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A Survey of the Wealthiest 1% and the Common Good

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
December 6, 2011

attitudes-of-rich-americansWhat do the wealthiest Americans think about the common good and the role of government in solving the country's problems? While it is sometimes assumed the very rich may use their considerable assets to pursue their own self-interest, good polling data on the preferences of the very rich is hard to find. How do they participate in the political process? What problems do they think need to be solved first? What do they think are the best ways to approach these problems—the free market, the government, or philanthropy?

With support from the Russell Sage Foundation, a team of researchers at Northwestern University and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago surveyed a random sample of 104 individuals in Chicago-area households with a median worth of $7.5 million. The results can be read in a working paper, entitled "Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy, and the Common Good." Fay Lomax Cook, one of the paper's co-authors, said, "Our goal is to replace the rhetoric with facts. The best surveys on wealthy Americans typically examine the top 20 to 30 percent of the nation’s income earners. As a result, they contain too small a sample to generalize about the one percent." The co-authors are Benjamin Page and Rachel Moskowitz. Here are some of the main findings:

  • Problems Facing the U.S.: Asked what they thought was the "most important problem facing the country today," respondents cited budget deficits most frequently (32%), followed by unemployment (11%) and education (also 11%). Respondents were then asked to go through a list of 11 possible problems and rate them as very important, somewhat important, or not very important at all. Budget deficits again topped the list, with 87% calling them "very important," followed closely by unemployment (84%), education (79%) and terrorism (74%).
  • Political Activities: Wealthy Americans are far more active in politics than less affluent citizens. Nearly all respondents said they voted in the 2008 elections; half of the respondents said they had contacted at least one type of government official in the past year; 41% reported attending a campaign speech or event and 68% said they donated to a political cause or campaign in the past four years. Roughly one of five respondents said they "bundled" contributions from other people for a party or political cause; on average, respondents reported giving $4,633 to political campaigns and organizations in the past year.
  • Political Attitudes: When asked to focus on how they would advance the common good, respondents often tended to argue for "getting government out of the way" in favor of free markets or private philanthropy. Of those respondents who considered deficits the most pressing problem, 65% mentioned only cutting spending as the way forward, compared to 35% who favored both spending cuts and revenue increases. No one mentioned only increasing revenue. Most respondents also favored cutting back most federal government programs, including Social Security and health care.
  • Volunteer Activities and Charity: Nine in ten respondents said they had done volunteering work in the past year. Most respondents also reported giving money to a wide range of causes; the median respondent in the sample gave 4% of his or her annual income to charity. The authors estimate a household with $10 million in net worth tends to give roughly $40,000 annually to charity, or a little less than one half of 1 percent of its wealth.

Another summary of the report can be found in this article from Northwestern University, entitled "A Rare Survey of the One Percent." The full paper can also be read (and downloaded) below. The Russell Sage Foundation supported the project as part of its efforts to better understand political inequality in America; for more information on grants and research in this area, read our Political Inequality Request for Proposals.

Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy, and the Common Good