October 19, 2011

Public and Occupy Wall Street Movement Agree on Key Issues

By Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center. Special to the New York Times.

For more debate on Occupy Wall Street click here.

The American public is beginning to take notice of the “Occupy movement.” The Pew Research Center’s polling this week finds a growing number of people paying attention to news about the movement. And the Gallup Poll found that among the minority of its respondents who are paying very close attention to the story, there is significantly more approval than disapproval of the Occupy movement’s goals.

This may well be an indicator of how a broader slice of the public comes to view the movement, given the climate of opinion about the issues being raised. Three themes in the data suggest that the public may respond positively to the goals of the Occupy movement, but not necessarily its tactics.

First, fundamental views about economic inequality are long standing. Over the past two decades we have found a very large majority of respondents agreeing with the statement that “this is a country in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” And, since the late 1980s, a growing number of citizens have begun to see the U.S. as a nation divided into two groups: the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Secondly, the public has come to see government policies as catering to the rich and powerful. A forthcoming Pew Research Center report will show large majorities saying that while the government does not do enough for both the middle class and poor people, two in three think it does too much for the wealthy. Unlike the Republican Party, President Obama is not seen by most as catering to the rich. However, just 29 percent of respondents think the president is doing more to help the “have nots” than to help the “haves.”

The third factor is of course the economic climate. Anxiety about economic conditions, and jobs in particular, puts the whole question of fairness front and center for the average American. The public expressed strong disapproval of bank bailouts and auto bailouts, as well as coming to the aid of home owners who took on mortgages they could not afford.

Little wonder that even in an anti-government era, a large majority approved of the financial regulation legislation of 2009. And today the public looks at Wall Street and questions its contribution. Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) say that Wall Street hurts the U.S. economy more than it helps, while 38 percent say it helps more than hurts. (The other 15 percent offer no opinion.)