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Harris Poll: Americans agree that income inequality is a major problem

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As the media becomes more partisan, our perceptions of how to address settled challenges in American society are filtered through a partisan lens leaving it difficult to find common ground solutions. To further demonstrate that point today, a new Harris poll shows that a strong majority of Americans believe economic inequality in the U.S. today is a problem (79%), with over half believing more specifically that it's a major problem (54%). Overall, the perception of economic inequality being a problem in the United States has changed little from 2012 (80%). The Harris Poll is of 2,234 U.S. adults surveyed online between March 12 and 17, 2014

Opinions diverge widely along partisan lines, with seven in ten Democrats (70%) seeing it as a major problem, compared to just over one-third of Republicans (36%); Independents fall between the two parties, though it's worth noting that the majority of Independents (55%) sees economic inequality as a major problem.

Those in households earning less than $75,000 annually more likely than those earning $100,000 or more to see it as a major problem (59% among those with HH incomes under $35k, 61% among those earning $35k-$49.9k and 59% among those with $50k-$74.9k in annual income vs. 45% among those earning $100k+).

As for the nature of economic inequality in the United States, majorities of Americans agree both that it's a political issue (72%) and that it's a moral one (59%).

  • Majorities agree across the political spectrum that it's a political issue, albeit with Democrats most likely to agree with this (82%), Republicans least likely (60%) and Independents in the middle (72%).
  • A strong majority of Democrats (73%) and a more moderate majority of Independents (55%) also agree that it's a moral issue, while just over four in ten Republicans (43%) agree with this.

Two-thirds (66%) of Americans feel it's important that the government introduce policies to reduce inequality in the U.S. (up from 62% in 2012), with four in ten (40%, up from 34% in 2012) identifying it as very important.

  • The vast majority of Democrats (86%) believe such action is important, with six in ten (60%) specifically calling it out as very important. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to perceive such action as important (43% Rep.) and more than three times as likely to specify that it's very important (18% Rep.); Independents fall between the two parties on both measures, with nearly two-thirds (65%) seeing it as important overall and nearly four in ten (37%) seeing it as very important.
  • Millennials are the generation most likely to see such government action as important, while matures are least likely to say this (76% Millennials; 68% Gen Xers; 64% Baby Boomers; 50% Matures).

When asked how much a series of factors are causes of inequality in the United States today, strong majorities see each as contributing either a great deal or somewhat. Roughly eight in ten see the loss of manufacturing jobs to China, India and other low cost countries (83%); the tax system (81%); the influence of big business on government policies (80%); and the influence of very rich people on government policy (78%) as causes of inequality. Three-fourths (75%) point to the failure of the public school systems to educate many people, while roughly two-thirds each perceive the globalization of the world economy (67%), restrictions on businesses which prevent them from creating more jobs (66%) and the current minimum wage (65%) as causes. Most factors' perceived contributions to the issue have changed little since 2012, though the perception of the tax system as a contributing factor has risen slightly (from 77% to 81%).

  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans to point to the tax system as a cause of the problem, though strong majorities of both groups see it as a cause (84% Dem. vs. 77% Rep.).
  • Democrats and Independents are both considerably more likely than Republicans to point to the influence of big business on government policies (88% Dem. and 84% Ind. vs. 68% Rep.) and the influence of very rich people on government policy (88% and 81% vs. 61%, respectively), while Independents fall more squarely between the two camps when it comes to identifying the current minimum wage rate as a root cause (with 64% identifying it as such, vs. 43% Rep. and 82% Dem.).
  • Republicans are more likely to cite restrictions on businesses which prevent them from creating more jobs, with Independents again standing in the middle ground (78% Rep. vs. 66% Ind. vs. 57% Dem.).

While most U.S. adults seem to agree that the influence of the rich is a cause of economic inequality, Americans are more divided on whether the rich are more broadly – and unfairly – getting a bad rap, with just under half (47%) agreeing that the rich have become scapegoats for everything that's wrong in the U.S. and just over half (53%) disagreeing with this.

  • Two-thirds of Republicans (68%) agree with this, vs. one-third of Democrats (33%); just under half of Independents (46%) agree.

When asked which political party is likely to do a better job of addressing issues of unfairness and inequality, a plurality of Americans (35%) point to the Democratic party, while two in ten (21%) believe the Republican party will do a better job and 7% put their hope in another party. Nearly one-fourth (23%) respond with a dismissive "none," while 14% are unsure.

  • Not surprisingly, majorities of Democrats (73%) and Republicans (61%) believe their own party is likely to do a better job of addressing such issues. More telling is the stance of Independents, with the highest percentage (35%) indicating that none of the parties is likely to do a better job of it. Some do make a pick though, and Independents are more than twice as likely to identify Democrats (25%) over Republicans (10%) as the party for the job, with 13% saying another party would do a better job and nearly two in ten (17%) being unsure.
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