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Americans Think the Rich Are Smarter, but Greedier

Monday, 27 Aug 2012 | 3:03 PM ET
Erik Dreyer | Stone | Bloomberg

The presidential campaign has given us two opposing stereotypes of the wealthy — neither of which reflects the actual views of most American voters.

Republicans say that the rich are hard-working job creators who are admired — and even saluted — by their fellow Americans. They say Americans don’t want to tax success and engage in wealth spreading.

Democrats say the rich didn’t make it on their own, and can be heartless and uncharitable. They say Americans want the rich to pay their fair share and want to shrink the growing wealth gap.

A new poll on wealth from Pew Research, however, reveals that this black-and-white view of the rich doesn’t reflect the shades of gray with which most Americans view the rich.

The Pew poll finds that more 80 percent of self-described middle-class and lower-class Americans say they admire people who get rich by working hard. Four in 10 Americans say the wealthy are more likely to be intelligent (that compares to 8 percent who say they are less likely to be intelligent). (Read more: Did the ‘Lost’ Middle Class Get Rich?)

At the same time, 55 percent say the wealthy are more greedy and 34 percent say the wealthy are less likely to be honest (compared to 12 percent who say they are more honest).

A majority of adults (58 percent) say that upper-income people pay too little in federal taxes. One in four (26 percent) say upper-income people pay their fair share in taxes, and 8 percent say they pay too much in taxes.

More than six in 10 Americans (63 percent) say the GOP favors the rich over the middle class and poor, and 71 percent believe the policies of a President Mitt Romney would be good for wealthy people.

When it comes to President Barack Obama, more say his policies will help the poor (60 percent) than say they will help the middle class (50 percent) or the wealthy (37 percent). By contrast, just 31 percent say Romney’s policies would help the poor and 40 percent say they would help the middle class.

There are some critical partisan differences in the data — especially around taxes. More than four in 10 Republicans say upper-income people pay either their fair share of taxes or too much (14 percent). Among Democrats, 78 percent say upper-income people pay too little in taxes, while 13 percent say upper-income people pay their fair share.

A majority of both groups, however, say the middle class pays its fair share. (Read more: Rich Are Less Charitable Than Middle Class)

The poll shows that the upper-income groups are happier, healthier and doing better financially that most Americans. About four in 10 upper-class adults say they are in better shape now than they were before the recession (learn more). That compares with about four in ten middle-class adults who say they are in worse financial shape.

My takeaway from the poll is that Americans generally have a favorable view of how the wealthy got wealthy. But they still want the wealthy to pay more. That's a nuance that we're unlikely to hear from either party this election.



—By CNBC’s Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank

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