With the vast bulk of society describing itself in polls as middle-class, polarization is not pronounced.
Americans tolerate great differences in wealth if they believe that opportunity is broadly present. Therefore, it is particularly important to examine what people say about opportunity. Do they think that it is present for most Americans? For themselves? Have such judgments changed over time? What are the expectations for the next generation? For their own children? Just a handful of survey trends exists for any of these questions.
Equality of opportunity is a demanding social standard. It requires that people perceive the rules of the game to be fair. If they believe this is the case, they put up with disparities in income and status. If they feel the rules are being rigged to favor one group or another, inequality could become a more important political issue. Beyond this, society requires that certain standards of behavior be observed up and down the social and economic ladders. High salaries for CEOs, entertainers, or the media are not seen as inherently unjust. At some point, though, they may be considered unseemly or excessive, upsetting the social equilibrium. Flaunting wealth or status is offensive, and this too could fuel resentment.
In 1986, James R. Kluegel, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, and Eliot R. Smith, a psychologist from Purdue University, published Beliefs About Inequality: Americans' Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. They conducted a national survey (and one of Illinois residents) in which they investigated why Americans think some people are rich and some are poor. The authors asked respondents to rate the importance of a number of causes of wealth, including personal effort, ability or talent, political pull, inheritance, the unfairness of the economic system, dishonesty, and luck. Sixty-four percent selected personal drive, willingness to take risks, and money inherited from families as very important reasons why there are rich people in the U.S., while 60% cited hard work and initiative; 47% chose political influence or pull; and 46% named great ability or talent.
Significantly, just 29% selected as a very important reason that the American economic system allows the rich to take unfair advantage of the poor; 27% cited dishonesty and willingness to take what they can get; and 26% mentioned good luck or being at the right place at the right time as very important. The average percentage for the explanations based on individual drive, ability, or pluck was higher than that for responses based on the structure of society.
The same pattern of giving great weight to individual achievement appeared in the data about why people are poor. The authors asked respondents to rate the importance of several individual causes for poverty (lack of thrift, ability, and/or effort; attitudes that hold people back; and poor morals) and social ones (being taken advantage of by the rich; poor schools; low wages; and lack of jobs). Kluegel and Smith compared their results with those from a 1969 survey and concluded that people's view of what causes poverty has been remarkably stable over time.
In 1990, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked people to assess the importance of four reasons for the presence of poor people in America. Two explanations related to the individual and two were structural. More people selected as very important the lack of effort by the poor themselves (45%) than any other reason, while eight percent indicated that this was not important as an explanation for poverty. Thirty-eight percent answered that loose morals and drunkenness were very important reasons; 25% dissented. The results were similar for the structural response "failure of society to provide good schools for many Americans," cited as very important by 35% and not important by 24%. Thirty-five percent considered the failure of industry to provide enough jobs as very important, with 21% saying that it was not.
In 1992, NORC asked a national sample about the importance of a long list of factors for getting ahead in life. Ninety percent called ambition essential or very important, while 88% felt that way about hard work, 87% about having a good education, and 52% about natural ability. Fewer selected knowing the right people (43%) and having well-educated parents (41%). Much smaller percentages mentioned coming from a wealthy family or having political connections (18%), being born a man or a woman (17%), race or religion (15%), or political beliefs (11%).