Most Americans have taken note of the growing gap in wealth between the best- and worst-off Americans, according to recent polling by YouGov. Many believe inequalities have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, though few are aware of how markedly tax rates have fallen for billionaires over the past half-century. While both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to support than to oppose increasing taxes on billionaires, members of each party do have different perceptions of who billionaires are, what they deserve, and how likely they are to receive special treatment.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the wealth of U.S. billionaires is estimated to have risen by at least 62%. More than half of Americans (54%) are aware of billionaires' gains, and an even larger share (64%) believe the pandemic has contributed to a growing gap in wealth between America's rich and poor. By 52% to 27%, Americans believe the federal government should pursue policies that reduce this gap, and by a slightly smaller margin — 45% to 31% — they support policies directly aimed at reducing the share of wealth held by billionaires.
A majority of Americans (57%) believe billionaires are currently taxed too little in the U.S.; that includes 40% who say the amount of taxes billionaires are asked to pay is "much too low." Only 10% believe taxes on billionaires are too high. Many people are also skeptical that billionaires pay the amount they are required to in the first place; only one in four believe that billionaires pay the full amount of taxes they owe.
Average effective tax rates on ultra-wealthy Americans have fallen significantly since the 1960s, while taxes on the bottom 50% of Americans have remained relatively stable. Fewer than half of Americans — 37% — are aware of the shrinking tax rates faced by billionaires; 13% believe tax rates on the wealthy have stayed the same since the '60s, and 27% believe they've increased.
One specific plan endorsed by President Joe Biden, referred to as the Billionaire Minimum Income Tax (BMIT), requires American households earning $100 million or more to pay at least 20% of their income in taxes. Currently, billionaires are estimated to pay an average of only 8.2% of their income. By a margin of nearly three to one, Americans support the BMIT. Democrats (81%), Republicans (46%), and Independents (55%) are all more likely to support it than oppose it.
In a series of questions, we asked Americans their attitudes on common arguments made about billionaires and wealth. The two arguments most likely to be endorsed are "at some level of extreme wealth, money inevitably corrupts" (70% strongly or somewhat agree) and "a billion dollars is far more than any person needs" (67% agree).
Americans are divided as to whether "billionaires are the engine of the economy": 40% agree they are and 41% disagree. Nearly half of people (48%) agree that billionaires deserve the money they have, while 36% believe they don't deserve it. The rallying cry embraced by some progressive politicians in recent years that "every billionaire is a policy failure" only gains the endorsement of one in four Americans (25%), while 42% disagree with it.
People from different parties disagree on whether billionaires deserve their wealth: 69% of Republicans say they do, compared to only 37% of Democrats and 41% of Independents. Republicans are also more likely than Democrats or Independents to believe billionaires are the engine of the economy. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to agree that a billion dollars is more than a person could ever need, and that every billionaire is a policy failure.
Americans' ideas about wealth and deservingness are tied to their perceptions of who billionaires are and how they are treated. When asked how they compare to other Americans, only around one-third of people say billionaires are more creative (32%) or hardworking (28%), and only 19% believe they are more generous. Meanwhile, 76% of people believe billionaires have more political influence than other Americans, and 65% believe they receive more lenient treatment by the criminal justice system. Half (49%) say they're less likely than others to pay the taxes they owe.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe that billionaires are especially generous, hardworking, and creative, and less likely to say they're more inclined to commit crimes and receive lenient treatment by the criminal justice system. Republicans also have more faith than Democrats that billionaires are just as likely as others to pay their share in taxes, though more Republicans still believe they're less likely to do so, rather than more likely.
How many billionaires are there in the U.S.? According to Forbes' most recent count, there are 735. Americans vastly underestimate this, providing a median response of 100 — meaning roughly that half say fewer than 100 and half say more. More than three in four estimated a total fewer than 735. Forbes estimates there are 2,668 billionaires in the world; the median estimate by Americans is 500.
To find out how Americans feel about specific billionaires, we asked their opinions on 12 and estimated each one's overall rating by subtracting the share of people who hold a favorable view from the share who hold an unfavorable view. Of the dozen billionaires asked about, the most well-regarded is American business magnate Warren Buffett (+25), followed by Melinda Gates (+15) and MacKenzie Scott (+12), two ex-wives of founders of two of the country's largest companies, Microsoft (Bill Gates) and Amazon (Jeff Bezos). The least popular of the 12 billionaires polled are Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (-32), Bezos (-12), and Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch (-10).
Democrats and Republicans differ substantially in their evaluations of certain billionaires; most notably, Tesla founder Elon Musk receives far higher ratings from Republicans than from Democrats. Both Bill and Melinda Gates, on the other hand, are favored far more by Democrats than by Republicans.
— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article
This poll was conducted on September 16 - 19, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
Image: Adobe Stock (Spencer Platt)