American anxiety about inequality reinforces recent political rhetoric

BY Simone Pathe  January 21, 2014 at 2:23 PM EST
Photo courtesy of the LBJ Presidential Library

President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty 50 years ago this month. Today, Democrats and Republicans still argue over ways to eliminate poverty and spur job growth. Photo courtesy of the LBJ Presidential Library

Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in this country, according to a new Gallup poll.

That’s a message America’s politicians already seemed to have grasped this year. Earlier this month, on the day after the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, President Barack Obama spoke about efforts to close the income gap, and he’s expected to address economic inequality in his upcoming State of the Union address, channeling the populist message Democrats hope to carry through the midterms.

Indeed, Monday’s Gallup poll reveals that attitudes about wealth distribution are heavily colored by partisan affiliation. Three-fourths of Democrats and just over half of Republicans are dissatisfied with today’s income landscape. Seventy percent of independents report dissatisfaction, aligning them closer to Democrats.

Republicans have been speaking publicly about inequality too. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., presented his own anti-poverty agenda in Washington several weeks ago, and he’s been out in force portraying himself as a working class kid who achieved the American dream.

The GOP downplays the government anti-poverty programs that Democrats have championed on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and instead, emphasizes the success stories of leaders like Rubio and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who talk about rising to success through hard work.

Trying to recapture his own GOP presidential ambitions, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke in his inaugural address Tuesday about not tolerating a government that “penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity.” What citizens want, he said, is a chance, not a “government-guaranteed result.”

So while partisan rhetoric about how to fix the unequal economy differs, Democrats and Republicans in the Gallup poll see mostly eye-to-eye on the chance to get ahead in this country. Sixty percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans are satisfied with opportunities to get ahead by working hard.

Overall American satisfaction — 54 percent — with these opportunities for mobility through hard work has declined since the financial crisis of 2008. In 2002, 77 percent were optimistic about economic mobility.

Making Sense has explored Americans’ attitudes about economic inequality over the years, a sampling of which you can watch below:

The Gallup poll comes on the heels of the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde warning about the economic threat of inequality, which is expected to be a central theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos later this week.