What Americans think about the rich

Occupy Wall Street protestors march down Fifth Avenue towards Union Square during a May Day rally on May 1, 2012 in New York City. Demonstrators have called for nation-wide May Day strikes to protest economic inequality and political corruption.

Kai Ryssdal: You've got your 1 percent and your 99 percent. And in theory never the 'twain shall meet. That's kind of been the politics of the economy the past six or eight months or so.

Problem is, that's not actually what Americans think. Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup. He's here every week to give us a little Attitude Check. Today, how we feel about those who have more than most. Frank, good to talk to you.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you, Kai.

Ryssdal: So something a little bit different this week: We had our Wealth and Poverty folks go out and get a little tape, do a little man-on-the-street survey. Unscientific, to be sure, about this topic. Here's what they said:

I don't like anybody for being rich; if they worked for it and they made it, that's good for them. I'm not mad at anybody.

Maybe someday you'll become hugely wealthy. It's just a pipedream. It's not going to happen for 90 percent of the people in this country.

I don't think the problem is the rich people. As easy as it is to point fingers, I just don't think it's the rich people.

So do they have it right, Frank? I mean, do Americans not hate the rich for all the talk of 1 percent and 99 percent?

Newport: Remarkably, your not-scientific sample there does reflect in the data. This is really interesting. We had asked way back in 1990, Kai, some questions about the rich and we just updated them. And lo and behold, little changed: 63 percent of Americans say the U.S. benefits from having a class of rich people. Back in 1990, lo those many years ago, that was 62 percent -- so actually, that hasn't changed at all, as you say, despite all the discussion of the 1 percent. And 63 percent of Americans, Kai, would like to be rich themselves, and that's actually up from 59 percent 22 years ago. So not only do we think it's good to have rich people -- we wish we could rich.

Ryssdal: Yes we do. There's another thing though, actually, that goes along with that, and that is the self-identification. And here's another bit of tape.

If you're only making $50,000 a year, depending on where you live, you'd just getting by.

$50,000 a year? Yeah, I'll consider that middle-class. I'd even consider myself terribly wealthy at $200,000 a year.

$250,000, I thought, well once we reached that goal, life would be good. But after you deduct mortgage, college, insurance, you know, you're just getting by.

You know, that was interesting, right? We had a $50,000 person and a $250,000 person -- both of whom say, 'yeah I'm in the middle-class.'

Newport: Well, you know, that's not surprising. We have asked Americans how much would it take for you to be rich, and about $200,000 is the average response. But it varies dramatically about how much money you make. If you're sitting there making $25,000 a year, to be able to make $50,000 or $75,000 would make you rich. But if you're making, like you heard, $250,000 a year, you'd say, 'geez, if only I made half a million, then I would be rich.' So everything is relative is what the data shows.

Ryssdal: There's an aspirational part of this too, right? Do Americans, have you asked people: Do they think they will ever be rich?

Newport: Fascinating question: How likely is it that you will rich in your lifetime? And you know, this is a heartening of 18 to 29-year-olds -- almost half, Kai, 47 percent say they say it's at least somewhat likely they will be rich at some point in their lifetime. Now that drops dramatically by the time that you're 65-plus -- only 8 percent. Still, 8 percent of seniors think they'll be rich someday, if they just hold on long enough.

Ryssdal: I want to meet that 8 percent, man.

Newport: Yeah, absolutely. But I think it's heartening that so many young people today are looking ahead and at least dreaming that some day they'll strike it rich.

Ryssdal: Frank Newport, he's the editor-in-chief at Gallup. The partnership we do with them every week is called Attitude Check. Frank, we'll talk to you next week.

