In Divisive Times, Americans See Eye to Eye on Inequality and Opportunity

In a series of focus groups, Public Agenda spent the past year talking with folks about the economy, their opportunities, how they view inequality and the changes they think the nation needs to help themselves and others achieve the American Dream.

In these contentious political and social times, there is a popular belief that America is a more divided nation than ever before. But in our latest report, we find that the public is not as polarized on some issues as we may think.

In a series of focus groups, Public Agenda spent the past year talking with folks about the economy, their opportunities, how they view inequality and the changes they think the nation needs to help themselves and others achieve the American Dream. Our conversations took place with people from San Diego, Cincinnati, the greater metro area of New York and numerous points in between. Despite coming from varying backgrounds, political affiliations, and demographic groups, common ground was found. Here is what some of them told us:

People think the economy is working poorly for most Americans

“On the surface the economy looks like it’s doing well, but when you just scratch that surface you see people really are living paycheck to paycheck.… It doesn’t take much to tip the balance.”
Washington, DC–area resident; in her 60s; white; upper-income; Republican
“Across the years, I went from one retail job to two or three…just to make rent, to get by, to make things work smoothly. And still it’s not smooth enough.”
San Francisco–area resident; in her 30s; Hispanic; lower-income; Democrat

People draw a straight line between dysfunctional and disempowering politics and their limited economic prospects

“Our democratic process is in shambles, it’s so bad. I think that is why there is extreme poverty, because everyone’s not on a fair playing ground.”
Cincinnati-area resident; in her 30s; black; upper-income; Democrat
“Our government is more worried about their pockets than they are worried about helping the people.”
San Diego–area resident; in his 40s; Hispanic; lower-income; Republican

Most do not resent wealth, they resent unfair advantage

“Let’s face it, wealthy people start businesses. They’re able to hire people. So I’m not going to mudsling at them. I do feel differently about the guy who maybe came in and was put in charge who didn’t build that business from the ground, but still gets paid that much money.”
Washington, DC–area resident; in her 50s; white; lower-income; Democrat
“It’s what wealthy people work for. They just know a better angle to get there.”
San Diego–area resident; in her 30s; white; lower-income; Republican

Our conversations took a different and more positive turn as we found that not only were there common concerns, but that the suggested solutions were not all that different from each other. Despite a tendency to immediately look for the “easy” answers, as the participants dug deeper, they arrived at more complex and perhaps more feasible solutions.

On alleviating poverty

“If you don’t have education, you’re lost. You just have to know the basics to get by anymore. Even the high school diploma, you’re lucky to get a job as far as that goes.”
San Francisco–area resident; in his 50s; white; lower-income; Independent
“If you live in an environment where everything around you is costing more and going up except your wages, that’s not going to work. Is it fair to say to someone, ‘Everything is going to cost more for you, your groceries, your transportation, your health care, your school, everything, and your rent, but we can only pay you 10 bucks an hour’?”
San Francisco–area resident; in his 30s; white; upper-income; Democrat

On Creating Middle-Class Jobs and Greater Economic Security

“It’s nice to see technical colleges in this discussion, because I think that everyone is so focused on sending their kids to four-year universities when there are a lot of great jobs that just need skill to make a decent living.”
San Francisco–area resident; in her 50s; white; upper-income; Republican
“Make housing and health care affordable. Those are the basic foundations of life. You have a healthy outlook on life when you have a roof over your head, you can afford it, and your health is good.… Then everything else can fall into place.”
Washington, DC–area resident; in her 50s; white; lower-income; Democrat

Moderate tax increases on the rich are an important way to gain resources to invest in opportunity

“Will they really feel the pinch of paying a little bit of the tax? Not at all.”
Washington, DC–area resident; in his 30s; black; middle-income; Independent
“There are people who are making a lot more [who should] just give up some. I think that’s one of the ways the economy might get better.”
Teaneck, NJ–area resident; in his 20s; black; lower-income; Independent

What do we do now?

While common ground was found, significant divides remain, calling attention to the critical work needed to lead the nation on a path towards a more equitable and prosperous future. That path starts with public dialogue. But where and how do you start?

Read our full report, "The Fix We're In: What Americans Have to Say About Opportunity, Inequality and the System They Feel Is Failing Them.", to learn how we can engage our communities and begin to reinvent opportunity in America.


Submitted by: Jordana Y. Shakoor on Sunday, February 12th, 2017

This is a great article. I think when you avoid mentioning politics you tend to find more agreement.
However, I feel that Donald Trump is peddling a White Supremacist viewpoint. The hidden message is that he is really saying that white people should be protected first and should be in a position power. Their concern is the browning of America and whites becoming minorities. We live in a democracy and voting will be affected by demographics who can choose lawmakers. A more diverse Congress and Senate will mean a more equitable representation and policy. Hopefully, it will mean a fair distribution of resources. White Supremacist do not want to lose power.

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