Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society, according to a survey released Wednesday.
About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found, a sign that the message of income inequality brandished by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by Democrats may be seeping into the national consciousness.
The share was the largest since 1992, and represented about a 50 percent increase from the 2009 survey, when immigration was seen as the greatest source of tension. In that survey, 47 percent of those p/olled said there were strong conflicts between classes.
“Income inequality is no longer just for economists,” said Richard Morin, a senior editor at Pew Social & Demographic Trends, which conducted the latest survey. “It has moved off the business pages into the front page.”
The survey, which polled 2,048 adults from Dec. 6 to 19, found that perception of class conflict surged the most among white people, middle-income earners and independent voters. But it also increased substantially among Republicans, to 55 percent of those polled, up from 38 percent in 2009, even as the party leadership has railed against the concept of class divisions.
The change in perception is the result of a confluence of factors, Mr. Morin said, probably including the Occupy Wall Street movement, which put the issue of undeserved wealth and fairness in American society at the top of the news throughout most of the fall.
Traditionally, class has been less a part of the American political debate than it has been in Europe. Still, the concept has long existed for ordinary Americans.
“Americans have always acknowledged that there are Rockefellers and the lunch-bucket guy,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago. “But they believe it is not a permanent caste, but a transitory condition. The real game-changer would be if they give up on that.”
Going by the survey’s results, they have not. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said the rich became wealthy “mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education,” a number unchanged since 2008.
The survey’s main question — “In America, how much conflict is there between poor people and rich people?” — was based on language used by Mr. Smith’s center at the University of Chicago, Mr. Morin said.
Mr. Smith said the question was often understood to mean, “Do the rich and the poor get along?” and “Do they have the same objectives?”
The issue has also become a prominent part of the political debate. President Obama has pressed the case that income inequality is rising as election season has gotten under way.
It has even crept into the Republican presidential primary race. At a debate in New Hampshire last Saturday, Rick Santorum criticized Mitt Romney for using the phrase “middle class,” dismissing the words as Democratic weapons to divide society. And conservatives have been wringing their hands over Newt Gingrich’s recent attacks on Mr. Romney’s past in private equity, saying they are a misguided assault on free-market capitalism.
Independents, whose votes will be fought over by both parties, showed the single largest increase in perceptions of conflicts between rich and poor, up 23 percentage points, to 68 percent, compared with an 18-point rise among Democrats and a 17-point rise for Republicans. Sixty-eight percent of independents believe there are strong class conflicts, just below the 73 percent of Democrats who do. (The survey’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the total sample.)
“The story for me was the consistency of the change,” Mr. Morin said. “Everyone sees more conflict.”
The demographics were surprising, experts said. While blacks were still more likely than whites to see serious conflicts between rich and poor, the share of whites who held that view increased by 22 percentage points, more than triple the increase among blacks. The share of blacks and Hispanics who held the view grew by single digits.
What is more, people at the upper middle of the income ladder were most likely to see conflict. Seventy-one percent of those who earned from $40,000 to $75,000 said there were strong conflicts between rich and poor, up from 47 percent in 2009. The lowest income bracket, less than $20,000, changed the least.
The grinding economic downturn may be contributing to the heightened perception of conflict between rich and poor, said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“Rich and poor aren’t terribly distinct from secure and unemployed,” he said.
The survey attributed the change, in part, to “underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society,” citing a finding by the Census Bureau that the share of wealth held by the top 10 percent of the population increased to 56 percent in 2009, from 49 percent in 2005.
“There are facts behind it,” Mr. Smith said of the findings. “It’s not just rhetoric.”
Robert Rector, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, took issue with that, arguing that government data routinely undercounted aid to the poor and taxes taken from everyone else.
To him, the findings did not mean much, “other than that the topic has been in the press for the last two years.”