Americans More in Favor of Heavily Taxing Rich Now Than in 1939

by Frank Newport

Half of Americans favor heavy taxes on rich to redistribute wealth

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- About half of Americans advocate heavy taxation of the rich in order to redistribute wealth, a higher percentage than was the case in 1939. More generally, a large majority of Americans support the principle that wealth should be more evenly distributed in America, and an increasing number -- although still a minority -- say there are too many rich people in the country. Attitudes toward heavy taxes on the rich are strongly related to one's own income, and Democrats are much more likely to be in favor of income redistribution than are Republicans.

Basic Trends

A poll commissioned by Fortune Magazine in 1939 and conducted by famous pollster Elmo Roper included a question phrased as follows:

"People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?"

At that time, near the end of the Depression, only a minority of Americans, 35%, said the government should impose heavy taxes on the rich in order to redistribute wealth. A slight majority -- 54% -- said the government should not. (Eleven percent did not have an opinion.)

Gallup asked this question again in 1998 and found the percentage willing to say that the government should redistribute wealth had gone up by 10 points (while the "no opinion" responses had dropped to 4% and the negative stayed slightly above 50%).

Now, the attitudes have shifted slightly again, to the point where Americans' sentiment in response to this question is roughly split, with 49% saying the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich, and 47% disagreeing.

People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?

 

Yes, should

No, should not

No
opinion

%

%

%

2007 Apr 2-5

49

47

4

 

 

 

1998 Apr 23-May 31

45

51

4

1939 Mar ^

35

54

11

^ Roper for Fortune Magazine

One must be cautious in interpreting changes between the 1939 poll, which was conducted using different sampling and methods than is the case today, and the current poll. It does appear safe to say, however, that based on this one question, the American public has become at least somewhat more "redistributionist" over the almost seven decades since the end of the Depression.

The current results of this question are in line with a separate Gallup question that asks whether various groups in American society are paying their fair share of taxes, or too much or too little. Two-thirds of Americans say "upper-income people" are paying too little in taxes.

As I read off some different groups, please tell me if you think they are paying their FAIR share in federal taxes, paying too MUCH or paying too LITTLE?

Upper-income people

 

Fair share

Too much

Too little

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2007 Apr 2-5

21

9

66

4

2006 Apr 10-13

21

8

67

4

2005 Apr 4-7

22

7

68

3

2004 Apr 5-8

24

9

63

4

2003 Apr 7-9

24

10

63

3

1999 Apr 6-7

19

10

66

5

1996 Apr 9-10

19

9

68

4

1994 Apr 16-18

20

10

68

2

1993 Mar 29-31

16

5

77

2

1992 Mar 26-29

16

4

77

3

There is no trend on this question going back to the 1930s, but the supermajority agreement that upper-income people pay too little in taxes has been evident for the last 15 years.

More on Attitudes Toward Wealth and the Rich

The most recent Gallup Poll included two other questions measuring attitudes toward wealth and the rich.

Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country today is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people?

 

Distribution
is fair

Should be
more evenly
distributed

No
opinion

%

%

%

2007 Apr 2-5

29

66

5

 

 

 

2003 Jan 10-12

31

63

6

2000 Sep 11-13

38

56

6

1998 Apr 23-May 31

31

63

6

1996 Apr 25-28

33

62

5

1990 May 17-20

28

66

6

1984 Dec 7-10

31

60

9

The results of this question, asked seven times over the past 23 years, have consistently shown that Americans are strongly in favor of the principle that money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed. The current 66% who feel that way is tied for the highest reading on this measure across this time period in which the question has been asked.

A separate question asked:

As far as you are concerned, do we have too many rich people in this country, too few, or about the right amount?

 

Too many

Too few

Right
amount

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2007 Apr 2-5

37

17

40

6

 

 

 

 

1998 Apr 23-May 31

25

20

50

5

1990 May 17-20

21

15

55

9

Here we have evidence of a growing resentment toward the rich. The percentage of Americans who say there are too many rich people in the United States -- although still a minority -- is up significantly from the two times in the 1990s when this question was asked.

In summary, the data show that:

  • A significant majority of Americans feel that money and wealth should be distributed more equally across a larger percentage of the population.

  • A significant majority of Americans feel that the rich pay too little in taxes.

  • About half of Americans support the idea of "heavy" taxes on the rich to help redistribute wealth.

  • Almost 4 out of 10 Americans flat-out say there are "too many" rich people in the country

Implications

Most societies experience tensions revolving around inequalities of wealth among those societies' members. This seemingly inevitable fact of life has been at the core of revolutions throughout history. American society has been immune from massive revolts of those at the bottom end of the spectrum in part because the public perceives that the United States is an open society with upward social mobility. A recent Gallup Poll found a majority of Americans believing that people who make a lot of money deserve it, and that almost anyone can get rich if they put their mind to it. And a 2003 Gallup Poll found that about a third of Americans, including a significantly higher percentage of younger Americans, believed that they themselves would one day be rich.

The findings reviewed in this report most likely reflect at least in part the fact that it is easy to advocate greater taxation of the rich, since most Americans do not consider themselves rich.

In fact, a 2003 Gallup Poll found that the median annual income that Americans considered "rich" was $122,000. Since the average income in America is markedly below that, it follows that most Americans do not consider themselves rich. (Eighty percent of Americans put themselves in the middle class, working class, or lower class. Only 1% identify themselves as being in the upper class, while 19% are willing to say the upper middle class.)

The data show that as one gets closer to being what Americans consider rich, one is also less interested in the rich being taxed heavily. This relationship is fairly linear; the more money one makes in general, the more likely one is to say that the government should not be imposing heavy taxes on the rich.

People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?

Income

Yes, should

No, should not

%

%

$75,000+

35

62

$50,000 – <$75,000

46

51

$30,000 – <$50,000

58

41

$20,000 – <$30,000

55

42

<$20,000

64

26

There are also political differences in views on heavy taxes on the rich. Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to agree that the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.

People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?

Party

Yes, should

No, should not

%

%

Republican

30

68

Independent

51

43

Democrat

63

32

Bottom Line

Americans in general agree with the concept that money and wealth should be distributed more equally in society today, and that the upper-income class of Americans do not pay their fair share in taxes. About half of Americans are willing to go so far as advocate "heavy taxes" on the rich in order to redistribute wealth. These findings are despite the belief of many Americans that the rich deserve their money and the hopes Americans themselves harbor that they will be rich some day.

From a political viewpoint, these data suggest that a political platform focused on addressing the problems of the lower and middle classes contrasted with the rich, including heavier taxes on the upper class, could meet with significant approval, particularly among Democrats and those with lower incomes.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,008 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 2-5, 2007. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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