For Average Joes, Mixed Feelings On Wealth

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, answers a question from plumber Joe Wurzelbacher in Holland, Ohio, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
The war of words waged by John McCain and Barack Obama for the votes of plumbers and other average Joes is a reminder of the nation's long-standing doubts about concentrated wealth - and its qualms about doing something about it.

Americans have voiced concerns about putting too much wealth in to too few hands since the country was founded, but the public's views also come with contradictions.

Now it's clearer than ever - thanks to Obama's much scrutinized talk about taxes with a certain Ohio voter and McCain's dogged criticism - that these mixed feelings about income inequality are a long way from being resolved.

"I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," Obama told the man - maybe you've heard of him - Joe the Plumber.

The remark may have sounded pretty innocuous. But McCain has lambasted his rival's words as sounding "a lot like socialism," and turned the criticism into a central theme of his campaign's final round. Obama's remarks, McCain says, are emblematic of a tax plan to confiscate wealth and give it to the poor that would make the IRS "into a giant welfare agency."

The comments of both presidential candidates touch nerves in American politics - longtime concern about too much concentration of wealth, but also about the role of government and the individual. More than two centuries after Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and other early leaders warned about the hazards of too much in the hands of too few, Americans have developed complex views on the intertwining issues.

A substantial majority of Americans say the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes, opinion polls show. A growing number say the U.S. is becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.

The public's concerns reflect a shifting dynamic in recent years, as an increasing share of the wealth has gone to people at the top of the income scale. The top tenth of U.S. households now earn an average of 11.2 times what those in the bottom tenth make, according to the Census Bureau. That's up from a ratio of 8.7 three decades ago. The wealthiest fifth of U.S. households now take in 50 percent of all income, up from 44 percent in 1977. The differences are even more pronounced in analyses of incomes for the top 1 percent of households.

"The income gap between the rich and the rest of the U.S. population has become so wide, and is growing so fast, that it might eventually threaten the stability of democratic capitalism itself," then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in 2005.

But Americans are divided on whether government should be heavily taxing the rich in order to benefit those with less.

"It's a complicated area to try to understand American attitudes," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "It's kind of like, in some instances, conflicting medical research ... There's no one answer."

A majority of Americans - 51 percent in a poll by Gallup this past April - said they support "heavy taxes" on the rich to redistribute wealth. That is significantly higher than when the same question was asked in 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression, when 35 percent agreed.

But people's support for higher taxes on the wealthy are tempered by their own aspirations.

"Most Americans hope to some day be wealthy and as a result, the idea of kind of redistributing income is not as popular as (government policies resulting in) making a bigger pie so everybody does better off," said Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for Gallup.