Mark Dolliver: Rise (Numerically) of the Have-Nots

The idea of rigid class division has seldom found an eager audience in this country, though this hasn’t stopped the occasional politician from hoisting a class-war banner. Now, though, amid much talk (and considerable evidence) of rising inequality, a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds Americans more inclined to see a sharp social divide.

Asked whether the U.S. is split into “haves” and “have-nots,” 48 percent said it is and 48 percent said it isn’t. (The rest declined to choose.) That’s an uptick since 2001 in the number seeing such a division (44 percent did then). And it departs radically from the responses to a 1988 Gallup poll, when 26 percent saw such a division.

Pew also asked people to say which class they belong to, if they had to pick. While a plurality said they’re “haves” (45 percent), that’s down from the 52 percent who did so in 2001 and down even more from the 59 percent saying so in 1988. Thirty-four percent rated themselves as have-nots, double the number doing so in 1988. The rest said they fit in neither group or refused to pick. More women than men situated themselves among the have-nots (37 percent vs. 30 percent).

As you’d expect, upper-income Americans are less likely than others to categorize themselves as have-nots—though one-fifth did just that (see the chart). But there has been a decline since 2001 in the number who classify themselves as haves (from 72 percent to 66 percent). Maybe they’re hoping for merciful treatment, come the revolution. There’s been an even steeper drop in the “haves” vote by the middle-income cohort (from 54 percent to 43 percent), while the number has inched up among lower-income respondents (from 31 percent to 32 percent).