Over at his blog, Mike Sances investigates the claim that the Occupy Wall Street protests have made concerns about economic inequality an important item on the political agenda. A recent Washington Post poll found that about 60% of respondents believed there was a widening gap between the wealthy and the less well-off and that the government “should pursue policies that try to reduce the gap.” Sances notes that this 60% figure is a historical high. Drawing on data from the General Social Survey since the late 1970s, he writes:
Note that the “reduce income differences” category has always had a plurality, though never a majority. Could differences in the way the question is worded account for the apparent 20% jump between the GSS in 2010 and the Washington Post result in 2011?
In a 2008 article in Perspectives on Politics, Lane Kenworthy and Leslie McCall also addressed this topic. Using the similar data from the GSS they found that:
Americans do tend to object to inequality and increasingly believe government should act to redress it, but not via traditional redistributive programs. We examine several alternative possibilities and provide a broad analytical framework for reinterpreting social policy preferences in the era of rising inequality. Our evidence suggests that Americans may be unsure or uninformed about how to address rising inequality and thus swayed by contemporaneous debates.
The question is whether Occupy Wall Street is one of those contemporaneous debates. Will it have a real lasting impact on the salience of income inequality and on government policy?