The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young Americans say billionaires do more harm than good, study shows

Roughly two-thirds of Americans now say being rich is more about having advantages in life than working hard

Income inequality and wealth accumulation have been big themes in the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (Charles Krupa/AP)

At a time of near-record wealth concentration, more than twice as many young Americans say the existence of billionaires is bad for society as those who say it is good.

According to the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of adults younger than 30 support the view that people whose personal fortunes exceed $1 billion “is a bad thing,” while 16 percent say billionaires are good for society.

It’s worth noting, however, that a plurality of young Americans — 45 percent — profess indifference either way.

These attitudes were likely sharpened by the Democratic presidential campaign, which at one point pitted a multibillionaire (Mike Bloomberg) against a socialist senator who says that billionaires shouldn’t exist (Bernie Sanders) for the right to challenge the billionaire in the White House come November.

“The recent reigning conventional wisdom over the last several decades of what I call the ‘Age of Capital’ is that [billionaires] are ‘up there’ because they are smarter than us,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” But the Pew data, he says, suggest that young Americans are concluding that billionaires have amassed their wealth “through their rigging of the tax code, through legal political bribery, through their tax avoidance in shelters like the Cayman Islands, and through lobbying for public policy that benefits them privately.”

The financial situation of young Americans also explains some of their suspicions toward the ultrawealthy. In 2016, the median household headed by a person younger than 35 had a net worth of about $11,000, which is lower, in real terms, than the net worth of a comparable younger generation in the 1980s. Those smaller nest eggs are due, in part, to things like massive student loan debt owed to the people and institutions at the opposite end of the financial spectrum.

“The billionaire class is ‘up there’ because they are standing on our backs pinning us down,” Giridharadas said.

Meanwhile, Americans 30 to 49 years old are slightly more likely to say billionaires are bad (24 percent) than good (20 percent). Among respondents 50 and older, just 15 percent say billionaires are a bad thing.

It might have been easy for baby boomers to see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” coming into adulthood as they did during an era of relatively high wages and cheap expenses. But millennials appear to be more cynical about wealth creation, graduating as they have with five-digit student loan debt into a labor force where bosses are often more concerned with shareholder profits than living wages.

The survey also shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans now say that rich people are rich because “they have had more advantages in life.” That’s up considerably since 2017 and 2018. Just 33 percent say personal wealth is attributable to working harder.

Again, it’s hard not to see the effects of the Democratic presidential race — with its emphasis on inequality and wealth accumulation — at work in these numbers. Even among Republicans, the share pointing to life advantages as a driver of wealth has increased by more than 10 points since 2018. Today, 45 percent of Republicans agree with that statement.

“Bernie Sanders taught a lot of people [about wealth inequality], including people who did not vote for him,” Giridharadas said.

Other public opinion data show high levels of support for redistributive policies and ideas, even among traditionally business-friendly Republican voters. Last year a New York Times survey found that 63 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of Republicans, favored a wealth tax on multimillionaires.

Sixty-one percent of Americans, including 41 percent of Republicans, say “there’s too much inequality in the country today.” Two-thirds of Americans say the federal government “should have a lot of responsibility” for reducing inequality. And about half of Republicans say large businesses and corporations bear a lot of responsibility for reducing income and wealth extremes.