NEWS 2012

Politics Catches Up with Americans' Views on Income Inequality

Occupy Wall Street
An Occupy Wall Street demonstration
in New York Ciity

In President Barack Obama’s preview of his 2012 State of the Union speech, he continued to hammer away at what has become a major theme of not just his forthcoming speech, but his re-election campaign, income inequality. In a recent national interview, the president stated, “The problem is our politics has gotten to the point where we can’t have an honest conversation about the greatest income inequality since the 1920s."

First unveiled in his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, inequality was squarely placed front and center in a major political speech for the first time in recent memory. As an editorial at the time pointed out, “it is rare for a president to be so explicit about a national income gap.”

So what has changed? Is President Obama tapping into income inequality as a growing concern among Americans, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement? Or is income inequality a concern of just a small minority of Americans, deflecting attention from the core issues of jobs and economic security facing our country?

What we are seeing instead is a moment where popular movements and presidential speeches are actually catching up with what Americans have long thought about income inequality. Take what is perhaps the most daring aspect of the president’s speech in Kansas: his emphasis on the fairness of business. President Obama considered this such unfamiliar territory that he had to hark back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt to defend it.

Fortunately, we also have recent history to consult, in the form of over two decades worth of surveys of the American public on this very question. The survey question asks whether “business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.” If making a profit is by definition serving the public interest, large shares of Americans would agree to this statement.

But most Americans disagree with this statement, by a 54 to 41 percent margin—the rest are “don’t knows”—when the poll was last taken in September. What’s more, this margin of disagreement is not dramatically higher than when the poll was first taken in 1987, when it was 48 to 43 percent.

More intriguing is that it’s not just tree-hugging liberals or OWS demonstrators, or even blue-collar workers, who disagree the most. In fact, the higher you go up the education and income ladder the more disagreement you find. In 2009, the most recent survey with breakdowns in the data, 64 percent of college graduates disagreed that a fair balance is being struck, whereas those with a high school degree or less disagreed 56 and 45 percent, respectively. Those earning under $30,000 are less likely to think that the balance is tilted against the public interest (55 percent) than those above (61 to 66 percent), with the top income group including those making $75,000 or more. Finally, 48 percent of Republicans, along with 65 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Independents, all agree that the balance between profits and public interest is out of whack.

Based on these and many other polls, it does not seem that Americans are any more concerned about the unfairness of business practices now than they have been at other critical economic junctures in the past few decades. New data in 2012 may prove otherwise, but as of now, concerns about income inequality are no higher than they were in the early and mid-1990s, when polls showed the highest level of disagreement to the question (57 to 40 percent) around the 1992 presidential election. Back then, with economic populists Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan running for president, we saw little partisan rancor on the topic. And let us not forget that it was none other than President Reagan who popularized the attack on the “three-martini lunch” in his crusade to rid the tax code of unpopular corporate tax loopholes.


Leslie McCall

So, what has changed in the intervening years? The new departure in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and in the President’s speech is to open up the black box of business practices to public scrutiny and deliberation. But this is not familiar political territory, with magic bullets and sound-bite solutions at hand. No single policy, such as raising taxes, is going to make business fairer, and that is perhaps one of the reasons why OWS has had a hard time coming up with a neat slogan of demands and why President Obama was sufficiently vague about how exactly government could regulate the economy to make it fairer. But at the very least the conversation has begun at the highest level and finally caught up with public opinion.

Leslie McCall is associate professor of sociology and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is currently writing a book on American beliefs about income inequality and economic opportunity.

Photo courtesy of flickr.