Rich People Agree That Life Is Unfair

They are concerned about inequality, according to a new survey, but don't ask them to pay more in taxes.
January 10, 2020, 6:22pm
A young person looks surprised by a wealthy woman in elbow-length gloves and a hat.
A scene from outside the 2017 Frederick Olmsted luncheon in New York City. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty

Huge numbers of Americans understand that life in their country is fundamentally unfair. Even many of those in households making more than $500,000—the literal top 1 percent of earners—think that they are unfairly privileged in areas of life ranging from college admissions to housing, and believe the richest of the rich should pay more in taxes. But when those high earners are asked if the merely rich, i.e. them, should have to chip in more, they balk. Oh, reducing inequality and making the world nicer means that I, personally, might have less stuff? No thank you.

That's one of the takeaways of a new report from NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which jointly conducted a telephone survey of 1,885 adults. In the most no-shit finding of all time, 1 percenters were found to have "near-universal life satisfaction," with 90 percent of that group saying they were "completely" or "very" satisfied with their lives, compared to just 44 percent of respondents in households earning less than $35,000. Only 8 percent of those high earners reported having a serious problem paying for medical bills, while 57 percent of those making under $35,000 did. Even fewer of the rich said they had problems paying off debt, finding an affordable place to live, or paying for food or housing, which are routine and often crushing problems for those at the bottom of the income pyramid.

Possibly as a result, only 9 percent of the wealthy say they are "very anxious" about the future compared to 29 percent of low-income people. An incredible 73 percent of high earners say they've achieved the "American Dream," versus just 20 percent of low earners. Respondents earning amounts between the two extremes reported having fewer problems with bills, less anxiety, and more life satisfaction the more money they made. In other words, money can buy happiness, or at least it can buy security, and it's awfully hard to have the former without the latter.

But the wealthy also had the same kinds of concerns about inequality and unfairness in American life that the rest of the population does. About half of the wealthy people surveyed lament that it's harder than it used to be for an average person to earn a middle-class income, and that college applicants from upper-income families (i.e., families like theirs) have an unfair advantage. More than half—62 percent—say that the gap in income between the richest and poorest is at least a "somewhat serious" problem, and 49 percent say that it's "very unfair" that the rich get better healthcare. Respondents who made less money were generally more likely to have objections to inequality, but not by a substantial margin, and it's obvious that the rich don't necessarily think it's fair or even good that they have so much more of everything.

The fissure between the rich and the other respondents occurs when they're asked about what to do about that inequality.

A majority of all income groups said that the government should make it a "very important priority" for everyone in the U.S. to have health insurance. Majorities of all income groups below $500,000 said the "very wealthy" should pay more in taxes, and even half of the wealthiest respondents were in favor of that. But when that latter question was tweaked to whether the merely "wealthy" should pay more in taxes, only 35 percent of the highest earners agreed.

The implication here is that in the face of having to make personal sacrifices to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, the high earners revert to selfishness. They aren't the only ones who jealously guard what they have. As Richard Reeves documented in his book Dream Hoarders, Americans in the top 20 percent of income have innumerable advantages in terms of housing and education and even life expectancy, and they have thwarted efforts to reform policies that give them those advantages.

When we think of inequality in the abstract, everyone agrees that it's bad. Even the 0.1 percenters at Davos will stroke their chins and lament the gap between elites and non-elites. But when the conversation turns to the idea that increased inequality might lead to some redistribution of resources, a puncturing of the bubble that even many people earning less than $500,000 live inside, the tone changes. Everyone wants an equal world. But nobody wants to release their grip on their money.

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