A new study shows that the conflicts between the rich and poor in this country have risen to their highest levels in 25 years. These tensions, arising in the wake of recent seminal events such as the bank bailouts and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, have even begun to supersede the traditional sticking points of race and immigration as critical issues to the masses.
The Pew Research Center conducted a survey of over 2,000 Americans and it found that 66 percent of them felt that there are “strong” to “very strong” conflicts between the rich and poor. The number was a 19 percent increase from 2009.
A copy of the full report is available here.
“What we found is that the public is paying attention to economic news,” said Richard Morin, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center. “The economy has been on page one, even before the Great Recession, and the lingering recovery — halfhearted at best — is still in the news. So people are seeing differences, they are seeing and paying attention to reports about increasing income and equality, and they’re paying attention to the rising gap between young people and older people.
“They are paying attention to Occupy Wall Street, but they are also paying attention to political differences,” Morin concluded.
A closer look at the numbers shows that concern over these issues has increased across all racial backgrounds. Among blacks, 74 percent feel either strongly or very strongly about the rich/poor conflict — up from 66 percent in 2009.
“In a way, in a range of economic measures, blacks have fared very poorly over the recession, as have most Americans,” Morin said. “But they started from a point of more serious disadvantage, so it’s not surprising that they see great inequities. All they have to do is think about how they and their families have fared the last four to five years.”
Among Hispanics, the rate of disappointment over class differences is 61 percent, which is up from 55 percent in 2009, while the greatest increase is among whites. In 2009, 43 percent of whites felt strongly about the conflict between the rich and poor. Two years later, particularly after the rise of Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide, their numbers jumped to 66 percent.
“I think Americans are evaluating their own pocketbooks,” Morin said. “They’re also [remembering] images of the Wall Street bailouts, [and] incidents of excess by the very wealthy, and clearly it’s registering.”
Across racial lines, the number of whites who felt strongly showed the greatest leap. This appears to be evidence that the reality of class disparity started to resonate more once middle America felt the brunt of recession in 2008.
“Clearly, there’s nothing like a recession — particularly one as broad and pernicious as the last one — to focus the attention of Americans regardless of race,” Morin said.
“Notions that there was any group that was protected from the recession have gone out the window. We all got hurt,” he continued. “I think that these results may reflect that kind of a change in attitude.”
In terms of the two major political parties, as well among those who identify as independents, there was also a stark increase irritation with income disparities. Among Democrats, 73 percent feel strongly or very strongly about the conflict, up from 55 percent in 2009, and there was a 23 percent increase — from 45 percent to 68 — among independents.
“We see that Democrats and independents are significant more likely than Republicans to see these strong conflicts in American life,” Morin said. “But, it should be noted that we found for the first time in our surveys that even a majority of Republicans — 55 percent — see these conflicts.”
Of the people who identified as Republican in the 2009 study, just 38 percent felt that there was a conflict between the poor and rich. In terms of how people view the wealthy, this number shows a stark difference compared to other groups.
Politically, 58 percent of Democrats felt that the wealthy made their money through connections or by birthright, while 58 percent of Republicans feel that it was made through “hard work and ambition.” Racially, 54 percent of blacks — and 51 percent of Hispanics — feel that wealth is more about who you know or your family, as opposed to just 44 percent of whites who hold this belief.
The last two elections have seen wealthy men such as 2008 GOP nominee John McCain and current candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney make bids for the White House. Romney caught flak on Monday for his comments about firing people.
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” said Romney who’s net worth is listed at between $190 and $250 million. “You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.’”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry created a downloadable ringtone of Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” statement to mock him during the campaign.
The survey also shows that across all economic levels, people sense the conflict, with the greatest increase coming from those who make between $40,000 and $75,000 per year (from 47 percent to 71 percent).
“Clearly, Americans are seeing the same things,” Morin said. “Here in Washington, both the rich and non-rich drive by McPherson Square and see the tents of the Occupy D.C. movement. They see the same reports on income inequality.
“They may have different judgments [as] to what should be done about it, and they may have different views on whether it may be a good thing or a bad thing,” Morin continued, “but it’s really clear that everyone regardless of income is seeing conflicts between the rich and poor.”