In accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney represented more than the GOP’s best hope for recapturing the White House.
In many ways, he also embodied the country’s tangled opinions about wealth and the wealthy.
Amid a hapless economy and bulging income gap between the upper class and everyone else, the combative presidential race has focused attention on an underlying debate about wealth.
Romney and President Obama have clashed sharply over wealth-related issues. The president has sought to raise taxes for families whose adjusted gross incomes exceed $250,000. Romney counters that any tax increase would stymie growth.
But surveys show the American public has far more nuanced views about the wealthy.
A poll released this week found that Americans view the well-off as greedier and less honest than the rest of the country — but also as more intelligent and industrious. And Americans don’t resent the rich, even those who have simply inherited gobs of money.
“On one hand, many Americans want to be wealthy and think they may have a shot at getting there,” said Lane Kenworthy, a University of Arizona sociology professor who studies the issue.
“But at the same time — and it’s especially true when the economy gets bad, as it has been the last few years — they also get worried about fairness and worry that the rich may not be pitching in their fair share.”
Romney’s campaign downplayed his personal net worth, estimated at $250 million, at this week’s convention in Tampa, Fla.
His wife, Ann, in her speech Tuesday night, said the couple led a frugal life early in their marriage, subsisting on “a lot of pasta and tuna fish.”
“Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses,” she said. “Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen.”
Many voters don’t hold Romney’s wealth against him, said Kim Parker, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, which polled Americans on their views about the rich.
“People really admire people like Mitt Romney,” Parker said. “He obviously worked hard and built up a fortune.”
However, people are concerned about rising income inequality, surveys indicate.
Average inflation-adjusted, after-tax incomes of the richest 1% of U.S. households ballooned 275% from 1979 to 2007, according to an October report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That was more than four times the 65% growth for the rest of the top 20%.
The middle-income tier, the next 60% of wage earners, had a far more modest 40% rise in household income, while the poorest one-fifth of the population averaged an 18% gain.
Those numbers have the public’s attention.
Almost two-thirds of Americans believe the income gap is widening, and 57% said that’s negative for society, according to the Pew Research Center poll. Nearly the same percentage, 58%, said the wealthy pay too little in taxes.
Opinion among experts was split about the causes of the income gap.
Some said corporate and political policies have fostered runaway executive pay and a tax code with low capital-gains rates that favor the wealthy. Others said the inescapable forces of globalization and the high-tech economy have permanently erased lower-skill jobs.
The focus on the income gap has shined a light on a related issue: the ability of people in the lower and middle classes to climb the economic ladder.
Economic mobility — the ability to improve one’s lot in life, say, from lower income to middle income, through talent and hard work — is central to the American Dream.
Yet some studies have painted disturbing pictures of economic mobility, particularly the difficulty of advancement for lower-income people.
Almost all Americans are better off than their parents in inflation-adjusted dollar terms — with higher take-home pay and ubiquitous amenities, such as pay television that would have been unrecognizable to earlier generations inured to constant fidgeting with rabbit ears.
Compared to society as a whole, however, children of lower-income parents typically grow up to be low-income themselves, according to a study by a related Pew entity, the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The study found that 43% of people who were born into the bottom one-fifth of society remain there as adults. Just 4% reach the top rung.
The upshot: Though their overall income is higher than that of their parents, they haven’t improved their relative position in society because the financial standing of the people above them has improved at far greater rates.
“When we look at relative mobility, it gives us pause,” said Erin Currier, a Pew researcher. “It challenges our notions of equality of opportunity.”