Economic system

Europeans are increasingly unhappy with the inequalities of the economic system

One of the main casualties of the euro crisis has been Europeans’ confidence in the fairness of their economic system, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.

In what is now the fifth year after the Great Recession, Europeans believe that inequality is now a major problem in their societies and believe that things will only get worse.

One of the consequences of the euro crisis has been an increase in income inequality in many parts of Europe. Inequalities can be measured in different ways. One indicator is the share of additional national income earned by the top fifth of the population relative to that controlled by the bottom fifth. This ratio is on the rise in seven of the eight EU countries surveyed, according to Eurostat calculations, the statistical agency of the European Union. In 2010, according to the latest available data, the top 20% of Greek earners accounted for 5.6 times more of the Greek national income than people living in the bottom 20% of the income distribution. In 2011, the Greek inequality rate was 6.4. Over the same period, there was a similar rise in inequality in Italy, from 5.2 to 6.0, and a slightly smaller jump in Spain, from 6.9 to 7.5.

As the rich got richer, people across Europe took notice, and they don’t like it.

A strong majority (a median of 77%) of Europeans polled believe that the current economic system generally favors the wealthy. This includes 95% of Greeks, 89% of Spaniards and 86% of Italians. Even seven out of ten Germans (72%) who are doing better economically than other Europeans say the system is rigged.

Moreover, the vast majority of all Europeans (a median of 85%) surveyed overwhelmingly agree that the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past five years. It’s a feeling almost universally shared, with almost nine out of ten Spaniards, Germans, Italians and Greeks agreeing.

And half or more of people in the eight EU countries surveyed think the gap between rich and poor is a very large problem. This is particularly worrying in Greece (84%), Spain (75%) and Italy (75%).

With the International Monetary Fund predict continued economic stagnation in much of Europe for some time to come there will be no rising tide to lift all the boats. Public attitudes towards the distribution of income and wealth could prove to be a growing political issue as Europe grapples with the consequences of the euro crisis.

Bruce Stokes is a former director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.