The key here is that the question does not ask whether we should raise taxes on the rich to pay down the deficit, as many other polls do. Respondents are asked if we should raise taxes on the rich to expand the safety net as a way to reduce poverty, and a majority says Yes — far more than saying the best way to help the poor is by cutting taxes on the job creators. Independents agree with this by 51-36. Only Republicans favor lowering taxes on the job creators over taxing the rich to expand programs for the poor, by 59-29.
Yglesias raises an important distinction:
The danger for liberals to keep in mind is that voters are less persuaded that the government can do something useful to reduce inequality than they are that the government should do something useful.
People are accustomed to the idea of a mass public that’s “ideologically conservative and operationally liberal”; in other words one that hates “big government” but loves programs such as Medicare and Social Security. On inequality you could see the reverse happen, where people favor bold action to tackle inequality but are skeptical that specific programmatic ideas are workable or will be implemented correctly.
Emily Badger focuses on what the poll had to say about the causes of wealth and poverty:
The belief that people are poor more through their own lack of effort than their circumstances is widely held by large segments of the population, including 51 percent of Republicans, and 46 percent of people in the highest income group (which is not that high). If you fall into this category, then it clearly doesn’t make sense for society to try to solve a problem that it had little hand in creating.
This difference is important, although the survey question itself feels unsatisfying. I’d love to see a survey that gets much more specific about what those circumstances might be: If a child born into poverty remains poor as an adult, how much do you believe failing schools, neighborhood crime, and poor job access contributed to that outcome? I wonder if the answer would change for some people if the concept of “circumstances” weren’t quite so abstract, if it weren’t posed simply as the alternative to personal responsibility. Surely Obama is choosing his words very carefully right now.