The gap between the incomes of the rich and everyone else is large and getting bigger, while middle-class paychecks stagnate. That's sparked Occupy Wall Street protests and raised concerns that the nation's middle class isn't sharing in economic growth.
The Census Bureau says that the highest-earning 20 percent of American households received 51.1 percent of all income in 2011. That was the biggest share in records dating back to 1967.
Since government programs such as Medicare and food stamps reduce inequality, whether — and how much — they should be cut as part of deficit-reduction efforts takes on greater importance. Income equality also figures in debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay.