Concomitantly, the ranks of the middle and upper-middle classes have increased. Only 28 percent of people reported growing up middle class, and just 8 percent said they had lived in an upper-middle class home. Today, 42 percent of people say they belong to the middle class and 15 percent are part of the upper-middle class. Only 1 percent of the population said they were in the upper class as children and that's the same percentage that say they belong to this class today.
In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever of economic class stagnation or deterioration in the data. Fewer people live poorly, and more people live well. The data are unambiguous because people are reporting their relative position in society as they see it. And in this case, perception is reality.
In another question, people were asked if they thought it was still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich. The first time this question was asked, in 1983, only 57 percent of people thought it was possible. In 1998, in the midst of exceptionally strong economic growth, 70 percent of people thought it was possible to get rich. Today, 80 percent say it is possible to become rich in America, and a mere 19 percent say it is not.
People were also asked about what they thought their own personal prospects were for becoming rich. Amazingly, 11 percent of people said that they thought it was very likely. Another 34 percent thought it was somewhat likely. Only 22 percent thought they had no chance at all.
This may explain why so many people in the Times poll said that they favor abolition of the estate tax. Only 17 percent of people favor this tax, and an overwhelming 76 percent oppose it. Obviously, many people who know that they themselves will never, ever pay this tax nevertheless favor its abolition.
I believe that the recent media interest in inequality is part of a last ditch effort to save the estate tax from repeal this year. The Times poll suggests that it will be an uphill effort.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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