (88% Dem. and 84% Ind. vs. 68% Rep.) and the influence of very rich people on government policy (88% and 81% vs. 61%, respectively), while Independents fall more squarely between the two camps when it comes to identifying the current minimum wage rate as a root cause (with 64% identifying it as such, vs. 43% Rep. and 82% Dem.).
  • Republicans are more likely to cite restrictions on businesses which prevent them from creating more jobs, with Independents again standing in the middle ground (78% Rep. vs. 66% Ind. vs. 57% Dem.).

While most U.S. adults seem to agree that the influence of the rich is a cause of economic inequality, Americans are more divided on whether the rich are more broadly – and unfairly – getting a bad rap, with just under half (47%) agreeing that the rich have become scapegoats for everything that's wrong in the U.S. and just over half (53%) disagreeing with this.

  • Two-thirds of Republicans (68%) agree with this, vs. one-third of Democrats (33%); just under half of Independents (46%) agree.

Who can best address it?
When asked which political party is likely to do a better job of addressing issues of unfairness and inequality, a plurality of Americans (35%) point to the Democratic party, while two in ten (21%) believe the Republican party will do a better job and 7% put their hope in another party. Nearly one-fourth (23%) respond with a dismissive "none," while 14% are unsure.

  • Not surprisingly, majorities of Democrats (73%) and Republicans (61%) believe their own party is likely to do a better job of addressing such issues. More telling is the stance of Independents, with the highest percentage (35%) indicating that none of the parties is likely to do a better job of it. Some do make a pick though, and Independents are more than twice as likely to identify Democrats (25%) over Republicans (10%) as the party for the job, with 13% saying another party would do a better job and nearly two in ten (17%) being unsure.

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This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between March 12 and 17, 2014 among 2,234 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

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The Harris Poll® #38, April 22, 2014
By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager

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