Americans admire the rich. They just don’t like them very much.
A Pew Research Center survey shows an overwhelming majority of people have high regard for those they consider wealthy, with almost half saying they’re smarter and harder workers. At the same time, a majority says the wealthy are greedy and pay too little in taxes. One-third say they’re dishonest.
More than six in 10 Americans say the Republican Party, which is holding its national convention this week, favors the wealthy, according to the poll released today.
The findings underscore the complicated feelings Americans have about wealth, as well as a troubling political issue for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has an estimated wealth of as much as $250 million. More than 70 percent of Americans say Romney’s policies would help the wealthy more than anyone else.
“There’s some good news in here” for Romney, Kim Parker, the study’s author and a senior researcher with the Washington-based Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project, said in a telephone interview. “Americans do admire wealthy people who worked hard. But a potential problem is that people said his policies would benefit wealthy people more than the middle-class or lower-income people.”
Republicans and Democrats have different views of the rich, said Jacob S. Hacker, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. “There’s a pretty stark partisan divide,” he said.
Americans say a $150,000 annual salary would be enough to make a four-person family rich, the poll found. People surveyed in the Northeast and suburban communities put the amount at $200,000, while those questioned in rural areas say a family making more than $125,000 could be considered wealthy. Nationwide, the median household income is $51,914.
Fifty-eight percent of people surveyed by Pew say the wealthy don’t pay enough taxes, including 52 percent of households that identify themselves as upper or upper-middle class. The poll of 2,508 adults, conducted July 16-26, has a 2.8 percent margin of error.
President Barack Obama favors increasing tax rates on households making more than $250,000 a year. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives opposes the boost. Republican leaders are threatening to block any deal that would increase taxes, as well as to delay across-the-board federal spending cuts and decrease the amount of time that laid-off workers could collect unemployment insurance.
Fifty-five percent of people polled by Pew say rich people are more likely to be greedy, including 65 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans. Thirty-four percent say wealthy people are less honest, with only 18 percent of Republicans and 8 percent of Democrats considering the rich to be more honest than other people.
Hacker, co-author of “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class,” said the 2012 presidential contest has the potential to be the most economically centered since the Great Depression.
“This election is much more focused on the gap between the rich and the rest than any I’ve been alive for,” he said. “We’ve got a perfect storm of factors leading to a discussion about the middle class and taxes, especially.”
Hard Work Admired
Even so, Pew said Americans generally admire wealthy people who made money through hard work. Ninety-two percent of people who described themselves as middle-class and 84 percent of lower-income people say they admire rich people, pollsters said.
Almost half of all Republicans say wealthy people are smarter than other Americans. Only 38 percent of Democrats say the rich are smarter than middle- or lower-income people. Half of survey respondents say there isn’t a relationship between income and intelligence.
Opinions also split along partisan lines when it comes to the amount of work required to make a lot of money. Fifty-five percent of Republican-leaning respondents say rich people worked harder than others, while 33 percent of Democrats agree.
Wealthy people say they’re much more satisfied with life than do lower- or middle-income households.
The survey reports that 62 percent of rich people say they’ve become more financially secure during the past decade. Only 44 percent of middle-class families and 29 percent of poor people agree.
More than 40 percent of higher-income people say they’re happy with their jobs and their lives, compared with about 30 percent of middle-income families and 20 percent of poor households. One-third of the wealthy say they never or seldom experience stress. Only 23 percent of middle-class people and 13 percent of poor families report a lack of stress.
“The rich just seem to be experiencing life in a different way from the middle class and lower-income people,” Parker says. “It’s striking, particularly in these times. They just seem immune from a lot of things.”