Is America Divided Into "Haves" and "Have-Nots"?

by Jack Ludwig, Senior Staff Writer

In a recently completed social audit of race relations in the United States*, Gallup found that the proportion of Americans believing American society is divided into "haves" and "have-nots" has increased substantially since 1988, when the question was first asked. In 1988, only 26% saw the nation as divided into haves and have-nots. By 1998, at the height of one of the longest periods of peacetime economic prosperity in our nation's history, that percentage had grown to 39%. Today, although the economic backdrop has changed substantially and ratings of the economy are much less optimistic, a similar percentage, 41%, feels American society is divided in this way.

On this topic, opinions of blacks diverge widely from those of whites. The most recent poll, conducted between Dec. 9, 2002, and Feb. 11, 2003, reveals that the opinions of blacks and whites are almost the reverse of one other. Blacks are much more likely than whites to see American society as divided into these two groups (61% vs. 38%).

Perceptions of a division between "haves" and "have-nots" have grown more common among both black Americans and white Americans. The size of the perceptual gap between the races that exists today is similar to gaps recorded in earlier surveys.

When asked to choose which group they are in -- the haves or have-nots -- Americans are more likely to describe themselves as "haves" (61%) than as "have-nots" (27%). However, the percentage of Americans who see themselves as "have-nots" has grown significantly from the 17% recorded in 1988.

Black Americans and white Americans answer this self-descriptive question quite differently. Whites are more likely to characterize themselves as haves (63%) than have-nots (25%) while blacks' self-descriptions are much more evenly divided -- 42% haves and 46% have-nots. The percentage of blacks saying they are in the "have-not" group has grown substantially since 1988 -- from 24% to 46%.

U.S. Census data show that average incomes continue to be substantially higher among whites than blacks. One's income can affect opinions about a "have/have-not" divide, as well as perceptions of one's own status. But the gap between blacks' and whites' answers to these questions cannot be explained away simply as a result of such income differences. Among those with incomes of $45,000 or more, black respondents are twice as likely as whites to characterize themselves as "have-nots" (30% versus 15%), and to see America as divided into haves and have-nots (70% versus 36%).

Is the distribution of money and wealth fair in this country? Only about one-third of Americans (34%) feel it is, while 59% believe that it should be more evenly divided. But only a slight majority of whites (56%) say that money and wealth should be more evenly divided, while a much larger majority of blacks (80%) feel that way. Both the size of the gap between perceptions of whites and blacks and the overall distribution of opinions have been relatively consistent since Gallup began asking this question in 1984.

*Gallup conducted 1,044 telephone interviews from Dec. 9, 2002, through Feb. 11, 2003, with a randomly selected sample of adults in the continental United States. We interviewed roughly equal numbers of black and white respondents, permitting more reliable estimates of black opinion than would be possible in a standard national sample of a similar size. For our total sample of 1,044, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error for percentages is not greater than ±5%. The parallel margins of sampling error are ±6% for the sample of 505 white respondents, and ±6% for the sample of 501 black respondents.

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