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Polling Matters
Inequality as a Voter Concern in 2020
Polling Matters

Inequality as a Voter Concern in 2020

Economic inequality has been a front-and-center emphasis for the Democratic presidential candidates this year, but there is little evidence that it has become an increasingly important priority for the average American.

One way to measure priorities is Gallup's classic "most important problem" question, asked periodically for 80 years and monthly since March 2001. The average number of mentions our coders put into the "gap between rich and poor" category since 2001 has been only 1.5%. Between 0% and 2% of Americans have mentioned inequality as the nation's top problem across the seven months of 2019 so far. Certainly this is not a significant top-of-mind concern for Americans and no more of a concern now than it has been in the past.

Even among Democrats in our latest July "most important problem" update, inequality is tied for ninth place, with 3% top-of-mind first mentions -- behind the government, immigration, race relations, healthcare, the environment, poverty, education and the economy.

I have also been struck by findings from other recently reported Gallup trends, all relating in one way or another to economic inequality, and none showing any type of increased concern.

One of these questions is phrased as follows: "Which is closer to your view: If you work hard and play by the rules, you will be able to achieve the American dream in your lifetime -- or, even by working hard and playing by the rules, the American dream is unattainable for you?" One might hypothesize that with the increasing focus on inequality in political discourse, the percentage of Americans saying they can achieve the American dream would have nosedived. That is not the case. Seventy percent of Americans say they can achieve the American dream by working hard and playing by the rules, and this is about the same as 10 years ago when Gallup last updated this question.

The inclusion of the "play by the rules" phrase in the question wording brings to mind former President Barack Obama's use of those words in his discussion of inequality. Obama frequently said that what the country needs is a system in which "hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules." Apparently, the majority of Americans today are satisfied with the rules they have to play by.

Another Gallup trend question asks, "In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education and so on. How likely do you think it is that today's youth will have a better life than their parents -- very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely or very unlikely?"

The latest results? Sixty percent of Americans say it is likely that today's youth will have a better life than their parents, while 39% say it is unlikely. This is on the high end of Gallup's trend dating back to 2008.

There is little evidence from these data that Americans are increasingly alarmed that the system is more rigid and less open to economic mobility than has been the case in the past.

We also updated another trend question related to inequality: "Some people think of American society as divided into two groups -- the 'haves' and 'have-nots,' while others think it's incorrect to think of America that way. Do you, yourself, think of America as divided into haves and have-nots, or don't you think of America that way?"

The most recent update shows that 58% of Americans say the country is not divided into these two groups. As my colleague Jeff Jones pointed out in his summary of the data, this is about the same or better than what has been measured since 1998, and significantly below only the reading in 1988 when we first asked the question.

In a follow-up question, 56% of Americans say they consider themselves to be in the "haves" group. This generally represents what we have found in the past -- except for 1998, during the dot-com boom, when more Americans thought of themselves as "haves."

Earlier this year, we asked Americans how worried they were about a list of 15 problems facing the country. The item related to inequality ("the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.") was roughly in the middle of the list, with 44% of Americans saying they personally worry "a great deal" about it. This is little changed from four years ago, when the inequality item was first included in the list. By comparison, 55% of Americans say they worry a great deal about the availability and affordability of healthcare, at the top of the list.

Another measure from earlier this year asked Americans about their satisfaction with aspects of American life. Almost two-thirds are satisfied with "the opportunity for a person to get ahead by working hard." This is about on par with what we have found on a yearly basis going back to 2003, and actually a bit higher than in the years 2011-2014. Satisfaction with the ability to get ahead was somewhat higher the first two years the question was asked -- in January 2001, at the tail end of the dot-com boom, and in January 2002, after 9/11.

We also began including "the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S." on the list in 2014. Although satisfaction with this aspect of American life is relatively low, at 36% this year, that figure is -- by one percentage point -- the highest we have measured in the past six years.

None of these measures suggest a burgeoning concern about economic inequality, either as a national problem or one affecting Americans personally.

In Theory, Inequality Could Be Separate From the Economy in General

Worry about economic inequality is not the same as worry about the economy in general, I should note. As has been well documented by Gallup and other surveys, Americans' views of the national economy are generally the most positive they've been since the dot-com boom. Only 23% of Americans say they worry a great deal about unemployment, which is dead last on the list of potential worries I discussed above. Plus, we have a nearly record-high number of Americans saying it is a good time to find a quality job, and a nearly record-low number naming unemployment or jobs -- or the economy in general -- as the top problem facing the nation.

A strong economy could in theory exacerbate perceptions of inequality as a problem, highlighting for those left behind how they are missing out on the boom others are enjoying -- even if they have a job. But we just don't see the increase in concern about inequality that we might expect if this were the case.

Proposed Programs Related to Inequality Could Still Find a Receptive Audience

The evidence shows that Americans generally welcome efforts to increase average workers' pay and benefits, as well as efforts to increase the number of high-paying jobs, to raise the minimum wage, to increase family and medical leave, and to improve job training and education for workers and other programs of this ilk. And Americans have always, the data show, supported the general idea of higher taxes on the rich. So many of the programs put forth by presidential candidates relating to inequality could find a receptive audience even without evidence of increased concern about the problem.

One last point. I've been talking primarily about socioeconomic inequality. But inequality as a concept is extremely broad. We have a set of new considerations when the focus on inequality is tethered to demographic groups -- that is, when it is clear that socioeconomic differences are correlated with demographic characteristics, particularly race and gender. This is, for example, where providing reparations for slavery comes in, as well as women's push for pay equity, affirmative action programs, considerations of proportional representation of demographic groups across employment categories, and so forth. These types of inequalities and the public's reaction to them deserve a separate discussion.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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