The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is bigger than at any time since the 1920s. Is that really what most Americans want?
The gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest is bigger than at any time since the 1920s — just before the Depression. According to an analysis this year by Edward Wolff of New York University, the top 20% of wealthy individuals own about 85% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% own very near 0%.
Many in that bottom 40% not only have No assets, they have Negative net wealth.
A gap this pronounced raises the politically divisive question of whether there is a need for wealth redistribution in the United States. This central question underlies such hot-button issues as whether the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire and whether the government should provide more assistance to the poor. But before those issues can be addressed, it's important to understand how Americans feel about the country's increasing economic polarity.
We recently asked a representative sample of more than 5,000 Americans (young and old, men and women, rich and poor, liberal and conservative) to answer two questions. They first were asked to estimate the current level of wealth inequality in the United States, and then they were asked about what they saw as an ideal level of wealth inequality.
In our survey, Americans drastically underestimated the current gap between the very rich and the poor. The typical respondent believed that the top 20% of Americans owned 60% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% owned 10%. They knew, in other words, that wealth in the United States was not distributed equally, but were unaware of just how unequal that distribution was....