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.

Many more Americans now believe that strong conflicts exist between the rich and the poor. After years of very high unemployment, millions of home foreclosures, and months of the Occupy Movement dominating the news, maybe this is not so surprising. But there ARE some unexpected aspects of this change in attitude.

In mid-January, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor.”

You’ve likely heard about the Pew Research Center, but you may not know that it is a highly respected public policy research organization that is not only nonpartisan, it does not even take positions on issues. Instead it sees its role as “provid[ing] information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping American and the world.” This report is an example of data it puts out for others to debate about their policy implications.

The survey analyzed in this report was conducted in mid-December, and compared the results to those of the same survey in 2009. The main conclusion is that the percentage of people who believe that there are either “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor has increased in just two years from less than half—47%– to about two-thirds—66%–of us. Even more dramatic, the percentage stating the conflict is “very strong” doubled in these two years, from 15% to 30%.

If these attitudes are not just temporary, and especially if this trend continues, the social and political consequences for our nation would be huge.

But beyond this headline-grabbing main finding, the report also contained the following surprises:

  • This perception of conflict is perceived to be greater among rich and poor than within other longstanding social conflicts in society—more than between immigrants and native born, between blacks and whites, and between young and old.
  • This perception is NOT one held only by those with lower income.  To the contrary people of all incomes share a similar increase in perception of conflict.
  • Younger people perceive more class conflict than do older people, women more than men, Democrats more than Republicans, and African Americans more than whites and Hispanics.
  • In spite of increases in perceptions of class conflict among virtually all groups, the report does “not necessarily signal an increase in grievances toward the wealthy” nor “growing support for governmental measures to reduce income inequality.” Specifically, “there has been no change in views about whether the rich became wealthy through personal effort or because they were fortunate enough to be from wealthy families or have the right connections.”