Ever since Occupy Wall Street burst onto the national political scene, wealth inequality in America has been a frequent topic of debate. Many credit millennials with spearheading the #occupy movement, a feverish, albeit disorganized, response to the growing wealth inequality between America’s top earners and those who earned less. Thus, it is unsurprising that a recent survey conducted by the Harvard Public Opinion Project on millennials revealed that a large majority of millennials believe the wealth gap in America to be a problem, and an even greater portion believing that the problem has worsened over the course of their lifetimes.
Fifty-two percent of respondents in the survey believe that the wealth gap in America is a major problem, and 20 percent believe it is a minor problem. Only 13 percent of respondents said that it was not a problem at all, with the remaining 14 percent saying they were unsure. Furthermore, 64 percent of respondents think the income gap has worsened over their lifetime, with 16 percent thinking it stayed the same. Only 3 percent believed that the income gap has lessened over the course of their lifetime. Interestingly, the data showed respondents across all income levels were equally likely to be concerned about what they believe to be a growing issue in America. Ultimately, millennials are correct in their concerns. Data from the Census Bureau show that the top 20 percent of earners receive 48.9 percent of total income, while the lowest 20 percent of earners receive only 3.8 percent. Since 1990, the share for the wealthiest has risen from 44.3 percent while the share for the poorest has fallen from 4.6 percent. Wealth inequality has indeed worsened and shows no signs of improving anytime in the near future.
Those who downplay income inequality often argue that such inequalities arise as the inevitable consequence of some individuals working harder or being smarter. But many millennials are doubtful that wealth is entirely dependent on the individual’s contribution. Although 32 percent believed that the income gap was more likely a result of hard work and smart choices, 39 percent thought that income was mostly out of the individual’s control. An additional 28 percent were unsure, perhaps believing that both factors played very strong roles in one’s income. Overall, 67 percent of respondents did not believe that hard work and smart choices were the primary reasons for the wealth gap, reflecting a loss of faith in the prospect of social mobility in America.
While millennials clearly believe that growing inequality in the United States is a problem, solutions remain elusive. Not only do they remain divided on any potential government solutions to the growing wealth inequality, but also results suggest they remain uninformed about the consequences of those solutions. Among the six major policy proposals for closing wealth inequality in the United States (raising the minimum wage to $10.10, increasing universal pre-school access, making it easier to join unions, strengthening marriages among lower-income families, increasing school choice through vouchers and charter schools, and reducing workplace discrimination), a very high number of millennials are simply unsure of the implications of each solution.
Millennials are most likely to have an opinion on raising the minimum wage to $10.10, with 46 percent believing it would be effective in reducing wealth inequality, 26 percent believing it would lower it, and 26 percent remaining unsure. In two of the policy solutions (making it easier to join unions and increasing marriages among lower-income families), millennials are more likely to be unsure of the proposal than to say whether it would be effective or not. Interestingly, in every solution except raising the minimum wage to $10.10, millennials were more likely to be unsure whether it would be effective or not than to say they were sure it would be ineffective, suggesting that they may not be sufficiently informed about these policies to make stronger judgments. Furthermore, in no scenario was a solution deemed to be effective by a majority of millennials. This seems to show ambivalence among millennials toward the government’s policy options to deal with the growing wealth inequality in the United States, something that a preponderance believes ought to be dealt with.
Unfortunately for the government, millennials are not only hesitant to support its policy solutions, but the data also seem to show that they find the government to be somewhat responsible for the prevailing wealth gap. When asked which party’s policies were more responsible for the current wealth gap, an astounding 66 percent blamed either both or one of the main political parties. Within that, 33 percent found fault with both parties, while 25 percent faulted Republicans alone and 8 percent faulted only Democrats. The remaining 32 percent of respondents were unsure. It appears that millennials not only have a deep skepticism about the government’s competency but also believe that poor governance has led to, or worsened, our current problem.
Solutions to these problems, to both the growing wealth gap and the prevailing skepticism of the government’s ability to close it, are unclear and in need of further exploration. Young Americans thus far are dissatisfied with the current state of wealth distribution and are not looking to the government to fix it. With such a large majority of these young voters placing an important emphasis on this growing problem, is it in the interest of both parties to work to make some changes. For starters, the government would be right to present an education program about policy options to close the wealth equality gap and present the American people with the proper options of how to do this.