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Income Inequality: Do you level the playing field?

Kai Ryssdal: The Iowa caucuses are less than a month away -- believe it or not -- which means we're going to be hearing this from politicians a whole lot more. Something along the lines of 'the American people want,' and then whatever issue is top of mind.

But what do Americans really want? We're going to tell you, straight from the source.

Today we launch a new partnership with Gallup, weekly conversations about what the American people think about everything from the latest news to their own economic security, in a segment we're calling Attitude Check.

The question du jour came off the negotiations about how to pay for the payroll tax cut, and the general conversation that started about economic inequality in this country: Who exactly is rich?

Frank Newport is the editor in chief at Gallup. Good to talk to you.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: So this question of who is rich -- it has to be one of those 'kind of depends' answers, right?

Newport: Oh absolutely. It depends on how rich you are when you answer the question. We've asked this several times and we basically ask Americans: How much money would you need -- annual income, that is -- to consider yourself rich? Separate question, we'd say: How much net worth would you need to consider yourself to be rich? And overall right now, the median is $200,000 for the average American out there across this country -- if you have $200,000 annual income, you're rich. And $1 million is the net worth figure.

Ryssdal: Is there anything in here about the inequality factor? We've been hearing a lot about Occupy Wall Street and 'we are the 99 percent.' What do your numbers show about inequality and how important that is to a lot of people?

Newport: Boy, that's a great question. This comes up periodically, Kai, and it's not new. I was just reviewing a book by Kevin Phillips the other day that he wrote in 1990, the title was "The Politics of the Rich and Poor." He was going on about how Americans were going to be upset about the concentration of wealth in that upper 1 percent. You know, that was 20 years ago. So this is not a new phenomenon. But what we're finding trendwise, and I think this is a really key point, is that we're finding no more on a lot of our measures of interest in reducing this gap between the rich and the poor than we have found previously.

Ryssdal: Say that again, that's important: There's not a huge interest in reducing the wealth gap?

Newport: Well, I'm saying there is not an increased interest now compared to what we have seen previously. It is true that Americans -- and this is one of those varieties in polling, in our data consistently -- say sure, tax the rich. As we just talked about, most Americans themselves don't think they're rich, so it's fine with them to tax the rich. But we don't see in our data that there's a hugely increased push for the government, for policymakers, to really focus on reducing the gap between the wealthy and the not-wealthy, as opposed to simply growing the economy.

Ryssdal: So let me ask you the question, the answer to which is probably not in your data, and it goes like this: How come? How come that interest is not increasing?

Newport: Well, that is a good question, and I don't think that the answer is in our data. But we have a lot of negativity towards the federal government in general. And why I mention that is because if one talks about -- and to some degree, President Obama talked about this of course in his speech in Kansas -- if one talks about trying to address this inequality and give everyone -- and he used these words -- 'a fair share,' somebody has to do that. And that's the federal government. And all of our data shows that Americans are really leery of the federal government getting involved in a big way and doing anything. So I think that's part of the issue. If you're going to have increased equality, how do you bring it about? If it's the government, Americans are hesitant.

Ryssdal: Frank Newport is the editor in chief of Gallup. You can read more about the great data they've got and our partnership with them at Attitude Check. Frank, thanks a lot. 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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Kai Ryssdal is practicing revisionist history as he works for the maintanence of income inequality. We saw poll after poll at the beginning of the Occupy movement showing a negative opinion of income inequality by a majority of people.....some showing that figure around 60% and some showing them as high as 75%. It is a shame to see an NPR affiliated program revising statisitics for the benefit of the 1%.

To really get a perspective on this subject--Kai Ryssdal needs to interview John "Jack" C. Bogle---a man who is very much a confirmed "capitalist"-I won't go into great detail here about him--do Google him though----Bogle started the Vanguard Index Fund--but in recent years--he has argued among other things that this ever growing gap between those at the top of the economic pile and the rest of us is a very real threat to the nature of this country has we have come to know it. Bogle has two books he has written in recent years about what he feels are the current failures of modern capitalism. When Bill Moyers was doing his great show "Bill Moyers Journal" he had an incredible interview with Bogle back in 2007--here is a link to that interview: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09282007/watch.html

Here's an interesting quote from page 353 of Frank Newport's Book, "The Winning of the White House 2008:

"Slightly over half of Americans believe the government should redistribute wealth by means of heavy taxes on the rich. The percentage holding this view (51% vs. 43% opposed) is similar to that found in Gallup polling last year, is up from 1998, and in particular is higher than was found in a Roper poll conducted for Fortune magazine back in 1939...(T)he rough comparison suggests that Americans appear to have become even more "redistributionist" in their views than they were at the tail end of the Great Depression."

