It seems most Americans do not agree with Thomas Piketty’s assessment of what’s driving inequality. He names greater returns to capital relative to overall economic growth (in shorthand, “r>g”). Americans gave a whole host of other theories in a recent Pew survey (which, to be fair, was conducted before the English-language release of Picketty’s blockbuster book):
These were responses to an open-ended question about the causes of the growing divide between the rich and everyone else.
The most commonly cited culprit among respondents overall is “tax system/loopholes” (about 20 percent of all respondents, with Democrats more likely to give this reason than Republicans were). There are some other interesting divisions by party affiliation too; about 1 in 10 Republicans blamed the work ethic of the poor or reliance on government assistance programs for growing inequality. I’m not sure I quite understand the mechanism here, particularly since the social safety net has gotten less generous to the very poor over time, and has been more closely tied to work-related incentives. Generally speaking, Democrats are very unlikely to blame the poor for growing inequality.