The Hill Poll: Fears about inequality in income grow

Two-thirds of likely voters say the American middle class is shrinking, and 55 percent believe income inequality has become a big problem for the country, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.

Only 14 percent of respondents said the middle class is growing and another 14 percent said it is staying the same, while an additional 19 percent said income inequality is somewhat of a problem for the United States. Only 21 percent said inequality was either not much of a problem or no problem at all.

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Majorities across practically all income levels, and all political, philosophical and racial lines agreed that the middle class is being reduced, while the bulk of respondents in each category thought income inequality was at least a moderate concern.

Those findings follow a Congressional Budget Office report asserting that highest earners have seen their income rise much more quickly than middle- and lower-class taxpayers over the last 30 years, and come as the recent nationwide Occupy protests have highlighted the issues of income distribution and corporate wealth.

According to The Hill Poll, voters were also not fans of America’s tax code, which CBO said was one of the reasons for the recent increase in income disparity.

Close to 7 in 10 said the income tax system is either somewhat or very unfair — a finding that was supported among most ideological groups and income levels.

But voters are also far from convinced that a flat tax — like the one Texas Gov. RickPerry (R) proposed last week — was the solution to that problem.

A clear majority — 58 percent — said they favored a graduated income tax system, with only 35 percent backing the sort of flat tax that magazine publisher Steve Forbes pushed for during his 1996 presidential campaign.

Voters were also split down the middle on which party’s approach to taxes they preferred, with 44 percent saying Republicans and 43 percent standing behind Democrats, a statistical tie given the poll’s 3-point percentage error margin.

Pulse Opinion Research conducted the poll last Thursday, surveying a nationwide sample of 1,000 likely voters.

With just about a year to go until the 2012 general election, policy makers will have to grapple with that public unrest as they try to battle both soaring deficits and an unemployment rate that has hovered around or above 9 percent for more than two years.

Congressional Republicans recently responded coolly to President Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan, which Democrats proposed paying for by raising taxes on top earners.

And the supercommittee, which has less than a month to unveil its recommendations, has discussed using tax reform as a way to eat into deficits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 94 percent of liberal respondents to The Hill Poll saw income inequality as either a big problem or somewhat of one. But 55 percent of conservatives and 81 percent of centrists came to that conclusion as well.

At least 40 percent of each income group saw income inequality as a big problem as well, and 65 percent of respondents making at least$100,000 a year viewed it as a big or somewhat big issue.

Meanwhile, 74 percent of African-Americans said income inequality was a big problem, while 53 percent of white voters did.

As for the tax code,58 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats find it either not very fair or not at all fair. 77 percent of independents fell into that category.

Healthy majorities of most income groups also took issue with the fairness of current income tax policies. While 50 percent of those making less than$20,000 a year said the system was not very or not at all fair, 80 percent of those making between $75,000 and $100,000 thought so, as did 74 percent of those making more than $100,000.

The nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center projected this summer that about 46 percent of households will not pay any federal income taxes in 2011,including close to 90 percent of those making $20,000 or less.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), another presidential candidate, and other Republicans have said those who currently don’t owe income tax should at least pay something. But many of those who owe no federal income tax do pay state and local sales taxes,payroll taxes and other levies.

With the broad dissatisfaction with the tax code, 67 percent of conservatives,51 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of those making more than$100,000 a year favored shifting the United States to the flat tax.

But they were the only groups of respondents to favor such a move, with liberals, Democrats, independents and centrists, not to mention those making less than six figures a year, much cooler to the idea.

Other polls, such as an ABC News-Washington Post survey from last week, have found the public basically split on the flat tax.

Click here to see data from The Hill poll.