Just one percent of Americans mention inequality when asked what is the most important problem facing the country. Why? Partly because the concentration of wealth is strikingly low by historical standards and the gap between rich and poor has not increased as much as many pundits believe. Another factor may be the relative affluence that the typical American enjoys today.
The nation is looking for the same thing it has for decades – not a leveling of income differences, but a fair chance for everyone to achieve the American Dream.
A prominent public opinion analyst has observed that voters’ economic concerns “have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping.” Those words were written by Samuel Lubell in 1952. Between that year and 1979, the income of the median family doubled, and while progress has slowed, it has still grown respectably since then.
Despite the sluggish recovery, a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found that three in four Americans who had reached midlife either said they were rich enough to lead the kind of life they wanted or believed they would be in the future. Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, using a national survey that tracks multiple generations, has shown that four in five Americans have exceeded the income their parents had at the same age.
The median American is richer than about 95 percent of people worldwide, a fact that may explain why the gap separating them from the richest Americans is so low on the list of most peoples’ concerns. Instead, Americans want to expand opportunities for upward mobility for the nation’s poorest.