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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