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(The RAND Blog)

October 9, 2014

New Survey Data Indicates Increasing Polarization in the Ways Democrats and Republicans View the Role of Government in Reducing Income Inequality

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by Katherine Grace Carman and Michael Pollard

Over the next five weeks, RAND will be conducting a series of surveys leading up to the midterm elections. In addition to asking about voting intentions, we'll be asking about some of the nation's most pressing issues.

Research documenting increasing income inequality, including Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has led to growing interest in and attention to this subject. Over the coming weeks, we'll ask several questions to better understand the nation's attitudes toward inequality and what might be done about it.

In the first of our weekly midterm election surveys, respondents were asked their opinion on the role of government in addressing income inequality. The question text is given below. This same question has been intermittently asked of new samples by the General Social Survey since the late 1970s though 2012. Respondents were divided into two groups: those who leaned toward “government ought to reduce income differences” (responses 1, 2, and 3) and those who leaned toward “government should not concern itself with reducing income differences” (responses 5, 6, and 7).

“Some people think that the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor. Others think that the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor. Here is a scale from 1 to 7. Think of a score of 1 as meaning that the government ought to reduce the income differences between rich and poor, and a score of 7 meaning that the government should not concern itself with reducing income differences. What score between 1 and 7 comes closest to the way you feel?”

The time trend in Figure 1 shows that the share supporting and opposed to government reducing income differences tend to mirror one another; the middle-ground response was constant at roughly 20 percent throughout the period. In our new 2014 data, 42.8 percent report that government should generally reduce differences, while 39.2 percent think government generally should not. Overall, the national-level attitude has consistently averaged between 3.5 and 3.9 on the seven-point scale (toward favoring government action).

Figure 1. Attitudes Toward Government Role in Reducing Income Differences: 1978-2014

Figure 1. Attitudes Toward Government Role in Reducing Income Differences: 1978-2014

Figure 2 presents attitudes by party affiliation during the same time period. Individuals who identify themselves as Democrats tend towards supporting government action, hovering around a mean of 3 on the scale throughout the period, trending slightly toward stronger attitudes supporting government action. Conversely, over time the mean value for Republicans has been increasing (where 1 = government ought to reduce income differences and 7 = government should not concern itself with reducing income differences), implying that Republicans are less likely to support government policies to address income inequality.

Figure 2. Political Attitudes Toward Government Role in Reducing Income Differences: 1978-2014

Figure 2. Political Attitudes Toward Government Role in Reducing Income Differences: 1978-2014

The divergence over time in Democrat and Republican opinions on the role of government is highlighted in Figure 3, which presents the odds ratio of Democrats landing on the “yes” side of the issue, relative to Republicans. An odds ratio above one means that Democrats are more likely to support government action to reduce income differences than Republicans; larger odds ratios mean greater differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Figure 3. Odds Ratios Predicting "Yes" Side of Issue, Democrats Compared to Republicans: 1978-2014

Figure 3. Odds Ratios Predicting “Yes” Side of Issue, Democrats Compared to Republicans: 1978-2014

In 1978, the odds that a Democrat supported government action compared to a Republican supporting government action were about twice as high (odds ratio 2.3). By 2014, the odds that a Democrat supported government action was over 600 percent higher; this means that today, Democrats are more than six times as likely as Republicans to believe government should have some role in reducing income differences. This difference is not due to differences in the age, gender, education, or income distributions among Republicans or Democrats.

Trends in support or opposition for government action within party are shown in Table 1. The increasing concentration in the extremes by political orientation is most notable post-2000.

Table 1. Attitude Towards Government Role in Reducing Income Differences by Political Affiliation: Percent of Party, 1978-2014

  Democrat Republican
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1978 28 13 15 22 8 7 7 8 9 19 23 12 11 19
1984 30 13 17 17 11 6 7 13 8 13 19 15 11 20
1990 28 13 19 22 9 4 4 14 9 17 22 9 9 19
1996 24 13 18 21 11 6 7 8 6 12 20 16 15 22
2000 20 14 19 22 12 5 7 9 5 13 14 19 17 23
2004 31 11 19 19 10 3 6 4 5 19 20 16 13 24
2008 35 11 21 16 9 4 4 12 3 15 17 18 11 24
2010 24 12 21 18 17 1 6 11 3 9 10 17 14 35
2012 31 16 17 19 10 2 5 10 5 12 10 14 15 34
2014 34 15 14 18 8 5 5 6 5 8 13 12 16 40

This remarkable polarization in attitudes reflects that attitudes among Democrats and Republicans are increasingly shifting toward the respective extremes. The overall average national opinion on the role of government has not changed over time, but the correlation between party identification and attitude has increased.


Katherine Carman is an economist and Michael Pollard is a sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Relevant questionnaire items and descriptive tables are available as a supplement to the methodology report.