Wall Street Journal
By: William A. Galston
April 15, 2014
What are we talking about when we talk about economic inequality? Some Americans focus on the breakaway gains at the very top, others on the plight of those stuck at the bottom, still others on stagnant mobility and declining household incomes in the middle. Because Americans have long been more willing than Europeans to tolerate large inequalities of income and wealth when they believe that the opportunity to advance is widely shared, the focus on unequal outcomes is more controversial in the U.S. So today's heightened discussion about inequality is significant.
In the first place, most Americans believe that inequality of income and wealth is a growing problem. According to the Pew Research Center, in a survey of 1,504 adults in mid-January, 68% of Democrats think that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased during the past decade. But so do 67% of Independents and--more surprisingly--61% of Republicans.
To be sure, the share of Democrats (90%) who think that government should do something to reduce the gap is twice that of Republicans (45%). Still, it is significant that nearly half of a party more hostile to the public sector than in previous generations believes that inequality calls for a response beyond family responsibility and private charity.
Many rank-and-file Republicans are willing to back that view with specific policies. In the Pew survey, 53% support increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, and 43% back extending long-term unemployment benefits for another year. They are even more willing--at least in principle--to support government action that reduces poverty: 27% say that government should do a lot, and another 37% that it should do something.
Nonetheless, the political parties remain divided on fundamentals. According to Pew, 75% of Democrats believe that this country's economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, while 53% of Republicans think that it is generally fair to most Americans. By contrast, 76% of Republicans, but only 49% of Democrats, believe that most people who want to get ahead can do so if they are willing to work hard.
Moreover, 75% of Democrats think that raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to expand antipoverty programs is the best way of reducing poverty; 59% of Republicans think it would be better to lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth.
These findings could easily lead to despair: Even when the issue is the well-being of the least advantaged, and even more when the issue is the advantages of the best off, it appears that entrenched polarization will thwart action.
Yet there are signs that some convergence is developing.
During a recent conference on economic inequality at Kenyon College, Harvard's Robert Putnam spoke movingly about the differences between growing up in securely middle-class families and in families living on the edge of poverty. Middle-class children are far more likely to grow up in two-parent families, to be talked to and read to by their parents, and to benefit from family investments in enriching activities.
Many more poor and working-class children grow up with one parent who often engages in alcohol or drug abuse. As they move into middle school and high school, the children of the middle class are more likely to engage in extracurricular activities--including sports--that enable them to develop the soft skills of cooperation and teamwork that matter so much in today's economy. And middle-class families are more likely to affiliate with religious institutions that can provide a sense of community too often lacking in the wider society.
It was impossible to come away from Mr. Putnam's talk believing that America's children enjoy anything like equal opportunity to succeed. But one could have reached a similar conclusion--and many did--from Charles Murray's 2012 book "Coming Apart," which chronicled the decline of the white working class. Messrs. Murray and Putnam disagree on both diagnosis and prescription: Mr. Murray emphasizes cultural change as a reason for the decline, Mr. Putnam the collapse of the industrial economy. But on the level of describing the gap between top and bottom--qualitative and quantitative--they largely agree. In a country that cares about opportunity, that agreement matters.
For their part, many Republican elected officials took note of the negative public reaction to Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark during the 2012 campaign about people who pay no federal income tax. The elected officials also noted the public's perception that Mr. Obama understood their needs to a far greater extent than did his opponent. More frequently than in recent years, one hears Republicans repeating Jack Kemp's famous motto: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Now GOP leaders and presidential aspirants are delivering speeches about poverty and opportunity.
None of this guarantees that we will have the kind of discussion across party lines that we need--or that the parties will agree on what to do. But it's a start.