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Public Opinion on Economic Inequality
Topics: Economy
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What You Need to Know: Public Opinion on Economic Inequality

I.  Economic Policy Issues

There is broad public support for addressing economic inequality through policies aimed at both the top and bottom of the economic spectrum: increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $250,000 a year.

  • The Minimum Wage: Overall, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans favor increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.00 an hour. There is strong support for increasing the minimum wage among Democrats (88 percent) and independents (73 percent). Half of Republicans also favor an increase in the minimum wage, while 46 percent oppose. [PRRI, June 2013]
  • Taxing Wealthier Americans: More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Americans favor increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $250,000 a year, while about one-third (34 percent) are opposed. [PRRI,  June 2013]

II. Perceptions of Economic Inequality and Society

Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Americans believe the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten larger over the past 10 years, 21 percent believe it has stayed the same, and only 5 percent believe it has gotten smaller. [PRRI, June 2013]

III. The American Dream

Americans are divided over whether the American Dream still applies today: Fifty-three percent of the general population believe the American Dream—that if you work hard you can get ahead—still holds true, while 42 percent believe that it once held true but does not anymore, and 4 percent believe that it never held true. Americans are generally pessimistic about upward economic mobility. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans believe that their generation is worse off financially than their parents’ generation, compared to 16 percent who believe their generation is doing about the same, and 36 percent who believe they are better off than their parents’ generation. Roughly six-in-ten (58 percent) Millennials (ages 18-33) believe they are worse off than their parents’ generation. [PRRI, September 2012; PRRI, June 2013]

IV. Economic Opportunity

Most Americans believe that the lack of opportunities is a significant problem in society, and that hard work alone is insufficient for success, however large minorities disagree. A majority of Americans (53 percent) believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” By contrast, nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) agree that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” A majority (54 percent) of Americans also believe that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people, but close to half (45 percent) disagree. Most Americans (53 percent) do not believe that children from all income groups have adequate opportunities to be successful in the U.S. today, although about half (47 percent) believe that they do. [PRRI, June 2013]

V. Role of Government in Reducing Inequality

Six-in-ten (63 percent) Americans agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, while 35 percent disagree. [PRRI, June 2013]

However, Americans also have considerable reservations about government assistance programs. Approximately 7-in-10 (70 percent) say poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs. [PRRI, September 2012]

VI. Perspectives on the Role of the Social Safety Net

Most Americans agree about the importance of a social safety net, but are divided about whether people who use such programs are genuinely in need of help or are taking advantage of the system.

  • By a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Americans agree that government policies aimed at helping the poor serve as a crucial safety net (63 percent), rather than creating a culture of dependency in which people are provided with too many handouts (32 percent).
  • However, Americans are divided on whether most people who receive welfare payments are genuinely in need of help (44 percent) or are taking advantage of the system (46 percent). [PRRI, October 2012] 

VII. Views on Capitalism

Americans are more likely to say that capitalism in the U.S. is working well than to say it is not working. However, fewer than 1-in-10 (9 percent) Americans say they think American capitalism is working very well, while 45 percent Americans believe capitalism is working somewhat well. More than 4-in-10 Americans say capitalism in the U.S. is working “not too well” (26 percent) or “not at all well” (16 percent). [PRRI, June 2013]


Public Religion Research Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.