Following my current practice, I tried to track down the original poll data online. I haven't found it yet, but I found this blog article from 2004 that describes the poll finding as an "urban legend." The basis of the writer's debunking effort is the apparent fact that the poll didn't ask participants directly if they were among the richest 1%. Instead, the pollsters asked if participants thought that a tax cut proposed by presidential candidate George W. Bush, and described as benefiting the richest 1%, would benefit them. To that question, 19% said yes. The blogger acknowledges that there's room to interpret the result the way many people have, but also notes that the response reflects respondents' aspirations. Some may have said the tax cut would benefit them if they expected to join the richest 1%. The blogger, however, doesn't address the larger number later cited by Purdy, which includes those who expect to join the richest 1% as a separate category.Despite that, I'd probably agree that, if you asked these people directly whether they were in the richest 1%, probably less than 19% would have said yes.
Nevertheless, the poll reflects some mass failure to grasp exactly how rich the richest are in this country. Since we should presume that the respondents had some realistic sense of their own income, their responses can only mean that they didn't understand just how unequal American society has become through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years. Ego and greed probably also factor into the response.
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