By Susan Page and Kendall Breitman
WASHINGTON - Brian Davis, a sixth-grade teacher from Bel Air, Md., won't need to be convinced when President Obama spotlights growing economic inequality as a priority in the State of the Union Address next week.
He's living it.
Like two-thirds of those surveyed in a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll, Davis sees the gap between the rich and everyone else widening in the United States, and he worries about what that will mean for his 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. His salary has stayed flat for the past five years - his school district put raises and cost-of-living increases on hold - while expenses keep rising.
He's cut out cable TV, gotten "creative" with his food budget and relies on family activities that are free. "The middle-income families and individuals, as a group, that sector is disappearing," the 41-year-old said in a follow-up interview, and he's not sure what the solution is. "It's easy to compartmentalize most things into left and right issues, but these are tough."
As the president delivers the televised address Tuesday, he'll be speaking to a country filled with people who are cautiously optimistic that the economy is improving but not at all sure its benefits are going to reach them. Nearly six in 10 say their family income is falling behind the cost of living, and another third say they are staying even. Just 7% feel they're gaining ground.
Indeed, at a time when Republicans and Democrats disagree about almost everything, on this there is virtually no partisan gap: 61% of Republicans, 68% of Democrats and 67% of independents think economic inequality has been growing in the United States over the past decade.
They're right. While widening wealth disparities are a concern around the globe, the United States has scored one of the most dramatic increases anywhere. The share of income going to the wealthiest 1% of Americans has doubled from less than 10% in 1980 to nearly 20% now. In a speech last month, Obama warned that increased inequality and decreasing mobility "pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe."
"The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed," he said at a community center in Anacostia, one of the capital's poorest neighborhoods.
Under such circumstances, it's no surprise that the poll found overwhelming support for extending federal benefits for the long-term unemployed - 63% are in favor of that idea - and for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10; 73% support that. Both proposals are stalled in Congress.
IS THE SYSTEM RIGGED?
The USA TODAY survey shows people both holding fast to the traditional American promise - if you work hard, you can get ahead - while expressing fears that the system has been rigged against them.
Sixty percent agree with this statement: "Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard." Just 38% chose the alternative view: "Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people."
But an equal majority say the economic system in this country "unfairly favors the wealthy." Only 36% say it is generally fair.
The poll of 1,504 adults Jan. 15-19 has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
The Great Recession officially ended nearly five years ago, in June 2009. Since then, the stock market has hit new highs and housing prices in many communities have rebounded. But wages have been stagnant for a decade or more, and high levels of unemployment persist, especially among those who have been out of work for a long time.
All of that undercuts some of the optimism and confidence that customarily accompany an economic recovery, and it has minimized the political lift a president typically might expect to enjoy. (The disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act website last fall has hurt Obama, too.) The president's job-approval rating is anemic - 43% approve of the job he is doing as president; 49% disapprove. That's significantly below his 52% approval rating a year ago and is the lowest his approval rating in the Pew poll has been at the start of any year since 2009, when he was first inaugurated.
"Pretty much the only recovery has come to the top 1%," says Kristen Markley, 26, of Manhattan, Kan. She graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in biology in 2010 but hasn't been able to find work in her field; she's now tending bar. "I mean, most of the middle class is one bad year from joining the poor."
SHOULD GOVERNMENT ACT?
Such fears are fueling support for government activism. Seven in 10 say the government should take steps to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. There is considerable faith that it could have a significant effect. Four in 10 say it could have a lot of impact; another three in 10 say it could have some.
Support is even higher for government action against poverty: 82% say the government should take steps to reduce poverty, and 77% say government politics and programs can have an impact.
"The government can play a critical role in trying to minimize that gap between the poor and the rich," says Khalio Kamara, 31, of Fairfax, Va., a management assistant for a rental-car company who immigrated from Sierra Leone 12 years ago. "This is a very huge issue," especially for friends who are struggling to find jobs.
"Some people are trying everything to put something on the table for dinner, while others are making millions of dollars," he adds. "It just doesn't seem fair to me."
To be sure, some of those surveyed see economic disparities as a natural part of a capitalist system that appropriately rewards the smart, the hardworking, the innovative.
"People who have been successful are being penalized by heavy tax burdens to support others who aren't successful or aren't as successful," says Antoinette Crispin, 65, a registered nurse from Maricopa, Ariz. She questions why Obama is pressing the issue. "It's never going to become equal," she says. "All he's doing is riling people up."
There is an almost even divide on the value of government aid to the poor. Given two options, 49% agree with the statement: "Government aid to the poor does more good than harm because people can't get out of poverty until their basic needs are met." But nearly as many, 44%, say: "Government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government assistance."
Only a third of those surveyed endorse the traditional Republican view that unleashing the private sector would be the right way to help everyone, including the poor. A 54% majority says raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to expand programs for the poor would help to reduce poverty; just 35% say lowering taxes on wealthy people and corporations to encourage more investment and economic growth would be more effective.
Meanwhile, Karen Wilson, 42, of Peoria, Ill., can't hide her concern about finding another job to replace her temporary gig as a phone operator, which is scheduled to end shortly. She had worked in retail sales for two decades when she was laid off in 2006. Determined to get a better job, she went to junior college and received an associate's degree in 2008. When she still couldn't find work, she pursued her bachelor's, which she received in 2012. Since then, she hasn't been able to find a permanent job, and now she's struggling to pay back student loans.
"I am definitely living the American nightmare," she says. "Hopefully, 2014 will be a better year. I did not do all this work, I did not come this far to be a phone operator as the last stop."
DOES HARD WORK PAY?
In the poll, Americans tend to give the poor the benefit of the doubt. By 50%-35%, they say poverty is generally a result of circumstances beyond a person's control, not a lack of effort. (Those with incomes below $30,000 a year were much more likely to cite circumstances beyond a person's control.)
They also tend to give the rich the benefit of the doubt. By 51%-38%, they say people got rich because they worked harder than most other people, not because they had more advantages in life. (Those with incomes over $75,000 a year were much more likely to cite hard work.)
"I am a firm believer in you get what you put into the thing," says David Montmeny, 53, a retired small-business owner from Security-Widefield, Colo. "If you sit on your sofa, you don't deserve what the guy who gets in at 5 and comes home at 5 at night; you don't deserve the same thing."
Still, he admits to concerns. "This country is a great country, and if you put the time and the effort into it then you can progress forward," he declares, but then adds, "That is getting harder and harder."
The stakes for Obama in the State of the Union speech may be high - an opportunity for him to outline priorities and regain political momentum - but Montmeny's expectations for it are low.
"Everyone gets up there and pounds their chest and the audience stands up and claps, but nothing materializes," he says. "We need some serious action, but we have so many fires, I don't know which one to put out first. I guess the one with the biggest flames."