The headline story: many more Americans now believe that strong conflict exists between the rich and the poor. The surprising backstory: our attitude has NOT changed about how the rich got to be that way.

This follows up on my last blog about the very recent report by the Pew Research Center titled “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor.” In just the last couple of years there has been a major spike in public perceptions that serious class conflict exists in our society. I would think that with a big shift like this, people’s attitudes about how the wealthy acquired their wealth would have changed, too. But it hasn’t.

So how would you answer this survey question?

“Which of these statements come closer to your own views—even if neither is exactly right: Most rich people today are wealthy mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education.  Or, most rich people today are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families.”

In the Pew survey, slightly more people—46%—said that a person’s wealth is the result of connections and birth, than those—43%—who said that it is a result of that person’s own efforts. Those percentages have virtually not shifted in the last three years. So if I’m reading this right, at the same time that many more Americans are feeling there’s more class conflict, no more of us are feeling that wealth is only for those born into it. In other words, just as many people continue to believe that wealth is attainable for those willing to work hard for it.

That belief may be a false hope for many since there is a lot of evidence that upward class mobility has taken a serious hit in America in the last decade or two. This may be reflected in the Pew report where it breaks down the differing responses among different categories of people:

  • Age:  More young people than older ones believe that wealth is a matter of birth and connections than personal effort. The percentage of people who believe that wealth is a result of personal effort went down with each younger age category—65+, 50-64, 35-49, and 18-34. It would be interesting to know if this greater doubt among younger people about not being able to gain wealth has persisted over time. Or are younger people just more keenly aware of –and in fact daily experiencing—serious challenges to their upward mobility.
  • Race:  Although Whites are split right down the middle—44% to 44%—on this question, a full 10% more Blacks—54%—believe that wealth is a matter of birth and connections. It’s hard not to see in this difference a greater lingering perception of discrimination among Blacks.
  • Politics:  My favorite breakdown is this one: Republicans and Democrats have the exact same percentages—32% and 58%—but on the opposite sides of the question! 32% of Republicans believe wealth is primarily a matter of birth and connections while 58% believe it’s a matter of hard work; 58% of Democrats believe it’s a matter of birth and connections and 32% believe it’s a matter of hard work. And independent voters? THEY are split down the middle. It all sounds like a fitting metaphor for our current political stalemate.

“How do we pick ourselves up when Wall St.’s stealing our bootstraps?”

“We are not leaving. Not while the richest 1% own 75% of the USA’s wealth. “

These were some of the hand-written signs at the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration in front of and around the New York Stock Exchange as it entered its second week of daily protests. The stated mission of “Occupy Wall Street,”according to its website, is

“to flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America.

“Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

On Saturday, September 24, about 80 people were arrested during the demonstration, mostly for blocking traffic and disorderly conduct, according to the police. The protestors vow to stay for months, camping on the streets and in the parks.

Does this demonstration signify a shift in the mood of the public? A few weeks ago, Great Britain was shocked by several nights of rioting and looking in London and several other cities. Is that going to happen here? During the current “Occupy Wall Street” events, or at some other venue in the future?

The U.S. has been going through a wrenching amount of pain from unemployment, reduced income, and home foreclosures, resulting in an overall massive downshift in expectations. Millions of families have lost large portions of their wealth, in residential real estate and retirement funds. This loss of wealth has been hugely disproportionately felt by Blacks and Hispanics, who in the last four years since the housing crash have lost jsut about all the wealth gains they had made in the previous quarter century.

The unemployment rate for 18-to-24 year olds in general, as of July 2011, was 18.1%, while for Hispanics it was 20.1%, and for Blacks 31.0%. From another, probably more revealing, perspective, “[t]his year, the share of young people [in this age group] who were employed in July was 48.8 percent, the lowest July rate on record for the series, which began in 1948,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From my perspective in the trenches helping clients every day, I’m not at all surprised that some people are feeling like it’s time to “man the barricades.” Seems to me that the youth in particular have been rather quiet, staying in school longer to avoid the job market and to try to position themselves better for it–all the while racking up anxiety-producing levels of student loans. They are living much longer than expected with their parents, probably by the millions. Their frustrations will only increase if the economy does not find room for them.

The signs point to more demonstrations ahead.

I had no idea that the recession had such a worse impact on minorities. The gap in median household wealth between whites and each of the two largest minority groups has not only gotten tremendously wide, in fact this gap almost doubled in only four years.

This is according to a report just released on July 26, 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.

During the twenty years up through 2004, the wealth of black and Hispanic households compared to the wealth of white households did not change much. But even then, before the recession, the wealth disparity between racial groups was already astounding huge. In 2004 the median white household’s assets were worth about seven times that of the median Hispanic household’s, and about eleven times that of the median black household’s assets.

But then only four years later, by late 2009, after the official end of the recession, these ratios had virtually doubled, with the white household’s assets being worth fifteen times more than the Hispanic household’s, and nineteen times more than the black household’s.


© 2011 Pew Research Center, All Rights Reserved

What is the cause of this massive increase in wealth disparity among these races in such a short time? Simple: depreciated residential housing values. Blacks, and even more so Hispanics, have their wealth disproportionately tied up in their housing.

From 2005 to 2009, the median level of home equity held by Hispanic homeowners declined by half—from $99,983 to $49,145…. A geographic analysis suggests the reason: A disproportionate share of Hispanics live in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were in the vanguard of the housing real estate market bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s but that have since been among the states experiencing the steepest declines in housing values.

White and black homeowners also saw the median value of their home equity decline during this period, but not by as much as Hispanics. Among white homeowners, the decline was from $115,364 in 2005 to $95,000 in 2009. Among black homeowners, it was from $76,910 in 2005 to $59,000 in 2009.

This Pew Research does not get into what this increased disparity among the races means for our society. I suspect it is part of the broader picture of the overall widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. Overall reduced upward mobility strikes at the heart of our national identity. Add to that this racial disparity, and the suddenness with which it has occurred, and we are looking at profound economic shifts with very serious consequences.

Excerpts and graph: © 2011 Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends Project
“Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics”