60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: Inequality

Americans weigh in on inequality in America for the August edition of the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for August 2015. This month's poll is about Inequality in America, a topic that you can find a story about on CBS News almost any day of the week. To overcome inequality, past generations of Americans relied on the precepts of Emerson's "Self Reliance" or sought inspiration reading Horatio Alger's rags to riches stories where people of humble means and backgrounds could find great success through hard work, honesty and determination. Serious race and gender issues have historically haunted American society but the government tried to help those most in need with programs like Social Security, civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Now, many Americans find Congress so slanted toward big business, the lack of a level playing field for income and education so glaring and the concept of blind justice so lacking, that they have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. There seems to be a groundswell of consciousness raising about America's need to address these issues. Perhaps the 2016 presidential election will be the right place for these debates. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal." Do you believe this statement is true or false? We look forward to your answers to this and many other important questions. And now the results...

Mankind

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In keeping with "the spirit of '76," 76 percent of Americans believe Jefferson's declaration is true while 22 percent believe it is false. He went on to write that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights that people of every stripe hold equally dear; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Effect

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Nearly half (49 percent) think inequality is more harmful because it deprives people of hope and 40 percent think it is more helpful because it gives people ambition. There are many examples of people overcoming long odds to find uncommon success. There are also many examples of people being unduly prevented from opportunities based on how they look or what they believe. Legislation can go only so far, the rest must be accomplished by changing hearts and minds. A great many of today's young people have already gotten the memo.

Hot Spots

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Forty-four percent picked Saudi Arabia from the list as having the greatest level of inequality. Next in order were the U.S. 31 percent, Japan 7 percent, Germany 3 percent and Denmark 2 percent. Doesn't it seem ironic that after spending billions in rebuilding Germany and Japan in our own image that they are now seen by Americans as more egalitarian than our own democracy?

Level Playing Field

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Thirty-three percent of Americans said "we're all equal in the eyes of God," 25 percent said "death is the great equalizer," 11 percent think rooting for the home team is an equal opportunity sport, 10 percent said they feel most equal in a college classroom, 9 percent said the emergency room and 7 percent took a shot at the neighborhood bar.

The Takeaway

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One in four Americans chose "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the list as teaching the best lesson about inequality, followed by "The Color Purple" 16 percent, "Huckleberry Finn" 11 percent, "Animal Farm" 10 percent, "The Grapes of Wrath" 6 percent, "The Outsiders" 6 percent and "Atlas Shrugged" 2 percent. The greatest novels not only possess great stories at their center but also great lessons which people can apply to their own lives. NB: This poll was done before the publishing of the sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird": "Go Set a Watchman."

On the Offense

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With so many recent examples of alleged police misconduct during arrests, it is understandable that 42 percent of Americans would choose the justice system as the area they would attack first to combat racial inequality. Close behind was the education system with 38 percent and 16 percent chose the workplace. Workers have slowly gained ground over the years but Americans know that in the short term attacking racial inequality begins by changing the justice system for the better and for the long term by improving our education system.

Know your history

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Twenty-seven percent of Americans thought that The Equal Rights Amendment was ratified in 1972 and another 27 percent did not know. Nine percent guessed 1979 followed by 1923 (8 percent) and 1920 (4 percent). One out of four Americans correctly answered that the proposed Amendment to the Constitution that would have afforded women equal rights under the law was never ratified. It not only shows how far we still have to go as a country but how hard it is to pass a Constitutional Amendment. It must not only be proposed by either a two-thirds majority of states or a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress but it must then be ratified by three-quarters of the States at ratifying conventions. Good luck with that in these fractious times.

Income Equality

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About one in three Americans point to a lack of education as the single biggest cause of income inequality in America today. Next in order: corporate greed 24 percent, the government 17 percent, racism and prejudice 10 percent, single-parent families 7 percent and illegal immigration 7 percent. Once again, for whatever kind of inequality exists, you can bet it would be improved by improving educational opportunities for all Americans.

1%

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More than half of Americans either don't know what a "one percenter" is (30 percent) or don't know any (26 percent). Sixteen percent said they know a few, 11 percent said they may know one or two and 7 percent said most of the people they know are loaded. By some estimates you may need to have a net worth over $8 million or an annual income north of 400K to qualify for the club. In a country of over 350 million people that means over 3.5 million Americans are pretty well-heeled.

Wages

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Thirty-five percent of Americans think that a company's highest paid employee should make about 10 times more than its lowest paid employee. Seventeen percent said 50 times more, 9 percent said 100 times more and 19 percent said everyone should be paid the same (see Shangri-la). Four percent went so far as to say they should get 350 times more which is what the AFL-CIO estimated that top CEOs get.

Household earnings

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In general, Americans aren't that great at guessing what others make, but 38 percent managed to correctly guess that a household earning $50,000 is right at the center of median income in the U.S. today. Thirty-six percent thought 50K would put you in the bottom third, 15 percent said it would land you in the bottom 10th and 8 percent said it would get you in the top half of American households. Any way you slice it, this reinforces what economists have been saying for years, that the incomes of lower paid workers continue to rise much more slowly than those of higher paid workers.


This poll was conducted by telephone from June 5-9, 2015 among a random sample of 1,010 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. The error for other subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Poll. Read more about this poll.