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New survey: Americans want fairer wealth distribution

Income disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom has been growing in Vermont for over two decades. As we showed in our report earlier this year on the plight of Vermont’s middle class, the share of income that went to the top 1 percent of Vermonters rose from 6 percent in 1981 to 19 percent in 2005. That threefold increase meant a decrease in income for the remaining 99 percent. And as economist Jeff Thompson explained in his 2011 report, it’s not true that we all benefit from a bigger economic pie. Thompson’s research found that when more income goes to those at the top, as we’re seeing in Vermont, low- and middle-income households end up with less even if the overall economy is growing.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began almost a year ago helped draw public attention to the problems in wealth and income inequality. Now a survey just published in The Atlantic shows that most Americans believe we should have greater equity. The survey was based on a large sample—more than 5,000 people. However, there was no state-by-state breakdown, so we can’t say exactly where Vermonters come down. There are two interesting conclusions we can draw from the nationwide results: one is discouraging, the other offers hope.

First, the bad news.

The survey was designed to test people’s knowledge and attitudes about the distribution of wealth. So the respondents were asked to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the U.S. What most people guessed was a pretty lopsided distribution, with the top 20 percent of the population holding about six times as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent. Unfortunately, the actual inequality in the country is far, far worse than what most people guessed: the top 20 percent have almost 300 times more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.

Respondents also were asked how they thought wealth should be distributed. People could choose anything from perfectly equal distribution to giving all the wealth to one group. What the respondents chose was some inequality between rich and poor; their “ideal” distribution allowed for about a third of the wealth going to the top 20 percent and about 10 percent going to the bottom 20 percent.

In other words, this representative sample of American would prefer to see more equality than they believe currently exists in the U.S.—and vastly more equality than actually exists.

The glimmer of hope that emerges from The Atlantic article is that Democrats and Republicans in the survey held almost identical views about wealth distribution. Republicans, true to form, would give a little more to the top 20 percent and little less to the bottom 20 percent. Democrats, as we would expect, leaned the other way. Their “ideal” would give a little less to the top 20 percent and a bit more to those at the bottom.

If we just had political representatives who reflected this widely held view about wealth distribution, perhaps we could start doing something about the problem.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on August 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

One Response to “New survey: Americans want fairer wealth distribution”

  1. Rich Cassidy says:

    Excellent post. Thank you.
    Robert B. Reich’s recent book, “Beyond Outrage,” does a great job of collecting the numbers and suggesting some solutions.
    He quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who once said: “We may have democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
    I think he was and is right.
    That makes it urgent that we build a more equitable society and do it soon, because if we don’t we will lose the ability to do it at all.