About six in 10 Americans believe that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people in the US, while one-third think the current distribution is fair, according to a new Gallup poll. Although Americans’ attitudes on this topic have fluctuated somewhat over time, the current sentiment is virtually the same as when Gallup first asked this question in 1984. Slightly fewer have favored a more even distribution since October 2008.
The range in the percentage saying wealth should be “more evenly distributed” has been relatively narrow over time, from a low of 56% in 2000 to a high of 68% in April 2008.
Gallup has asked the question at least once during the administration of three Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — and two Democrats, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But there is no generally consistent pattern across these administrations. For example, the slightly lower percentage favoring a more even distribution during the Obama administration started in the final year of George W. Bush’s administration — after the onset of the financial crisis.
Wealth distribution is a key polarizing issue in contemporary U.S. politics. Partisan reactions to this question reflect that polarization, with more than eight in 10 Democrats saying money and wealth need to be more evenly distributed, compared with 28% of Republicans. There is a similar, although less extreme, divide between the views of liberals — 79% of whom say money and wealth should be more evenly distributed — and those of conservatives (41%).
The question does not address the issue of who or what is responsible for this distribution of money and wealth in American society, or who should be responsible for changing it. A separate question focuses more directly on these issues, finding that 52% of Americans think the government should redistribute wealth “by heavy taxes on the rich,” while 45% say it should not. Thus, slightly fewer Americans favor active government intervention to redistribute wealth than believe the current system is unfair.
Responses to this question have varied within a fairly small range since Gallup began to ask it in 1998, from a low of 45% favoring tax-based redistribution that year to today’s 52%, which by one percentage point is the highest measured. Although the plurality response has shifted modestly between the “favor” and “oppose” positions, Americans have been generally divided on the issue.
The Roper organization originally asked this question in a survey conducted for Fortune Magazine near the end of the Depression in 1939. Current support for active redistributionist efforts on the part of the government is higher than it was in the 1939 Fortune poll, which found 35% favoring it and 54% opposed. Survey methods were different in that era, so those results may not be directly comparable to today’s. The broad trend over time does suggest, however, that Americans have become more rather than less in favor of active government involvement in redistributing wealth.
There are large partisan differences on this question as well, with a swing from 72% of Republicans who oppose heavy taxes on the rich as a method of wealth redistribution to 75% of Democrats who favor this type of action.
The majority of Americans believe that money and wealth in the U.S. should be more evenly distributed, and a slight majority support the idea of the government helping to achieve that goal by “heavy” taxes on the rich. The idea that the distribution of money and wealth is unfair has been evident in survey responses since 1984, with only minor fluctuations from measure to measure. But, Americans have over the past 15 years typically been more evenly divided on the idea that the government should intervene with heavy taxes — although they now appear to lean more in the redistributionist direction than they did back in 1939.
Inequality is and will continue to be one of the most important domestic political issues. President Barack Obama has consistently pushed for measures that he believes would provide those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum a fairer chance to succeed, and has coupled that with consistent arguments for higher taxes on those with high incomes and wealth. At this point, the American public would generally agree with Obama that wealth should ideally be more evenly distributed — and a modest majority, consisting mainly of Democrats and independents, appears to support the idea of bringing about that redistribution through heavier taxes on the rich.