Newport: My pleasure.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.
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I'm in the one percent. I have all the safe food I want to eat. I have all the safe drinking water I want to drink. I have so much drinking water I can bathe in it, wash my car with it, water my lawn with it. I have a house and a car. So I am far more wealthy than ninety-nine percent of the world's population. I share my wealth with people who can get much more out of a buck than I can by contributing to international aid organizations like CARE. I hope you will, too.

i just want to say anyone earning a salary is not rich. doctors and lawyers are not rich, they are well off regardless of there earned income . if you go to work each day your not rich.
some years ago i had occasion to deliver a vacuum cleaner on the mellon estate in pittsburgh .I drove up miles of wooded driveway to the first house on the estate where i was stopped . this house had i would guess at least 40 rooms .the main house was up the hill at least 4 times larger. this family built shady side hospital in Pittsburgh the entire 4th floor is furnished with actual furniture and is fully equipped with everything needed to take care of sick melons the rest of the hospital is for the public

who knows how many more melon compounds are around the country (bunny melons in the news lately)
the rate at which such wealth grows is only controlled by taxing it. it will grow none the less, next year the pile will be larger than this year . allowing wealth to accumulate at that rate does not create an incentive to start up factories and hire workers to make more money it creates incentive to buy bonds and national debt and make guaranteed income off the sweat of everyone else . ask yourself who is the national debt owed to exactly and forget the tarring of the evil chinese . you will find it owed to Rothchilds and Rocafellers Caranagies fricks and Melons the interest on this debit is supporting these people .

the issue with taxing the rich is one that makes no difference to them in any material way . the rest of us it boils down to this if all we get for the taxes we pay is the privilege of increasing the net worth of these individuals, it is truly money wasted . If we as a nation were getting value back for our tax payments good roads good schools good medical care low mortgage rates fire protection and national security that is not a foot sniffing joke i would not mind paying a 50% tax . right now the government is giving us nothing for our money. worse they claim socialism if we get benefit from the moneys we pay in taxes in stead of handing it over to them in "interest".

Our roads suck, bridges fall down, you can go to an emergency room and have "free" care at the expense of your credit rating forever my kids school has no paper or books because retirement health costs are bankrupting our states cites and towns . think for a minute to whom those moneys are being paid . the insurance companies are taking 30 % of the health care money from every city and town and state and banking it. they do not do one single thing to provide care except to drive up costs ( look at the free market price on laser eye surgery where insurance is not involved) they are using their power to grab even more at the expense of the poor slobs who are trying to pay off a mortgage that will cost them 10 times the face value to pay down .
i am not jealous of the wealthy , i am ashamed of them. I would love to see a few of them do a days work in say a slaughterhouse and get there hundred dollars for the shift. and see how they feel about a 40 dollar co pay if they need a doctor.

i am sick of being demonized by these parasites . its time to change banking laws make them put skin in the game instead of "creating money " at 10 times assets on hand. make them use their actual money to make more money (like the rest of us who aren't banks) and everything evens out. tax every transaction for every one ( including the "new people" corporations) and benefit all americans for their efforts large and small.

I always consider myself the poorest rich person I ever knew once I found out that I was among the top 5% of wage earners. I could not understand why I could not afford a McManson and then the bubble burst. The more I made the more I was taxed, college aid dried up and the more I had to pay for my benefits. After the housing bubble burst, I became a very rich man without one dollar more in income because as people who made 1/3 of what I was making were losing their houses, their jobs, and or their pensions, I was lucky enough not to lose anything. I was putting my money into savings and my 401K and kept my small house during the housing boom.

I believe in the American dream that if you work hard you will be rewarded and you should get to keep what you earn. The top 5% wage earners paid 58.7% of the US income taxes collected and the bottom 50% only paid 2.3% (in 2009) and that goes against this dream. America loves winners thus somebody has to be riding in the back of the car and somebody has to be driving. No innovations would happen if there were no rewards in life.

I did not realize how good I had it until I researched who the 1% were. I lived pay check to pay check for most of my life. Once my son left home, I was able to bank emergency money for six months of bills and now I am only 7 months away from being totally debt free. So I think it is a matter of prespective and as long as you are one pay check away from disaster you will never feel that you are rich.

Now if I was only Bill Gates rich, I could do.....

