So why would anybody commission a poll asking people to choose between the income gap and advancement for the middle class? I can't speak to this poll's motives, but the question mirrors a false debate that is consuming politicians and thought leaders in Washington.
Make that two false debates. The first is drawn from the conservative notion that the only way to create opportunity for the middle class is by allowing the ultra-rich to become even richer through tax breaks, deregulation, and other policy contrivances. ("Trickle-down," anyone?) That belief has been thoroughly discredited by the events of the last two decades, but an idea that benefits so many powerful people has proven understandably hard to kill.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, the debate is between those who want to emphasize inequality and those who want to keep pushing the somewhat blander framing of "opportunity for all." The "opportunity" approach skirts the topic of redistributive policies, which is thought by some to be more controversial (and which can alienate wealthy donors). A longtime favorite of the right, the "opportunity" trope was adopted by "centrist" Democrats of recent decades.
The Democrats have been wrestling with the opportunity/inequality divide for some time now, and sometimes one politician has been on both sides of it. In 2014, for example, the White House let it be known in advance that inequality would be the central theme of the President's State of the Union address. The President had already described it as "the defining challenge of our time."
But, for reasons that can only be speculated upon, he changed his mind and chose a new challenge. Inequality was out. "Opportunity is who we are," Obama now said, "and the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise" (emphasis ours).
As Zachary Goldfarb noted in The Washington Post, over the following months the President "shifted from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class."
But the false polarity between inequality and opportunity had already become the subject of heated debate in policy-wonk circles. In a widely read piece, Ezra Klein argued that the emphasis was misplaced. "Imagine you were given a choice between reducing income inequality by 50 percent and reducing unemployment by 50 percent," argued Klein. "Which would you choose?"
Klein chose unemployment.
That engendered considerable pushback, from Paul Krugman among others. But Klein's fundamental mistake wasn't that he made the wrong choice. His mistake was in choosing at all.
As Krugman noted, "there is a reasonable case for assigning at least partial blame for the economic crisis to rising inequality." Conversely, as Jared Bernstein noted at the time, "full employment enforces a more equitable distribution of growth."
In the end, this false debate may be driven by matters of political economy. An increasingly oligarchical system, with ever-concentrated pockets of wealth and a privately financed campaign system, leads inevitably to a political stasis in which taxes won't be increased for the wealthy -- a key aspect of the "inequality" approach -- and opportunity-generating jobs and education programs can't be provided for the middle class, especially without tax revenue to pay for them.
Unless it's accompanied by some redistributive measures, the call for "opportunity" is likely to become little more than a feel-good mantra that allows this political paralysis to continue.
We need to create jobs, rebuild our infrastructure, strengthen wages, and increase education funding. These are "opportunity" items. But if they are to succeed, they will require some redistributive policies, including higher taxes on the wealthy and greater sharing of productivity gains with workers (using mechanisms like minimum wage increases and increased collective bargaining).