More conflict seen between rich and poor, survey says

New York TimesJanuary 12, 2012 

Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in U.S. society, according to a survey released Wednesday.

About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are "strong conflicts" between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found, a sign that the message of income inequality brandished by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by Democrats may be seeping into the national consciousness.

The result was about a 50 percent increase from a survey in 2009, when anger over the financial industry's role in the recession was festering. In that survey, 47 percent of those polled said there were strong conflicts between classes.

"Income inequality is no longer just for economists," said Richard Morin, a senior editor at Pew Social & Demographic Trends, which conducted the latest survey, of 2,048 adults in December. "It has moved off the business pages into the front page."

The new numbers show that perception of class conflict surged the most among whites, middle-income earners and independent voters, the survey found. But it also increased substantially among Republicans, to 55 percent of those polled, up from 38 percent in 2009, even as the party leadership has railed against the concept of class divisions.

But while the perception of class conflict has grown, the belief in American upward mobility has not changed. The survey found that grievances against the rich had not increased, with a full 43 percent of those surveyed saying the rich became wealthy "mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education," a number that was unchanged from 2008.

"People aren't fundamentally changing their thinking about inequality," said Greg J. Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, who has edited a book on the topic. "It's not as though Republicans are thinking that inequality is more of a problem. They are just saying that it's more contentious."

The change in perception is the result of a confluence of factors that Morin said probably included the Occupy Wall Street movement, which put the issue of undeserved wealth and fairness in U.S. society at the top of the news throughout the summer and most of the fall.

The demographics of the change were also surprising, academics said. While blacks were still more likely than whites to see serious class conflicts, the share of whites who held that view increased by 22 percentage points, more than triple the increase among blacks.

Women were more likely than men to see serious class conflict, and less likely to see little evidence of conflict. Twenty-eight percent of men said they did not see strong conflicts between rich and poor, while only 17 percent of women said so.

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