New Polling on Inequality: What We’ve Learned (or, What We Knew All Along)

By Eric Harris Bernstein |

New polling confirms what many of us long believed: The majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this structural inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.

Contrary to the popular narrative that concern over inequality divides along partisan lines, the latest CBS/New York Times poll finds bipartisan agreement about numerous dimensions of the problem. 61 percent of respondents feel money and wealth should be more evenly distributed, while 66 percent believe that only the wealthy can get ahead in today’s economy. In addition, 57 percent believe the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor. Perhaps most surprisingly, 74 percent of Americans—the third-largest cohort of the entire poll—agree that corporations have too much influence on American life and politics. That number includes 62 percent of Republicans.

Given the economic reality, these results are unsurprising. Years after the financial crisis, American families are still scraping by. Americans now understand that the fundamentals of our economy are not working to produce shared prosperity. There is popular and bipartisan support, it seems, for policies that will help rebalance our economy so everyone can participate and benefit.

Though the economic reality is grave, the broad consensus is encouraging. It implies the collective will to act and shows that the left–right gap in political ideology is not as large as some in Washington and in the media have suggested.

It also reaffirms what we at Roosevelt have long been sensing: across gender, political ideology, and all income distributions, not a single group feels that most Americans have a fair chance to get ahead and not a single group feels that the situation is improving. A mere 5 percent of those surveyed agree that the gap between rich and poor is shrinking, while a 10-point majority of Republicans agree that opportunity is skewed unequally toward a small minority at the top. 

Some groups are wary of the vague prospect of the government “doing more,” but when it comes to specific initiatives, the numbers shift back in favor of policies that will boost equality. On raising the minimum wage and taxes on earners making over $1 million per year, 71 and 68 percent are in favor, including 50 and 53 percent of Republicans, respectively. 

Issues like these, in addition to fair labor practices like paid sick and family leave, are no-brainers for Washington. At Roosevelt, we believe that reforms need to go deeper and wider, to strike a new balance between shared opportunity and the power that currently dominates our political economy.

At its core, this poll illustrates public desire for comprehensive reform, along the lines of the Rewriting the Rules agenda released by Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz last month. This includes reforms to monetary policy, trade policy, labor law, and checks on the dominance and dysfunction of the financial sector. Admittedly, some of our proposed reforms, like stronger union rights and a financial transactions tax, underperformed in this poll, but it is our honest assessment that with open dialogue and more public education, these issues would find widespread support. Structural reforms like these will not only shift the balance of power away from the top and toward all Americans, but will spur growth as well.

This is just the latest of indicators that inequality of wealth and opportunity are the defining issues of our time. Candidates from both sides of the aisle must respond to popular demand by delivering policies that will rewrite the rules of the economy for the benefit of all.

Eric Harris Bernstein is a Program Associate at the Roosevelt Institute.

Eric Harris Bernstein is a Program Manager at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow him on Twitter @erichbernstein.