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Many Americans Think Economic Inequality Is A Problem — Just Not The Most Pressing One

“Grotesque” is how Sen. Bernie Sanders has described the level of wealth inequality in the U.S., and he’s not the only Democrat running a presidential campaign that relies heavily on this idea. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called the economy “rigged.” And Sen. Cory Booker has said, “We can no longer accept racial and economic disparity as a normal function of our society.”

But while Americans are aligned with Democrats on some economic issues, like raising taxes on the wealthy, most don’t view economic inequality as the most pressing issue facing the nation today, which means that making closing the gap between rich and poor the focal point of a presidential campaign might not woo voters.

According to a July poll from Gallup, when asked an open-ended question about the most important problem facing the country, just 2 percent of Americans mentioned the “gap between rich and poor,” and this number hasn’t changed much in over a decade, hovering around 2 or 3 percent. (It’s worth noting that since respondents had to come up with their own answers, even 3 percent support means a sizable number of people mentioned this issue without any prompting.) By contrast, Americans’ views of the importance of the economy have tended to fluctuate with the economy’s performance, as you can see in the chart below — in November 2008, for instance, when the country was in the middle of a recession, 58 percent of Americans mentioned the economy as the most important issue facing the country, whereas today, in a relatively good economy, just 3 percent of Americans said the same.

As for why more Americans aren’t prioritizing socioeconomic inequality, Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told me he thinks that people don’t necessarily think about how their economic situation compares to other people’s, especially when the economy is good. “If I’ve got a job and my friends all have jobs, I think I’m doing OK and I’m not worried so much about how I’m doing relative to Warren Buffett.”

There is also evidence that Americans remain optimistic about the potential for upward socioeconomic mobility in the U.S., which could be another reason they’re less concerned about inequality than other issues. For instance, another Gallup poll from late June found that seven out of 10 Americans believed that if they work hard, they can still achieve the “American Dream.” That number is roughly unchanged from 2009. In that same poll, 60 percent of Americans also said it’s either “somewhat” or “very” likely that today’s young people will have better lives than their parents, which is close to the highest that number Gallup has recorded (it got as high as 61 percent in both 2008 and 2018).

Although Americans say socioeconomic inequality isn’t their top priority, many of them support at least one measure that would help close the gap: taxing the wealthy. Many 2020 Democratic candidates have expressed some level of support for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, though the details of their plans vary. If candidates tie their messages of socioeconomic inequality to their plans to tax the rich, that approach could appeal to voters.

According to Gallup, a majority of Americans — a bit over 60 percent — say that upper-income people pay too little in taxes, and that percentage has remained relatively unchanged over the last 25 years. And polling on specific proposals that hike the tax rate for the wealthy shows that these ideas get support from most Democrats and many Republicans. For instance, earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a 70 percent tax rate on every dollar a person earned over $10 million, and a majority of registered voters supported the idea. The proposal got significant support across the political spectrum, with 71 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans saying they were in favor.

But Gleckman cautioned me that the public’s support for taxing the wealthy may have less to do with concerns over income inequality and more to do with ensuring the wealthy are not unfairly benefiting from the economy. “It’s an issue of [the wealthy] getting away with something because they know how to game the system,” Gleckman said. He added that Warren in particular is tapping into this mentality and trying to play on “that feeling that the tax system just isn’t fair and that I gotta pay taxes on everything I owe, so those rich guys and corporations ought to pay taxes on everything they owe too.”

So for Democrats looking to capture voters’ attention in 2020, rhetoric about closing the gap between the rich and the poor might serve them better as a supporting element rather than the focal point of their campaigns. As for proposals to tax the wealthy, however, candidates might want to keep those front and center — those ideas could be a winning political argument.

Erin Doherty is FiveThirtyEight’s politics intern.

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