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The Income Gap: Unfair, Or Are We Just Jealous?

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The widening gulf between the rich and everyone else is a growing source of tension in America.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the income gap is now seen as a bigger source of conflict in the U.S. than race, age or national origin. That's why some believe the issue could matter in the presidential campaign, and others worry it could warp the national debate.

Two out of three Americans now perceive strong social conflicts over the income gap — up sharply from two years ago. Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center has an idea what's behind the increase.

"The Occupy Wall Street movement kind of crystallized the issue: 1 versus 99. [It's] arguably the most successful slogan since 'Hell no, we won't go,' going back to the Vietnam era," he says. "[It] certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality."

Over the last three decades, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled their share of national income, while the bottom 80 percent saw their share shrink. Taylor says majorities of Democrats, independents and even Republicans now see the income gap as a cause of friction.

"There's no question that there is rising inequality in this country, and I think those perceptions are part of the national agenda in a way that they weren't," he says. "And certainly they are in times like this, where we've had this very, very difficult economy and a lot of people are struggling."

The 'Politics Of Envy'

The rise of the issue has not been welcomed by Mitt Romney, the front-running Republican presidential candidate. Romney, who made millions as a private equity investor, has accused President Obama and others of engaging in what he calls "the bitter politics of envy."

"I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like, but the president has made this part of his campaign rally," Romney says. "We hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It's a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach. And I think it will fail."

Romney was challenged by Today Show host Matt Lauer, who asked if envy is the only reason someone might question the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth. Lauer asked if it was instead about fairness.

"I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare," Romney responded. "I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the idea of 99 percent versus 1 percent, and those people who've been most successful will be in the 1 percent, you've opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of 'one nation under God.'"

Nothing Wrong With Being Rich

Even as the Pew survey found more conflict over the income gap, it did not find evidence that Americans are growing more resentful of the rich. A separate Gallup poll found Americans far more concerned with growing the economic pie rather than changing the way it's divided.

Conservatives have long argued that growth trumps inequality, and a rising tide lifts all boats, even if some are yachts and others dinghies. But Obama's top economist, Alan Krueger, gave a speech this week arguing that severe inequality can actually threaten growth, as well as hobble the "opportunity society" that Romney says he wants to promote.

"There's a cost to the economy and society if children from low-income families do not have anything close to the opportunities to develop and use their talents as the more fortunate kin from better-off families, who can attend better schools and draw on a network of family connections," he said.

Krueger argues the economy as a whole would be in better shape if income and buying power were not so concentrated among the very rich. Obama made the same case in December in Osawatomie, Kan.

"When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy — from top to bottom," he said.

Krueger notes that since World War II, income growth has tended to be strongest when it's most widespread — when rich, poor and middle-class Americans are growing together, instead of growing apart.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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