WASHINGTON -- Americans overwhelmingly agree that the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown in recent years, but they are divided sharply by party when asked what, if anything, the government should do about it.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans, regardless of party, agree that the income gap has increased in the last 10 years, compared with about 1 in 4 who believe the gap has stayed the same, according to a new Pew Research Center survey done with USA Today.
In this case, public opinion accurately reflects reality: Almost one-quarter of the nation's income in 2012 went to the richest 1% of families, those with incomes of about $400,000 a year or more – the largest share since the 1920s, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.
On a related question, 60% of those surveyed said the "economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy" while 36% said the system is "generally fair to most Americans."
An overwhelming majority of Democrats and a large majority of independents said government should do something about inequality. Two-thirds of Democrats said the government should do "a lot" to reduce the income gap. By contrast, among Republicans, 48% say government should do "nothing" (33%) or "not much" (15%) about the issue, while 45% said the government should act at least somewhat.
That partisan gap appears to reflect differing beliefs about what government is capable of and what causes some people to remain poor while others prosper, the survey indicated.
Large majorities of Democrats and independents see the country's economic system as being fundamentally tilted toward the wealthy. They believe that circumstances, not who works hard, determine who becomes rich, and they support government action against both inequality and poverty.
Republicans are more likely to see the economic system as generally fair – although they are divided on that question – and only 45% support any government action to reduce the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population. Though skeptical about government action that appears aimed at the rich, Republicans are more likely to support government action against poverty, although many of them doubt it does much good.
Almost half of Republicans (49%) said the government can do little or nothing about the divide between the rich and everyone else. Democrats and independents are considerably less likely to hold that view.
Asked whether government help to the poor does more good or harm, about half of those surveyed (49%) said the aid does good "because people can't get out of poverty until basic needs are met." Roughly two-thirds of Democrats took that view.
A slightly smaller share of the public, 44%, said that aid to the poor "does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government." Roughly two-thirds of Republicans took that view.
Perhaps not surprisingly, those with low incomes took a positive view of government aid to the poor. People with incomes of less than $30,000 a year said by 2 to 1 that government aid programs do more good than harm.
Americans split along similar partisan lines when pollsters asked them to choose between raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to provide more aid to the poor and lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth
Democrats by more than 4 to 1 favored higher taxes; Republicans by 2 to 1 favored cutting them.
Self-described independents favored higher taxes, 51% to 36%, but divided almost evenly on whether aid to the poor does more harm than good.
The split is somewhat more one-sided on the question of what causes poverty.
About half of Americans say that poverty has mostly to do with "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." A similar percentage said that those who are rich became wealthy mostly because they "had more advantages than others." That view is shared by a majority of Democrats, independents and people with incomes below $75,000 a year.
A little more than one-third of those surveyed took the opposing views – that poverty mostly results from "lack of effort" and that wealth comes to those who "worked harder than others." Republicans took that side of the debate by large majorities. A majority of those earning $75,000 a year or more said they credited the rich with working harder. That income group split evenly on the question of whether lack of hard work was the main explanation for poverty.
The public's views on that have shifted toward the Democrats' position over the years. During the 1960s, far fewer people were willing to blame poverty primarily on a person's circumstances.
Regardless of their overall views on poverty and income inequality, Americans by large majorities favor two policies that the Obama administration has promoted as part of a push to deal with the issues – increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits for those who have been out of a job for a long time.
Republican leaders have opposed both proposals, but party strategists have conceded that the GOP could pay a political price for that stance. The poll underscores that caution: By 73% to 25%, those surveyed supported increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25. Republicans supported the idea, 53% to 43%.
By 63% to 34%, the public approved of a one-year extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed. Democrats and independents supported the plan by large margins. Republicans were split, with 43% in favor and 54% opposed.
But Republicans who said they identify with the tea party movement overwhelmingly opposed both a minimum wage hike and an extension of unemployment benefits. Their opposition underscores a problem faced by Republican lawmakers, particularly in the Senate. Many of them have tried to appeal to tea party backers whose votes they might need in a contested primary while not alienating more moderate voters whose support they might want in a general election. On this, as on other issues, the wide divide between tea party backers and the rest of the country can make for a difficult straddle.