The idea that the US economy is “rigged” for the benefit of the rich and special interests was a major rallying cry in the 2016 presidential election and is already resurfacing in the race of 2020.
This message is likely to resonate with many Americans. Seven in ten American adults say their country’s economic system unfairly favors powerful interests, compared with less than a third who say the system is generally fair to most Americans. Large majorities of Americans also say that politicians, big business, and the wealthy have too much power and influence in today’s economy.
These findings are part of a larger Pew Research Center survey of economic inequality. The survey reveals, among other things, that most Americans think there is too much inequality in the United States, with a majority of those who share this view saying that major changes in the economic system are needed to fight against inequalities.
Americans across all income groups tend to agree that the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Two-thirds of high-income adults (66%) say so, as do 69% of middle-income adults and 73% of low-income adults. No more than about a third of each income group say the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.
Economic inequalities are increasingly part of the US national political debate. We conducted this study to better understand what Americans think about this issue and how those views differ based on partisanship and key demographic variables – especially income.
For this report, we interviewed 6,878 American adults in September 2019. The report also includes some findings from a separate survey conducted in early September. The adults surveyed are members of the American Trends Panel (ATP) of the Pew Research Center, an online survey panel that is recruited through a nationwide random sample of residential addresses. Here are the questions used for this analysis, along with the answers and its methodology.
To create the top, middle, and bottom income levels used in this report, family incomes were adjusted for differences in purchasing power by geographic region and household size. Respondents were then placed into income levels using a methodology similar to the Center’s previous work on the American middle class: average income is defined as two-thirds to double the median annual income for the survey sample. The bottom income falls below this range and the top income is above it. For more information on how income levels were created, see the Methodology section of this report.
There is, however, a partisan divide on this issue. Republicans and independents who lean for the Republican Party are also divided, with half saying the economic system is generally fair and the other half saying it favors powerful interests. Among Democrats and skinny Democrats, the vast majority (86%) say the system unfairly promotes powerful interests, while only 12% say the system is fair.
The opinions of Republicans differ considerably by income level. Low-income Republicans are much less likely than their high-income GOP counterparts to say the economic system is generally fair (37% vs. 63%).
Among Democrats, large majorities in all three income groups say the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests: 94% of high-income Democrats and 90% of middle-income Democrats say so, as do 79% of low-income Democrats. returned.
Among Americans as a whole, there is a broad consensus on which groups have too much power in today’s economy. About eight in ten or more adults say politicians (84%), big business (82%) and the wealthy (82%) have too much power and influence. About three-quarters (74%) say health insurance companies have too much power, and the majority say the same about banks and other financial institutions (64%) and tech companies (61%).
High-, middle- and low-income adults largely agree on the degree of influence of these groups. For example, 81% of high-income adults say politicians have too much power and influence, as do 86% of middle-income adults and 82% of low-income adults. And large majorities in all three income groups say that big corporations and wealthy people have too much power and influence.
There is common ground between the parties on this issue. For example, a large majority of Republicans (86%) and Democrats (82%) say politicians have too much power and influence in the economy.
On other groups, the supporters differ somewhat. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that big business, the wealthy, and financial institutions have too much power. Republicans, in turn, are much more likely than Democrats to say unions have too much power.
Some differences also exist in party coalitions. Low-income Republicans (79%) are more likely than middle-income (68%) and high-income Republicans (58%) to say that wealthy people have too much power in today’s society. A similar pattern applies when it comes to large business views.
Among Democrats, those with higher incomes are more likely than low-income Democrats to say that banks and other financial institutions have too much power (82% vs. 64%).
When it comes to who has too small power and influence in today’s economy, three groups stand out for Americans: the poor (75% say so), small businesses (73%) and the middle class (72%). Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say that the poor have too little influence (89% vs. 56%) and that the middle class has too little influence (76% vs. 67%). Democrats and Republicans largely agree when it comes to small business.
Opinions about the influence of these three groups are fairly consistent across income levels.
Note: See the questions used for this analysis, as well as the answers and its methodology.