Is There Hope For The American Dream? What Americans Think About Income Inequality

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 1:51 pm

Income inequality in the U.S. is at an all-time high, according to the Census Bureau. But do Americans care?

A new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that less than half of Americans, regardless of income, view it as very serious problem.

They hold these views even though a majority (57%) believes very wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes than they do now. Nearly half (48%) of the top 1% believe very wealthy Americans should pay more.

The poll, which surveyed 1,885 adults, is unique in that it was designed to reach a sample of at least 250 people in the upper 1% of income — $500,000 or more of household income a year. That opens a window on the views and experiences of this exclusive group that polls have not been able to capture.

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A sizable minority of the wealthiest Americans (45%) say reducing income inequality should be a priority for political leaders, though support for this idea was significantly higher among the poorest Americans (67%).

Achieving the American Dream

There were a few surprises in the poll. While the vast majority of the top 1% say they've achieved the American Dream, similar majorities of low- and middle-income people believe the American Dream is still within reach.

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In addition, 70% to 80% of parents and grandparents across income groups believe their children or grandchildren will achieve the American Dream. (We did not provide a definition for American Dream in our questions – so the responses reflect whatever people think it is.)

What it takes to be successful

There was remarkable agreement among the income groups that hard work is seen as very important in being economically successful in America today. That's despite research showing that factors such as family income, neighborhood and race/ethnicity are closely tied to economic achievement.

The top 1% and middle- and lower-income adults did not see those factors as being very important to economic success.

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Even though there's a good deal of optimism about future generations' ability to achieve economic success, about half of adults across income groups say it is harder for the average person to earn a middle-class income today, compared with when they were children.

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Health and education

A majority across all income groups says it is an important priority for government to make sure everyone living in the U.S. has health insurance coverage.

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When it comes to the biggest health problems facing their local communities, the income groups diverged. The most cited health problems among the top 1% of income adults are obesity and drug addiction/abuse. For middle-income adults it's drug addiction/abuse and health care access. And among lower-income adults, the most-cited health problems are drug addiction/abuse, health care access, and cancer.

American health care is often touted as the best in the world, but our poll suggests that even when you can afford the best, quality is not guaranteed – 14% of the top 1% said they had had serious problems with health care quality. And 31% of the lowest income group said they had serious problems accessing health care when needed.

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As might be expected, few of the wealthiest Americans reported having problems paying for the basics in life, though a surprising 1 in 10 say they've had a serious problem paying for higher education.

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Life satisfaction

When it comes to life satisfaction, most of the top 1% highest income adults say they are very satisfied with their lives overall, their finances, their housing, their education, and their jobs. Comparatively, middle- and lower-income adults report greater dissatisfaction than the top 1% in all of these areas. Adults in the top 1% also report lower levels of anxiety about the future than middle- and lower-income adults.

The landline and cellphone poll was conducted in July and August of 2019, with a sample size of 1,885 adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Read the full results.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.