What made Newport (apparently) change his mind?

It isn't so much about resentment of the 1%, although the extreme difference has made them suspect in many people eyes, as it is concerns over the diminished chances of the middle 89% (the lowest 10% have always been a problem). And it isn't just the 99% ... many people that I know, who are near the so-called 1%, were under the belief that they were at or around the upper 5%, even upper 10% - not so far up in the middle 89%.

Here are the numbers, and they show increasing concern about inequality, not surprisingly especially among Black Americans, and they are from Galuup itself! Too bad I can't paste the rising graph attached to Gallup's own report. Why was there such a disconnect in this report? and please show s the numbers.

The perception of an unequal society has risen at an especially sharp rate among blacks and Hispanics, although non-Hispanic whites are also more likely to perceive a haves/have-nots division today than they were four years ago. Nearly three-quarters of blacks (72%) and close to half of Hispanics (49%) and whites (45%) now believe the nation is divided along have/have-not lines.

These results are from Gallup's annual Minority Rights and Relations survey, conducted each June. The 2008 survey includes nationally representative interviews with 1,935 adults, including more than 700 non-Hispanic whites, more than 600 blacks, and more than 500 Hispanics, all weighted to represent their correct proportions in the population.

The interview seemed to leave one with the impression that Americans weren't interested in the government doing anything about inequality. The guest only said that interest hasn't increased. What is the level of interest in correcting inequality through the tax code? Unless I missed it, the Gallup guy did not quote any survey data and there is no link to the numbers. Please, "let's do the numbers."

Public polling lacks a scientific basis but it remains a profitable enterprise, largely because the media would like to rely on an objective means of determining public opinion. George Gallup started this and the media has fed the demand. While no one denies that public opinion exists (but before the 18th Century that may be a debate point), measuring it is notoriously difficult. (Public polling has a lot of unresolved problems - see Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife.)

Frankly, Gallup's results look like another massive error by the organization that was famous for missing the results of the 1936 and 1948 Presidential elections and more recent polling debacles. Who were these people that Gallup was talking to? We have learned that the Tea Party - a minority - became influential by playing the media game very well. Thus, a minority can appear to reflect public opinion. Of course, only elections will actually reflect public opinion - provided that citizens are permitted to vote.

But arguing that American's don't care about narrowing the gap between rich and poor is absurd. Most Americans will not begrudge a man or woman that acheives wealth while using an organization that gains its wealth lawfully and serves the public interest. But if the individual or organization achieves their economic gains through fraud or unfairness, you will hear howls of anger, particularly whent the new (or old) rich use the law to protect the dubious gains.

Americans want a fair shake. The polling results - or at least the Gallup Organization's interpretation of their results - suggests that they should start over.

I am not an economist or business person, but I had to respond to the Frank Newport interview because he seemed to think that the income disparity was new and that Americans don't care. I remember reading "Who Killed the Middle Class?" by John Cassidy in the New Yorker (16 October 1995): 113-124, in which he writes (and uses charts to illustrate the trends) that from 1973 to 1993, only the very rich enjoyed growth comparable to what economic historians refer to as the Golden Era, from 1945 to 1973, in which real income rose at the same time for everyone. According to the 2010 International Gini Index, American income disparity is at its highest disparity since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967 and the highest among Western industrial nations. This shift in income has clearly been going on for some time. I believe if the media emphasized more of this factual information, the American public would be outraged.

Why isn't interest increasing in the disparity of wealth? Because we all believe in "the land of opportunity" and we're proud of being that country. However, we expect those who break the laws to be vigorously prosecuted and convicted, even if they are wealthy. We see members of Congress and high finance breaking laws with no penalty. We see a Congress bought by corporate interests and ignoring 'we the people'. We see CEOs get extreme increases in wages and bonuses, even after receiving tax-payer funded bailouts. We work for corporations where CEOs and corporate officers receive bonuses and compensation packages for financial performance by transferring our jobs outside of the US. We the people get no raises (not even cost of living), less benefits, and pink slips. Disparity of wealth is something 'we the people' cannot affect no matter how loud we scream. We'd all be at Occupy Wall Street if we didn't have families to feed, but I doubt it wouldn't make any difference. CONGRESS IS NOT LISTENING TO US. As my grandmother said, I may as well save my breath for blowing soup :) Gallup is not asking the right questions to find out how people truly feel.

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