By Sheldon Alberts - 07/16/12 09:00 AM EDT
The survey, conducted as the heated political presidential campaign increases acrimony over the interests of the haves and the have-nots, found that fewer than 2-in-5 likely voters (37 percent) think they can ever become rich.
The findings suggest pessimism about the possibility of upward mobility as economic growth remains weak and jobs scarce.
In the context of that debate, likely voters were asked what income level would make a family wealthy.
Almost 40 percent of people said that threshold was reached at a minimum $500,000 of annual income. Nineteen percent set the “wealthy” level at $500,000 and 20 percent put the bar above $1 million.
By contrast, 31 percent of people said a family earning $250,000 a year is wealthy, 19 percent said $100,000 was the threshold, and 7 percent said $50,000.
The national debate over wealth intensified last week when Obama challenged Republicans to pass legislation extending Bush-era tax rates only for households earning less than $250,000.
“Let’s not hold the vast majority of Americans and our economy hostage while we debate the merits of another tax cut for the wealthy,” Obama said.
GOP leaders in Congress propose extending current tax rates for everyone, saying the president’s plan would be a job-killer for small business owners who file individual tax returns.
The Hill’s poll found likely voters support Obama’s $250,000-a-year threshold, although by a relatively narrow margin.
Forty-seven percent said existing tax rates should be extended only for families earning less than $250,000, while 41 percent believe they should be extended for everyone.
Six-in-10 voters who identified as conservatives favored keeping the Bush-era rates for all while 73 percent of liberals want the rates extended only for households with an income of less than $250,000.
The poll, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research among 1,000 likely voters, has a 3 percentage point margin of error.
It shows voters trust Republicans and GOP candidate Mitt Romney more on taxes than Democrats and Obama, even though they support the president’s quarter-million dollar cut-off.
Asked which political party people “trust more” on taxes, 43 percent said Republicans and 36 percent said Democrats; 46 percent said they trusted Romney more while 42 percent believed Obama is more trustworthy on taxes.
Views diverged based on income levels, with voters earning between $40,000 and $75,000 strongly preferring Romney over Obama.
Among people earning between $40,000 and $60,000, 48 percent trust Romney more compared to 39 percent for Obama. People earning between $60,000 and $75,000 trust Romney more than Obama by a 34-point margin, 61 percent to 27 percent.
The president polled better among voters earning more than $100,000, with 51 percent saying they trusted him and 44 percent preferring Romney on taxes.
The poll also found a sharp generational split, with older voters far more likely to believe Romney is more trustworthy on taxes. Among people aged 65 and over, 52 percent trust Romney more and 37 percent trust Obama.
There was a statistical tie between Obama and Romney among voters aged 18-39 and those aged 40-64.
Obama says allowing tax rates to rise for higher-income earners is a matter of fairness, as is his call for a surtax on people earning more than $1 million.
Republicans says the president is trying to win reelection by demonizing success.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said Obama is promoting “fear, envy and anxiety,” and told Fox News last week: “He wants to divide the country in order to distract the country to try and win the election.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in the United States was $51,914 between 2006 and 2010. The Internal Revenue Service, in statistics from the 2009 tax year, said it took $343,927 in annual income to be in the top 1 percent of tax filers and $112,124 to be in the top 10 percent.