WASHINGTON — Americans overwhelmingly agree that the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown in recent years, but they are divided sharply by party when asked what, if anything, the government should do about it.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans, regardless of party, agree that the income gap has increased in the last 10 years, compared with about 1 in 4 who believe the gap has stayed the same, according to a new Pew Research Center survey done with USA Today.
In this case, public opinion accurately reflects reality: Almost one-quarter of the nation’s income in 2012 went to the richest 1 percent of families, those with incomes of about $400,000 a year or more — the largest share since the 1920s, according to researchers at University of California, Berkeley.
On a related question, 60 percent of those surveyed said the “economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy” while 36 percent said the system is “generally fair to most Americans.”
An overwhelming majority of Democrats and a large majority of independents said government should do something about inequality. Two-thirds of Democrats said the government should do “a lot” to reduce the income gap. By contrast, among Republicans, 48 percent say government should do “nothing” (33 percent) or “not much” (15 percent) about the issue, while 45 percent said the government should act at least somewhat.
That partisan gap appears to reflect differing beliefs about what government is capable of and what causes some people to remain poor while others prosper, the survey indicated.
Large majorities of Democrats and independents see the country’s economic system as being fundamentally tilted toward the wealthy. They believe that circumstances, not who works hard, determine who becomes rich, and they support government action against both inequality and poverty.
Republicans are more likely to see the economic system as generally fair — although they are divided on that question — and only 45 percent support any government action to reduce the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population. Though skeptical about government action that appears aimed at the rich, Republicans are more likely to support government action against poverty, although many of them doubt it does much good.
Almost half of Republicans (49 percent) said the government can do little or nothing about the divide between the rich and everyone else. Democrats and independents are considerably less likely to hold that view.
Asked whether government help to the poor does more good or harm, about half of those surveyed (49 percent) said the aid does good “because people can’t get out of poverty until basic needs are met.” Roughly two-thirds of Democrats took that view.
A slightly smaller share of the public, 44 percent, said that aid to the poor “does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government.” Roughly two-thirds of Republicans took that view.