A majority of Americans of both parties believe that the gap between rich and poor is getting larger, making the issue a prominent one on the campaign trail this year.
But you’d be wrong if you thought this meant there was any kind of consensus among Democrats and Republicans on the issue. What is critical to understand is just how wide the gap between members of the two parties is in terms of how they perceive income inequality’s seriousness and what policies might reduce it.
This piece flows from a paper we published earlier this year that canvassed all the relevant public opinion polls to better understand how attitudes on inequality differ among Democrats and Republicans. We found that even though we can agree it’s a problem, the partisan gap is distressingly wide, suggesting solving it will be very difficult.
Income inequality as a priority
Overall, two-thirds of the public believes that the gap between rich and poor is getting larger. This includes about three-fourths of Democrats, as well as a majority (56 percent) of Republicans.
However, the salience of income inequality as an issue differs widely among the two groups.
Shortly before the 2014 congressional elections, registered voters were asked to rate the importance of various possible issues. Seven in 10 Democratic registered voters described economic inequality as very important, compared with just 42 percent of Republicans.
Little has changed since, with three-quarters of Democrats (and those who lean that way) saying that the 2016 candidates’ positions on the distribution of income and wealth will be extremely or very important in influencing their vote for president. That compares with just under half of Republicans and GOP leaners.
In a country comparison, Democrats look a lot like Europeans in terms of how concerned they are about the rich/poor gap – though still on the low side – while Republicans would rank at the very bottom among all 44 nations surveyed.
A 2014 international Pew survey asked residents how big a problem the gap was in their country. Overall, just 46 percent of American adults described it as a very big problem in the U.S., or ninth among 13 industrialized nations. By contrast, 84 percent of Greeks, 74 percent of Spaniards and 73 percent of Italians deemed it so in their countries.
The partisan difference in the U.S. was striking. Nearly six in 10 Democrats consider the income gap to be a very big problem, compared with 49 percent of independents and only 19 percent of Republicans. Those numbers mean that Democrats in the U.S. express nearly the same level of concern as the French, while the level of concern among Republicans would be lower than for residents of any of the other 44 countries, including the other 12 industrialized countries surveyed.
Public beliefs about causes
It is important to note that when they discuss income inequality, Democrats and Republicans do not agree on its causes, which if they did might lead more easily to a consensus on a solution.
The international survey cited above asked residents of the different countries which of six factors they thought was the single most important reason for the gap between the rich and the poor in their country.
The two reasons Americans cited most often were some people working harder than others (24 percent) and the government’s economic policies (24 percent), with worker pay, the educational system and the tax system also receiving some of the credit for inequality.
Other countries had a greater consensus that government policies were to blame. More than four in 10 adults in Greece, Spain, South Korea, Israel and China called that the most important reason. Only respondents in the U.K. showed the same degree of emphasis on individual responsibility as Americans, with a similar 24 percent blaming a work ethic gap.
These differences in the priority of income inequality and its perceived causes lead to very different views about what government should do about the problem. For example, since it’s generally Republicans who hold that belief about some working harder than others (39 percent compared with 17 percent of Democrats), that is likely a reason why conservatives are less likely than liberals to favor government doing something to reduce the gap.
Eighty-one percent of Democrats say they believe government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, compared with just 34 percent of Republicans. When asked how much the government should do to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else (not just the poor), 62 percent of Democrats say the government should do a lot, compared with just 23 percent of Republicans.
This plays out particularly when it comes to whether or not government should use the tax system to redistribute wealth. Three-fourths of Democrats believe that the government should redistribute wealth by placing “heavy taxes” on the rich, compared with only 29 percent of Republicans.
Democrats favor similar intervention when it comes to executive pay at large corporations, with 60 percent favoring limiting the amount of money they can earn, compared with 37 percent of Republicans.
Campaign in poetry, govern in prose
Here we have mainly looked at differences in attitude having to do with tax policy. But Democrats and Republicans also disagree on many other policy proposal aimed at reducing income inequality, such as raising the minimum wage to US$15 an hour or government doing a lot more to reduce poverty.
It is clear from the data presented here, as well as listening to the presidential candidates during the campaign, that reducing income inequality will be a lower priority if the Republicans win the White House. In addition, whatever policies they do propose to solve it will not focus on raising taxes on the wealthy.
On the other hand, if Democrats win in November, that’s exactly what they’re most likely to do. In addition, we are likely to see public officials calling attention to some of the very high salaries made by leaders of business and financial organizations.
The caveat here, for those not familiar with the U.S. political system, is that campaigns are very expensive and are often supported by upper-income donors and large corporations. This translates into proposals to impose heavy taxes by Democrats and even a push to lower them by Republicans.
If the 2016 election results in continued divided government, it is unlikely that any of the major proposals for directly reducing income inequality will be enacted. Instead, we’re likely to see some incremental changes in tax laws and increased spending focused on low-income programs and for education and job training.