Poll shows most see deepening wealth gap

November 9, 2011

More than six in 10 Americans see a widening gap between the wealthy and the less well-off in this country, and about as many want the federal government to try to shrink the divide, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Democrats and independents largely support government policies to reduce the wealth gap, while most Republicans oppose such action. The issue cuts even more sharply along a new political fault line, with tea party supporters and those backing the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement on opposite sides of the question.

In official statistics, income disparities between the highest earners and other Americans have reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and in the new poll, 61 percent of all adults say the gap is larger than in the past, including 37 percent who say it is “much larger.” About as many, 60 percent, say federal policies should be aimed at lessening the disparities. Those who see a “much larger” wealth gap are particularly apt to say Washington should work to close it; 84 percent in this group say so.

Higher- and lower-income Americans tend to see eye to eye on the existence of the gap, but those from households with lower annual incomes are more supportive of government action. Support for government remediation policies peaks at 75 percent among those earning less than $20,000 a year.

There are even bigger divides between supporters of the Occupy and tea party movements.

Almost three-quarters of Occupy Wall Street supporters believe that the gap between wealthy and non-wealthy Americans is larger than it’s been historically, and almost eight in 10 in want the federal government to pursue policies to rectify the situation. A much smaller majority of tea party backers see a growing divide, and fewer than half say the government should pursue policies to make the gap smaller.

Support for Occupy Wall Street in this poll matches that of the tea party movement, with more than four in 10 adults backing each political movement. Only 15 percent support both, and while the two groups are demographically similar, they hold vastly different political allegiances. Almost seven in 10 Occupy Wall Street supporters identify or lean toward the Democratic Party, while more than six in 10 tea party backers are Republicans.

Political ideology also colors views of the wealth gap. More than seven in 10 liberals say the gap is larger than it has been historically, compared with fewer than half of conservatives. Fully 84 percent of liberals say the government should try to shrink the gap, while just 41 percent of conservatives say the same.

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to
this report.

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