The Occupy Wall Street movement has pitted the 1 percent against the 99 percent. President Obama, along with much of the liberal Democrat opinion machine, is hammering away to sell the notion that the wealthy, with Republican support, have remade the playing field in their favor. Statistics are widely cited that point to a clear trend of economic inequality in the United States and much of the world.
And Americans certainly are unhappy, and poorer. Welfare payments and food-stamp use are soaring. People have little confidence in government or business. They feel someone should be held accountable for the mess that has destroyed millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in housing wealth. And they are clearly weary of living through three years of recessionary conditions.
Yet despite being invited to a requiem for what used to be called the American way of life, people are stubbornly sticking to an optimistic outlook. And that includes seeking the kind of success that makes some people very wealthy. It's not wealth per se that Americans resent, but wealth that is unfairly earned. What is very different these days is that so many visible, wealthy figures seem to have prospered at the expense of other Americans.
In a survey earlier this month sponsored by Lincoln Financial, two-thirds of people polled felt in control and believed their lives were headed in the right direction. An even larger number—72 percent—felt optimistic about the future.
A quarterly Allstate-National Journal study found that 70 percent of Americans feel the country is moving in the wrong direction, but 60 percent feel that on a personal level, they are living the American dream.
In two Gallup polls released late last week, Americans firmly said it's time to move past the wealth debates and focus on more important issues. In one poll, 58 percent of Americans said they do not believe the country is divided into "haves" and "have nots," a percentage that is noticeably higher than in 2008 and consistent with readings in the late 1990s. Most people—again, the reading was 58 percent—think of themselves as "haves," and this figure did not change at all during and after the recession.
"Americans' views of their own position as 'haves' or 'have nots' have been remarkably stable, even as the nation's economic problems have intensified," Gallup said. "As populists and politicians have made inequality more of a political issue, moderates and independents in particular are turning away from the idea of a society divided in two. Thus, Americans as a whole are no more likely to see the country as divided into haves and have nots than at any time in the past two decades."
In the second poll, Gallup found that Americans are actually less concerned about fixing wealth inequality than they were in the late 1990s, and feel growing the economy is a much more important goal. Eighty-two percent of those polled felt that economic growth was either extremely or very important, compared to 46 percent who felt the same way about reducing the income and wealth gap. Priorities broke sharply along party lines, with reducing income and wealth inequality being extremely or very important among 72 percent of Democrats but only 21 percent of Republicans.
On the factual front of how much of our wealth is controlled by the rich, it has long been noted that this share rises and falls along with the stock market. And despite all the hoopla, there has not been a lot of fundamental change here. According to IRS tax-return data, the top 1 percent earned 23 percent of the nation's income in 2007 but only 17 percent in 2009, as average incomes of this group fell to $957,000 from $1.4 million. No one's going to cry for anyone still earning nearly $1 million, but this income share is not so different from longer-term trends.