New Study Finds the Wealthy Are Different

On average, high earners have a very different idea of what makes a just society.

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March 11, 2013  |  

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“The very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “are different from you and me.”

It turns out he was right. According to a new study by the think-tank Demos ( PDF), the affluent tend to hold a different vision of a just society than the public at large, and it is that vision which tops the political agenda in Washington and in state houses across the country.

The report, authored by David Callahan and J. Mijin Cha, found that “wealthy interests are keenly focused on concerns not shared by the rest of the American public, like keeping taxes low on capital gains, and often oppose policies that would foster upward mobility among low-income citizens, such as raising the minimum wage.”

The policy preferences of the wealthy (average income over $1 million annually) vary widely from those of the general public… [A recent] survey found that the general public is more open than the wealthy to a variety of policies designed to reduce inequality and strengthen economic opportunity, including: raising the minimum wage, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing generous unemployment benefits, and directly creating jobs. For example, only 40 percent of the wealthy think the minimum wage should be high enough to prevent full-time workers from being in poverty while 78 percent of the general public holds this view. Affluent voters are also less supportive of labor unions and less likely to support laws that make it easier for workers to join unions–even as research shows that unions are crucial to enabling people to work their way into the middle class. 

One especially significant difference between the opinions of the wealthy and the population as a whole centers on deficit reduction. According to a study cited by Demos, “87 percent of affluent households believed budget deficits were a ‘very important’ problem, the highest percentage of all listed perceived problems.” Jobs and education, which rank at or near the top of most Americans’ list of priorities, were “a distant second to budget deficits among the concerns of wealthy Americans.”

According to an exit poll conducted after the 2012 election, 59 percent of the public rated the economy as the country’s number one problem, while only 15 percent cited the federal budget deficit. But as the Demos report notes, “the affluent [not only] participate more in civic life; they also have greater influence over public policy.”

Peter G. Peterson epitomizes that finding. The Wall Street mogul and Nixon administration cabinet member has reportedly dedicated a billion dollars of his fortune to promoting the idea that “entitlements” are going to impoverish our grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Callahan and Cha note that the affluent, “are significantly less inclined than other groups of Americans to support an active role for government in addressing mass unemployment.”

These are good examples of what the authors describe as “ the interplay between declining upward mobility and growing political inequality.” Perhaps the most troubling finding in the Demos report is that the wealthy are, on average, less likely to support policies that allow people to pull themselves up the economic ladder. “Even when the affluent do support policies for upward mobility,” write Callahan and Cha, “they often do not prioritize these policies over other goals, such as lower taxes.”

A case in point is higher education. While affluent Americans and business leaders broadly support access to higher education, along with the general public, spending in this area has been cut in some states where governors have prioritized cutting taxes–with strong support from wealthy voters and corporate interests.

While most Americans believe that they live in a highly meritocratic society where one’s fortunes are limited only by one’s innate talents and work ethic, several studies released in recent years suggest that Americans enjoy significantly less upward mobility than do the citizens of a number of other industrialized nations. German workers have 1.5 times the upward movement of Americans, Canada’s economy is nearly 2.5 times as mobile, and Denmark is three times as mobile. Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France are all more upwardly mobile societies than the United States. Of the countries included in the studies, the United States ranked near the bottom; only in the United Kingdom was it tougher to shake off a low social status one had been born with.