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December 20, 2013

Poll: Majority of Americans back minimum wage hike

WASHINGTON — A large majority of Americans want Congress to substantially increase the minimum wage as part of an effort to reduce the nation's expanding economic inequality, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As a growing share of the country's income flows to the very wealthiest, the poll found that 57 percent of Americans say lawmakers should pursue policies aimed at balancing an economic system they think is out of whack. Nearly two in three say federal policy is tilted toward helping the rich over Americans who are less well-off, according to the survey.

The findings come as President Barack Obama has moved to refocus national attention on the problems of inequality and decreasing social mobility. Earlier this month, he called confronting the twin issues "the defining challenge of our time." He added that "making sure our economy works for every working American" will be a central task of his remaining time in office.

Obama recently came out in favor of rasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — a much larger increase than he had proposed in his State of the Union address in February, when he advocated raising it to $9 an hour.

Increasing the minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2009, is one of the chief policy tools economists recommend to address inequality. It is also popular among everyday Americans: About two in three say the wage floor should be lifted, and the average wage suggested is $9.41 an hour.

The idea of using public policy to combat inequality is much more popular among Democrats and independents than it is among Republicans. Three in four Democrats and 58 percent of independents say Washington should pursue policies to address inequality, a sentiment that was shared by just two in five Republicans.

A similar divide is evident when it comes to the minimum wage. Eighty-five percent of Democrats support raising the wage, while Republicans are split 50-45 on the issue, the poll found.

Republicans support a lower wage floor than Democrats, when asked separately about their preferred dollar amount. On average, Democrats favor a minimum wage of just over $10, while Republicans want it to be about $8.60 an hour. Independents fall in between, supporting an average minimum wage of about $9.40 an hour. All three groups set their preferred minimum wage higher than the current $7.25, but far below a $15 wage sought by some worker advocates.

Although partisans disagree about what should be done about inequality, economists say the issue has reached dimensions not seen since the years preceding the Great Depression.

Whether calculated by comparing the growth in wages of the highest-income Americans with the lowest, or the proportion of wealth controlled by the richest Americans, or the ratio of wages for production workers to those of chief executives, inequality has grown. Americans have consistently called for government to aim policies at shrinking the gap.

Two years ago, when the Occupy Wall Street movement helped move the issue into the mainstream of political debate, a Post-ABC poll found that more than six in 10 perceived a widening wealth gap and 60 percent wanted Washington to pursue policy to address it, similar to today's 57 percent mark. In the fall of 2012, 52 percent of registered voters shared that sentiment.

Although some policymakers point to minimum-wage increases, more widespread unionization, better education opportunities and bolstering income-support programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit as possible remedies, enacting those policies has always proved difficult.

"A majority of the public might favor some policies that the minority that has the most influence is less enthusiastic about," said Martin Gilens, a politics professor at Princeton University. "On some policies, there is ambivalence among the public. While there is strong support for opportunity-enhancing policies to reduce inequality, there is less support for directly redistributive policies."

Obama has periodically invoked inequality as a problem and promised to address it. Yet economic inequality has only widened on his watch.

Between 2009 and 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent of earners grew by more than 31 percent, according to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, while the incomes of the bottom 99 percent expanded by just 0.4 percent.

"He's got a Republican House and even members of the Democratic Party who are strongly aligned with business interest, who are at best ambivalent about some of these policies that certainly are not popular among business interests that have to foot the bill," Gilens said. "When you have divided government and multiple veto points, policies that even a majority of people support can be difficult to adopt."

The new Post-ABC poll was conducted Dec. 12-15 among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, including interviews on land lines and with cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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