Attitudes changing on divide between rich and poor

A Pew survey says Americans now think the conflict between rich and poor is more important than between whites and blacks or immigrants and the native-born. Here, people attend a service at Judson Memorial Church on National Homeless Persons Memorial Day on Dec. 21, 2011 in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: There's been a not-so-subtle subtext in the economic discourse the past couple of months. Sort of along the lines of the haves versus the have-nots. There's been Occupy Wall Street. All that talk by Democrats in Congress about a millionaire's tax. We saw it up in New Hampshire with that whole conversation about vulture capitalism and the Republican nomination.

And it's all sinking in. Americans now see the divide between rich and poor as one of the most serious social problems we have. A new survey from the Pew Research Center says the wealth gap tops race, age and immigration. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman has our story.


Mitchell Hartman: This is the kind of thing that gets social scientists really excited.

Rich Morin: Perceptions of strong class conflicts have surged in the past two years -- up 19 percentage points. That's a dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.

Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center says even back in the midst of the recession, Americans were still saying immigrants versus native-born was our most serious conflict. Now, it's rich versus poor.

The conflict's certainly on Florence Reinerman's mind. She's retired from managing labs at a university and we met outside her apartment in downtown Portland, Ore. It's near the city park that Occupiers took over for their tent camp during the fall.

Florence Reinerman: I think people are thinking about it more because it's been put in our face. If they don't think about it they're a little strange. Why for example...

And then Reinerman talked my ear off about how unfair Social Security taxes are when million-dollar earners pay the same amount as middle-income people like herself.

But she doesn't necessarily fault the wealthy for playing by the existing rules. And that's consistent with a surprising finding from the Pew report -- roughly half of Americans think the rich got that way from 'their own hard work, ambition or education,' rather than simply being born wealthy. And the perception many have that the rich more or less earned and deserve their wealth hasn't diminished at all through the recession and all the talk of class conflict.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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