Attitude Check

Income Inequality: Do you level the playing field?

Frank Newport Dec 7, 2011

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.

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