Three years ago, if you were to ask Americans what the strongest social conflicts were in this country, the divide between immigrants and native born Americans would have ranked at the top. But today, hostilities between the rich and the poor has taken that spot, beating out both racial and immigration-related conflicts, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 2,048 adults.
Occupy Wall Street may have lost some of its steam, but the movement truly did shift the conversation in America. In the survey, two thirds of respondents said class conflicts were at least "strong," and 30 percent of respondents considered them "very strong," double the number in 2009, and a record since Pew starting asking these questions a quarter century ago.
This may explain why 60 percent of Americans supported raising taxes on millionaires in a December CBS News poll. But the Pew results don't necessarily imply that Americans are vilifying the rich. Forty-three percent of respondents said the wealthy were wealthy because of hard work, ambition or education. But even more said that the wealthy had achieved their ample bank accounts because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families."
This survey comes after new census data that exposed a widening rich/poor gap. Almost half of Americans now qualify as poor or low-income, and the top 10 percent of the population held 56 percent of the nation's wealth in 2009, up from 49 percent in 2005. Another recent Pew survey found that a third of Americans, born and raised middle class, had actually experienced downward mobility in adulthood -- a harrowing reality check for a nation that cherishes the idea that one can climb up the ladder with a little determination, pluck and elbow grease.
While every demographic group perceives rich/poor tensions in greater numbers, the change is greatest for whites, independents and middle-income Americans -- a few of the most desirable blocs for political campaigners. Sixty-five percent of whites consider the conflict serious, which is below the average, but 22 percent higher than the number for that group three years ago.
The survey found that more than half of every racial and political category acknowledges a real conflict between the rich and the poor. But blacks, Democrats and independents do so in higher numbers (74 percent, 73 percent and 68 percent, respectively). Republicans (55 percent) and Hispanics (61 percent) are the least likely to consider the conflict strong.
Interestingly, those earning less than $20,000 a year actually perceived these tensions less than those in any other income bracket. Middle class America is truly the group driving this tidal change.
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