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Americans say rich don't work harder

At the core of the inequality debate is the question of why some people are poor and others rich.

Liberals think it's structural, that the economy is rigged to support the privileged and keep down the poor. Conservatives say it's work and culture, that working hard and making the right choices will lift you up.

But a new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that the American public has a more balanced view of wealth and inequality.

Mauro Grigolio | E+ | Getty Images

The survey found that most people believe being rich has to do with "having more advantages than others." Only about one-third believe wealth is a result of hard work.

(Read more: Don't tear down the rich: Summers)

Half of those surveyed believe that people are poor because of "circumstances beyond their control." Only 35 percent believe it has to do with a lack of effort.

Most also feel the system "unfairly benefits the wealthy."

(Read more: Politicians wrong on mobility: Study)

But at the same time, Americans still believe the U.S. is the land of opportunity. Sixty percent agree that "most people who want to get ahead can make it if they work hard."

There are, of course, wide disparities between Republican and Democrat responses—especially on solutions for inequality. Both agree that it has increased over the past decade (61 percent for Republicans and 68 percent for Democrats).

(Read more: Richest of the rich ponder how to level the field)

While 90 percent of Democrats believe the government should do something, only 45 percent of Republicans agreed. Three-quarters of Democrats favor raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations; 59 percent of Republicans believe taxes should be lowered on those groups.

That last point may be whydespite all the talk about the topic at Davos and President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union speech—many still expect little or nothing to change anytime soon.

—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.

Watch "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.|http://superrich.cnbc.com.

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.

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