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What Do Americans Think About Income Inequality?


And as we just heard from Jim, economic mobility may not have changed much in the last 20 years, but income inequality has skyrocketed. More on the latter now from Michael Dimock, vice president of research at the Pew Research Center. Pew has a new survey out, asking Americans what they think about income inequality.

Michael Dimock, welcome once again.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first finding is Americans say there is growing income inequality, yes?

DIMOCK: Yes, they do. Sixty-five percent said they think the gap between the rich and the rest of the country has been growing over the past 10 years. And that spans party lines, Republicans and Democrats pretty much agree on that factor.

SIEGEL: Does this is also cut across demographic lines, as well?

DIMOCK: It does. The young and old, even higher and lower income Americans, tend to see a growing divide in inequality - or growing inequality in overall income. The rich, though, being defined potentially differently by different people.

SIEGEL: Now, to what extent do Americans say that income inequality, which so many say exists, is something that the government should do something about?

DIMOCK: That's where the rub comes in. A majority of Americans want this issue to be addressed. Sixty-nine percent said the government should do at least something about inequality in this country. But the partisan divide couldn't be wider. Democrats - this is a uniform issue - 90 percent think that this should be a priority for the government. Among Republicans, it's much more controversial; fewer than half of Republicans think the government should play a role in this.

SIEGEL: If you use the word redistribute - redistribute this - excuse me, I can't say it - redistribute wealth or redistribution at all in this survey?

DIMOCK: We didn't use that word. We're not sure what people would necessarily think about with a term like that. But we tried to test the concept, which is, what's the best way to address poverty. Is it too raise taxes, in order to have more resources to expand programs for the poor? Or is it to lower taxes, in order to spur investment and more economic growth?

SIEGEL: And here's where the party division now comes in pretty strongly.

DIMOCK: That's it's - yeah, predictably that's really where the divide is. By well over 2-to-1, Republicans say the right way to do this is more of a rising tide lifts all boats model; you spur the economy, you lower taxes, you get things supercharged. For Democrats, this is a clear-cut issue, 75 percent say the way to do it is more redistributive.

SIEGEL: Now, actually, I think you have a majority of the whole sample agreeing with the idea of a tax in that case.

DIMOCK: That's right, because independents tilt a little bit toward raising taxes on the wealthy in order to expand programs for the poor. In fact, across a range of questions in this survey, we find independents eager to see some sort of action - both in the realm of reducing poverty but also in the realm of addressing inequality.

SIEGEL: There have been debates in Washington recently over food stamps, unemployment benefits. Do people believe that those are things that the government should be doing more of?

DIMOCK: Very much so. I mean, the unemployment benefit issue, 63 percent in the survey said that they want - they support an extension of those benefits. When it comes to the minimum wage, raising it to $10.10 an hour is supported by 73 percent of Americans. Only 25 percent oppose. These are both issues that unify Democrats, get broad support from independents, and divide the Republican base.

Republicans are really split 50/50 on these issues and there's a deep income divide within the Republican Party. Lower income Republicans really favor these kinds of programs. It's the higher income Republicans that are more opposed.

SIEGEL: You said that while there is a majority in favor of a tax on the wealthiest Americans, to benefit people lower down, there is some difference of opinion as to what it means to be rich; as to who the wealthiest are. Are we talking about the one percent wealthiest, the 25 percent wealthiest?

DIMOCK: It's one of the challenges when we were trying to design the survey. What do people mean by rich? It all is a matter of perspective. In fact, we tend to find that many people who - when we find out what their income and economic situation has - by most economic definitions, would be considered rich or in the highest percentiles, describing themselves very much as middle class.

SIEGEL: Middle class.

DIMOCK: And you find a bunch of that at the other end, too. There are many people who, by many economic measures, would be considered below middle class, thinking of themselves as middle class. It's a part of an American characteristic to kind of always consider your position relatively. But middle class is just a natural landing point for a lot of us.

SIEGEL: Michael Dimock, thanks for talking with us about the survey.

DIMOCK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Michael Dimock, who is vice president of research at the Pew Research Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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