A 58 percent majority of U.S. adults say that American society is not divided between “haves” and “have-nots,” while 41 percent say the country is divided that way.
The share who say America is not divided has remained about the same since 2011. In 2008, when the financial crisis was brewing, the percentage of people who said the country was not divided fell to 49 percent. In 1988, the margin was much wider, with 71 percent saying the country was not divided between haves and have-nots.
In the latest Gallup poll, a 57 percent majority of Democrats said the United States was divided into haves and have-nots; 57 percent of independents and 76 percent of Republicans said it was not. Seven in 10 African Americans said the country is divided economically, while about 6 in 10 whites and Hispanics alike say it is not. Those racial differences have persisted in the poll’s history.
Even if most Americans don’t feel their country has a basic economic divide, economic data show a wide and growing gap between the richest Americans and others. A December report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that wealth is concentrated among the richest Americans and that income growth has occurred much faster for households in the top 1 percent of the income spectrum than among low- and middle-income households.
Other recent polling shows that at least half of Americans see the wealth gap as a significant problem, even if they are skeptical of a basic divide.
- A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found a 54 percent majority of Americans who said the gap between the rich and the poor was “a very big problem” in the country while another 28 percent said it was “a moderately big problem.” Two years before that, Pew found similar shares saying the same. The most recent Pew poll found voters who supported Democrats for Congress were 55 percentage points more likely to say the gap was a very big problem than Republican supporters (77 percent vs. 22 percent).
- A September 2016 PRRI poll found that 52 percent of Americans said the growing gap between rich and poor was a “critical issue” to them, up from 43 percent earlier that year but largely similar to 48 percent in 2015.
One reason people may not perceive a basic class divide is that most Americans don’t feel they are economically disadvantaged. The Gallup poll released this week found a 56 percent majority of Americans called themselves “haves” when asked to pick between one of the two groups, while 36 percent said they were “have-nots.”
This self-identification is closely related to personal income, with over 8 in 10 adults with household incomes of $100,000 or more saying they are haves, and over 6 in 10 of those with incomes of $40,000 or less calling themselves have-nots. But perhaps most importantly, among people in the middle of the income range — between $40,000 and $99,000 — about twice as many describe themselves as haves than have-nots.
The public’s skepticism toward a basic economic divide in the country may pose a challenge for some Democrats who have contrasted struggles of ordinary Americans with those who are very wealthy. In her campaign announcement, Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that “millions and millions and millions of American families are also struggling to survive in the system that has been rigged. Rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has echoed a similar message of making the economy work for all Americans, rather than the top 1 percent.
Warren is expected to introduce a wealth tax on Americans with more than $50 million in assets, and Sanders has a plan to expand the federal estate tax on the wealthy, including a new higher rate on billionaires’ estates.
The economic divide angle does have clear appeal among Democrats they are courting ahead of next year’s primaries, and some of the specific policies they are proposing enjoy majority support with the broader electorate.
- A CNN poll from earlier this year found 54 percent of Americans in favor of a tax on those whose worth is $50 million or more, including 69 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents. A 56 percent majority of Republicans opposed such a plan. The same poll found 52 percent of Americans opposed to raising taxes on incomes of at least $10 million.
- A CBS News poll also from earlier this year found 54 percent who said “wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes than they do now,” including most Democrats (78 percent) and half of independents (50 percent). A 49 percent plurality of Republicans said the amount wealthy Americans pay in taxes “shouldn’t change.”
When it comes to public opinion, Democratic candidates are on stronger ground advocating policies specifically focused on taxing the wealthiest Americans, rather than arguing the society is afflicted by broader economic divisions.
The Gallup poll was conducted Feb. 12-28, 2019, among a random sample of 1,932 U.S. adults with an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.