I'm more concerned about and dislike the "artificial" 40% middle-class ( based upon being lucky rather than merit). This includes all people whose pay are way out of line with actual demand; these people always seem to be protected and insulated from reality. As such they have a tendency to resort to any treacherous means to keep their inflated pay and benefits at others expense. I think most of them do it because they know that if they were actually laid off, they would never recover because their whole existence is defined by their luck rather than merit. You know who I'm talking about, don't you? Teachers, Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Electricians, Long-Shoreman, Trade Union Members, Registered Nurses...the list goes on and on. Nothing is more disheartening than having someone whose pension is more than someone working any job can get looking at you with a straight face and saying "they withheld $9 and hour for my pension!!!"
At which point you respond : "Hold on. You actually made enough money per hour to have that much withheld from each hour? Lucky you and unlucky everyone else, huh?

Frank Newport seems to be a likable guy, and Kai certainly is. So why are these nice people involved in dumbing down political discourse. A question like "do you hate the rich" isn't very useful. You can't much hate people you don't know.

If Frank had asked, "Do you think it's good that CEO's currently make n times the lowest paid employee in their company, while ten years ago they made n/10 times the lowest paid employee?" would his results have been the same?

Or: "When Mercedes bought Chrysler, the German head of the company was paid 1/4 of what the head of Chrysler was making. Do you think that's OK?"

Last week Frank's question was "Would you rather spend money or save money?" How can any sane person answer anything except "I'd like to save as much as I can when I buy something I need or want."

My point is that polling is worse than useless. The questions are either inane, or impossible to frame in such a way as not to bias the answer.

I wish that Marketplace had no part in it.

The reader this afternoon was correct that the issue is that, because of wealth, a very few people have a disproportionate influence over the political process. Carry this to its logical conclusion. Since the Supreme Court avers no spending limits on politics, the only remaining way to decrease influence of wealth is to decrease wealth, and the only way to do this is through extreme taxation of the rich. So, for those who want their country back (for real this time - no racism) - push for large taxes on the rich.

I'm finally getting around to commenting on the weekly Gallup survey, and this one is much like the others on approaching an issue just enough off point to defuse its potency. In the current political climate, asking whether we like the rich or not does not address what's at the heart of the issue: disparities of taxation. It's not people's feelings about the rich but their position on tax equity that I'd like to hear about.

So, Mr. Newport, how much is your income and net worth?

I don't understand why more people are not super angry at the super rich. Maybe personally, they are okay; but, it is bad for society for so few people to possess so much money. Let me explain:

There is only so many U.S. dollars floating around. To have more, the government would have to print more which would lower its value.

Now, if only a few people are gathering up most all of the money, there is very little left for the rest of us. So, we all bicker over what is left.

Left now look at what big corporations have done over the past 30 years: They have shipped their manufacturing operations overseas where labor costs are much lower than here. They then import the products but charge a huge mark-up. As there are fewer workers here, those that remain, mostly at the top, reap huge profits. The rest of us are left with nothing.

To those that much is given, much will be expected.

That is why we should tax those huge earnings at about 75%, as we did in the '50s, '60s, and '70s; most of which were very good years. Then, the money can be used to help the country and so many people who have been left without work because of the companies that have sent the jobs elsewhere. It is only fair.

Do this, and my animosity toward the rich may diminish. It is the rich fighting any tax increases and not wanting to share the wealth that they have been so blessed with that angers me so.

This is not a new attitude in America.

When I was about ten years old (some six decades ago) my father got from somewhere a copy of Fortune magazine about six months old. I read it from cover to cover. The only part I remember was an illustration of the difference between American and European attitudes about wealth, in an article about how Europe was recovering from the war. I'm not sure if I have it exactly verbatim, but this is what I read:

"When a Frenchman sees a rich man go by in a chauffeured limousine, he dreams of the day when the man in the back seat will have to walk like everyone else. When an American sees a rich man go by in a chauffeured limousine, he dreams of the day when he will be the man in the back seat."


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