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The widening gulf between those who are rich and those who are not is a growing source of tension in America. A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the income gap is now seen as a bigger source conflict in the United States than race, age or national origin. That's why some believe the issue could matter in the presidential campaign, and others worry it would warp the national debate. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Two out of three Americans now perceive strong social conflicts over the income gap. That's up sharply from two years ago. And Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center has an idea what's behind the increase.
PAUL TAYLOR: The Occupy Wall Street movement kind of crystallized the issue: one versus 99. Arguably the most successful slogan since hell no, we won't go, going back to the Vietnam era. Certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality.
HORSLEY: Over the last three decades, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled their share of national income, while the bottom 80 percent saw their share shrink. Taylor says majorities of Democrats, Independents, and even Republicans now see the income gap as a cause of friction.
TAYLOR: There's no question that there's rising inequality in this country. And I think those perceptions are part of the national agenda in a way that they weren't. And certainly they are in times like this where we've had this very, very difficult economy and a lot of people are struggling.
HORSLEY: The rise of the issue has not been welcomed by Mitt Romney, the front-running Republican presidential hopeful. Romney, who made millions as a private equity investor, has accused President Obama and others of engaging in what he calls the bitter politics of envy.
MITT ROMNEY: I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like, but the president has made this part of his campaign rally. We hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It's a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach. And I think it'll fail.
HORSLEY: Romney was challenged this week by "Today Show" host Matt Lauer, who asked if envy is the only reason someone might question the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY SHOW")
MATT LAUER: Is it about jealousy or is it about fairness?
ROMNEY: I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare. I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the idea of 99 percent versus 1 percent, and those people who've been most successful will be in the 1 percent, you've opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of One Nation under God.
HORSLEY: Even as the Pew survey found more conflict over the income gap, it did not find evidence that Americans are growing more resentful of the rich. And a separate Gallup poll found Americas far more concerned with growing the economic pie than changing the way it's divided. Conservatives have long argued that growth trumps inequality, that a rising tide lifts all boats, even if some are yachts and others dinghies. But President Obama's top economist, Alan Krueger, gave a speech this week arguing that severe inequality can actually threaten growth, as well as hobble the opportunity society Romney says he wants to promote.
ALAN KRUEGER: There's a cost to the economy and society if children from low-income families do not have anything close to the opportunities to develop and use their talents as the more fortunate kin from better-off families, who can attend better schools and draw on a network of family connections.
HORSLEY: Krueger argues the economy as a whole would be in better shape if income and buying power not so concentrated among the very rich. President Obama made the same case last month in Osawatomie, Kansas.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When middle class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom.
HORSLEY: White House economist Krueger notes since World War II, income growth has tended to be strongest when its most widespread; when rich, poor, and middle class Americans are growing together, instead of growing apart. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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