Poll: Most Americans believe income gap has grown

Findings released ahead of Obama’s SOTU address echo views he’s made in the past and is expected to repeat

A homeless woman tends to herself amid her belongings on a street in downtown Los Angeles, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2014.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A Pew Research poll released Thursday shows a majority of Americans believe the income gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown over the past decade, and favor a tax increase on the nation’s wealthy to expand aid to those most in need.

The poll was released just days ahead of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) Address on Tuesday. During the speech, he’s expected to outline a plan for tackling income inequality in the country during the last two years of his second term in office.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed in the Pew Research/USA Today poll believe the income gap has grown in the last 10 years, an opinion that, according to the poll, is shared across virtually all demographic groups and even across party lines — 68 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans agree.

Moreover, 60 percent of those surveyed believe the economic system in the U.S. is unfairly skewed in favor of the wealthy, and half believe people who are poor are in that situation because of circumstances beyond their control. Fifty-four percent support a tax on the wealthy to help aid the poorest Americans. 

The views echo those previously shared by President Obama, who in a Dec. 4 speech about the economy said that "increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” He used the word “inequality” 26 times in that speech.

Obama's focus on the income disparity among Americans has caused his opponents to accuse him of trying to stoke “class warfare.” The White House has toned down its rhetoric to try and dispel that notion ahead of the SOTU.

That opinion is also reflected in the poll. While the majority surveyed agree that income inequality is a significant problem, there are very different opinions on how to resolve the issue.

When asked what role the government should have in fixing the growing income gap, 90 percent of Democrats surveyed said the government should do “a lot” or “some” to help close it, while a significant number of Republicans surveyed – 48 percent – said the government should not “do much” or do “nothing at all."

On the issue of poverty reduction, there were more favorable opinions of government action across the partisan divide. Around 93 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents and 64 percent of Republicans want some action from the government to reduce poverty in America.

While Obama may have slightly softened his tone, the overall message that the nation must take action to reverse the trend of an ever-shrinking middle class and extreme wealth disparities among social classes hasn't changed. 

"We have to make sure that there are new ladders of opportunity into the middle class, and that those ladders – the rungs on those ladders are solid and accessible for more people," the president said in a speech last week, using a phrase he borrowed from his 2013 SOTU address.

One of those rungs, low-wage workers say, is the minimum wage.

In fact, 78 percent of those polled by Pew supported the idea of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The pay increase garnered near-unanimous support from Democrats and independents, but is split among Republicans.

The mixed results throughout the poll only point to the challenge Obama will face at the SOTU to deliver a speech that is heard across a fractured political spectrum.

If the President focuses too much on inequality, conservatives will accuse him of trying to divide the country into “haves” and “have nots,” but he must also present a clear plan to address the growing inequality and lack of upward mobility in the U.S.

"Anytime a Democrat mentions inequality, suddenly they're a raging populist," Jon Favreau, Obama's top speech writer until he left the White House a year ago, told The Associated Press. "What's he's talking about he's been talking about since 2004, 2005."

Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, told Fox News earlier this month that he thinks "the administration is playing with dynamite."

"The more this becomes a question of taking from those who have to those that don't have, the more they engage the American people in a very negative way for the administration," Rove said.

Favreau has a different opinion. 

"Any capitalist country has inequality and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing," he said. "What most concerned him (Obama) is mobility."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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