Majority say economic system favors the wealthy

The New York Stock Exchange is viewed on July 31, 2013 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
The New York Stock Exchange is viewed on July 31, 2013 in New York, N.Y.

The economy remains a top concern as it has in recent elections, with more than 6-in-10 voters saying that the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, according to the NBC News national exit poll.

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In the 2012 election, 56% of voters said the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy, and 39% said it is fair to most Americans. Today, 63% say the system favors the wealthy and just 32% say it is fair to most. This growing sentiment about economic inequality comes at the same time that voters have a slightly better opinion of the state of the national economy than they did two years ago.

Voters are somewhat less pessimistic about the national economy than they were during the last midterm, but the overall view is still negative. Currently, 29% of Americans say the national economy is in good shape, which is up from 9% four years ago when the country was still reeling from the financial collapse. The vast majority, though, continue to hold a negative view of the state of the national economy, with 48% saying it is not so good, and another 22% saying it is poor. Before the economy collapsed, voters in the 2006 midterm were much more positive, with nearly half – 49% -- saying it was excellent or good.

Leading economic indicators suggest that the economy has improved significantly over the past few years. Unemployment has finally dipped below 6%, triggering the Federal Reserve Bank to end its stimulus program. But some observers say that the recovery has not been enjoyed equally by all segments of America.

In a speech in Boston last month, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said that the recovery has been characterized by “significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority.” Yellen added, “I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

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The NBC News national exit poll indicates many voters share those concerns. Not surprisingly, income level appears to shape their views on this question. About two-thirds of those whose family income is less than $50,000  -- 70% -- and those earning $50,000 to $100,000 -- 64% --believe that the system favors the wealthy. They are joined by 57% of those earning between $100,000 and $200,000. Voters who make more than $200,000 are somewhat more divided – 52% say the nation’s economic system favors the wealthy, and 45% say it is fair to most.

Most voters are worried that the American dream is slipping away for next generation. Nearly half – 48% -- believe that life for the next generation will be worse than it is today. Only 22% say it will be better, and 27% say it will be the same.

This opinion actually pre-dates the economic crisis, but American voters are even more pessimistic today. In 2006, 40% predicted that the next generation would be worse off, while 30% said they would be better off. This is a significant turnaround from the heady days of 2000, when nearly half – 48% -- of the electorate expected that the next generation would enjoy a better life, and only 21% feared that things would get worse.

There may be a small ray of hope in these findings, though. Younger voters are a little less pessimistic about the future than others. Among those age 18 to 29, 34% feel that the next generation will be worse off. This is lower than the 43% of those age 30 to 44, and 52% of those age 45 and older, who feel the same.

Back in 2006, those who predicted life will be worse for their children voted to put Democrats in the House by a 2-to-1 margin – 66% to 32% -- over the GOP. In 2010, the pessimists flipped to the Republicans by a similar margin, 64% to 33%. In both years, these trends reflected the change in party control of the House. This time around, the pessimists continue to give the edge to Republican House candidates – 69% to 29% – over the Democrats.

RELATED: Life lived on minimum wage

One of the major policy debates related to economic equity has been raising the minimum wage. Even in states that have significant limits on union activity, voters still support ensuring that those at the lowest income scale earn a higher wage, according to NBC News exit polls in states where this has been an issue. Voter support for increasing the minimum wage stands at 69% in Louisiana, 64% in North Carolina, 61% in Iowa and 57% in Georgia. 

The minimum wage has also been an issue in the Wisconsin governor’s race. Incumbent Republican Scott Walker recently said he didn't think the minimum wage "serves a purpose," while President Obama campaigned for Democratic challenger Mary Burke last week, highlighting her support for raising the minimum wage. The NBC News exit poll in this state found that 64% of Wisconsin voters support raising the minimum, including 34% of Walker supporters.

Visit NBC News Decision 2014 for more exit poll results and election returns.