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In an OWS Era, Americans Are Much More Aware of Class Tension

Income inequality now trumps both race and immigration as our country's biggest perceived tension.

It looks like Occupy Wall Street's message has resonated even after Zuccotti Park cleared out. A new Pew Research Center survey reveals that two-thirds of the public believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between America's rich and poor—a number that's up 19 percentage points since 2009. According to the survey, income inequality now trumps tensions arising from race or immigration—popular answers only a few years before.

Younger people, women, Democrats and African Americans are the most likely to sense class warfare. But the group receiving the most dramatic wakeup call? White people; the number of whites who saw class as a dividing factor increased by 22 percent. That makes sense—people who normally enjoy a higher societal status are more likely to experience a loss of that status, leaving them more attuned to post-recession class tension.

It's clear that the economic downturn, and pushback in the form of the Occupy movement, have introduced concepts like "wealth gap" and "income inequality" into the popular lexicon. But what's interesting is that we still believe this chasm is temporary. While 46 percent of us believe that most rich people “are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families,” nearly as many think they've earned it. Forty-three percent say wealthy people became rich “mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education,” results that have stayed virtually the same since 2008. The implication here is that, yeah, there's a clash between rich and poor, but there's still a chance to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, too.

Maybe it's an indication of Americans' undying optimism; maybe it's our utter denial of a solidifying caste system. But these results certainly reveal our ambivalence about how wealth should be distributed in our country—or at least our hesitance to place any blame.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user STC4blues.

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