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Record Inequality, COVID-19, and the Crisis of the Have-Nots

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Americans have historically struggled to see inequality as a major societal problem. Inequality in the U.S. was at record levels, even before the emergence of the Covid-19 public health and economic crisis. And Americans have long been tolerant of high inequality in their own country. Less than half historically have said inequality reduction should be a top policy priority of government. And the gap between rich and poor historically ranks as a low concern for most, compared to other economic concerns such as the deficit, the national debt, jobs and unemployment, and the state of the economy more generally. Furthermore, for decades, from the late-1980s through the late-2010s, a majority have refused to recognize that an economic divide exists in the U.S. between haves and have-nots, despite approximately half the country holding almost no financial assets or wealth.

But increasingly desperate economic times appear to be drawing added attention to the problem of inequality, amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Considering the dramatic negative effects it has had on the health and finances of millions of Americans, we are seeing significant public support for addressing the problem of inequality. With millions now filing for unemployment claims, and the number of uninsured sure grow dramatically as Americans are thrown out of their jobs in record numbers, a new poll that I coordinated with Harris Insights Polling finds that a majority of Americans agree the federal government should actively seek to reduce inequality, amidst the worsening economic crisis produced by Covid-19. The survey, of 2,018 Americans, conducted between April 7-9, 2020, finds that 78 percent of Americans agree that “considering the spread of coronavirus in the United States and its impact on the economy and the American people,” it is “somewhat” or “very important” that “the U.S. government commit to reducing economic inequality” over the next year, through “raising the minimum wage” and “taxing households making more than $250,000 a year to guarantee health care coverage to all Americans who lack access.” Only 21 percent feel reducing inequality through these actions is “not very important” or “not at all important.”

As the Harris poll shows, not all Americans feel equally strong about such actions. Public attitudes on inequality reduction vary by income, age, and between renters and homeowners. Support for inequality reduction is higher among younger Americans, age 18-34 (82%), individuals earning less than $50,000 a year (82%), renters (84%), and individuals with children (81%), compared to older Americans, 65 and older (67%), individuals earning more than $100,000 a year (73%), home owners (76%), and individuals without children (77%). These findings suggest that, while support as across the board for government initiatives to lower inequality is high, it is highest among demographic groups that are traditionally the most economically disadvantaged, and the most likely to be in financial need in a period marked by economic crisis.

Despite strong support for government action to reduce inequality, opinions remain divided on the severity of economic inequality within the U.S. Fifty-seven percent of Americans agree that “in a time of growing economic instability and rising unemployment claims, the U.S. is increasingly divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’” By comparison, 43 percent agree that “recent economic troubles are only temporary, and the economy will soon bounce back, so it makes little sense to speak of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’” Groups that are most likely to agree that the U.S. is divided include younger Americans, from 18-34 (64%), individuals earning less than $50,000 a year (61%), renters (61%), and women (60%), compared to older Americans age 65+ (51%), individuals earning more than $100,000 a year (53%), home owners (56%), and men (54%). Again, we see a significant divide among Americans on recognition of the inequality problem. More historically privileged groups are relatively less likely to recognize the U.S. divide between haves and have-nots, compared to disadvantaged groups.

Still, the findings from the Harris poll are significant because they suggest a mass awareness of the inequality problem, and a recognition that government action should be taken. As recently as April 2019, Gallup polling found that 58 percent of Americans disagreed that the U.S. was divided between haves and have-nots. This sentiment was reinforced by decades of surveys from Gallup showing that a majority of Americans have never recognized an economic divide in their country between haves and have-nots. But most Americans are no longer trying to deny that their nation is economically divided, at a time when we face the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Whether states and the federal government choose in the future to prioritize inequality reduction – via a mandated increase in the minimum wage, taxes on the wealthy to provide health insurance to millions who have lost employer-provided coverage, or through some other actions, is not yet known. But one point is abundantly clear based on recent polling: public pressure is rapidly building for government to take a more active role in reducing the misery and suffering of those who have been hardest hit by the Covid-19 economic crisis. And short of more effective efforts to reduce such misery, most Americans will likely continue to prioritize government action in a time of rising economic instability and need.

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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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