America's love/hate relationship with the rich

June 18, 2014: 11:44 AM ET
What do you think of the rich?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

America's relationship with the rich is complicated.

Most of us are concerned about inequality and aren't inclined to respect someone just because they have money. But we also love the self-made millionaire -- the entrepreneur who got rich by their own smarts and hard work.

Why we love 'em

"Americans are fascinated by the rags-to-riches idea," said Kim Weeden, director of the Center for the Study of Inequality at Cornell University. "There's this perception that anyone can do it, and if you can't, you're lazy or damaged."

That image is particularly true in today's digital age, in which anyone with a good idea can find a platform to be heard. But that wasn't the case in the monopolistic Gilded Age, when it was often the already-rich who controlled all the resources and influence.

Related: The richest Americans in history

"In the era of the robber barons, they were hugely disliked by the public," said Edward Wolff, an economics professor at New York University.

feel rich

The perception that anyone can do it -- that anyone is just one ticket away from winning the lottery -- is one of the things that makes people skeptical of raising taxes on the rich.

In general, Americans do not support increasing taxes on the wealthy simply as a means of redistribution or to increase general government revenue, said Leslie McCall, a sociology professor at Northwestern. Even New Deal-era programs like Social Security were not popular at the time they were passed, she said.

What Americans are more apt to favor, said McCall, is higher taxes on the rich to fund specific programs that might level the playing field in the future -- like education or job training.

Why we hate 'em

Right now, inequality is looking more stark than ever.

Like most recoveries, the well-off are faring better than everyone else. The rich, who have most of their money in the stock market, have bounced back as stocks recovered from their recession-induced dive and corporate profits soared.

Yet job creation and raises for ordinary Americans have not been nearly as robust, and middle-class Americans are still reeling from the downturn.

As a result, CEOs are earning nearly 300 times what average workers do, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. That gap has been growing since the recession ended.

Related: The recovery in 17 charts

"Occupy Wall Street happened two years after the recession," said McCall. "Concerns about inequality are at a 25-year high."

Americans are also holding the rich in fairly low esteem right now:

class rating

While the rich often rate the lowest of all the classes, their favorability rating has dropped nine points over the last 10 years, said McCall.

Other polling data indicate the public is becoming more skeptical of the rich.

For example, 67% of Americans say the values of the rich and the middle class are becoming more different, according to a 2012 poll from the Pew Center for Research and the Press.

And echoing concerns that rising inequality will lead Americans to become disenfranchised with democracy, only 41% say the government is run for the benefit of all people, according to the Pew poll. That's down from 57% in 1987.

When will I be a millionaire?

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