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Pope Francis' stand on inequality: Do Americans agree?

During his US visit, Pope Francis has called for more to be done to help the poor and to address a widening inequality. Many Americans appear to agree – with some caveats.

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    A young girl sits with a group of onlookers as they await the arrival of Pope Francis outside a beauty salon across the street from Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in New York.
    Jason DeCrow/AP
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Pope Francis is sweeping through several big US cities with a resonant message: More needs to be done to help the poor, and to address a widening inequality as society's richest gain faster than everyone else.

He has arrived at a time when a majority of Americans share those concerns – and generally in more than just an abstract "that would be nice" way.

The state of the economy remains the top national priority in polls, as it has been for most of the time since the deep recession of 2007-09. Even families in the middle of the income spectrum are short on savings and long on anxiety.

Does this mean Americans broadly see eye to eye with the pope on economic issues, or that he has a ripe opportunity to sway more toward his views on the subject?

Perhaps so, albeit with a caveat: Opinion polls suggest that Americans show a strong affinity for the “opportunity” side of their economic system – often emphasizing the virtues of the free market over virtues of the safety net. That stands in contrast to a pontiff who has devoted much of his clerical life to ministering to the poor.

Still, as Francis visited New York Friday with scheduled stops including the United Nations and a Harlem school, there appears to be substantial common ground between the pope’s economic keynotes and what Americans already believe.

First, consider some of what Francis has been saying: He enjoined Americans in a Thursday speech to Congress to “fight against poverty and hunger.” That call has deep roots in his thinking, as evidenced in a lengthy 2013 exhortation to the Roman Catholic Church:

“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few,” he said in that document. “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

Now, here’s what Americans think. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken a few months ago found two thirds of US adults saying the distribution of money and wealth should be more even, and 57 percent saying the government should take action toward that end.

Specifically, two thirds in that poll supported the idea of raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million a year, and 7 in 10 said they’d support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Even larger numbers support requirements that employers offer paid family leave and sick leave.

On poverty, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found 53 percent of Americans saying the government should do a lot – and 29 percent saying the government should do some – to help the poor.

But are poverty and inequality the result of unbridled capitalism and financial speculation? On that, the views of the US public are nuanced.

In many ways, they agree with Francis. According to Pew, 6 in 10 Americans say the country’s economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. The CBS/New York Times poll, meanwhile, found 74 percent saying corporations have too much influence on American life and politics.

Another Pew poll, taken this year, found that only 5 percent of Americans say government policies since the recession have done a lot to help the middle class, while 36 percent or more say those policies have done a lot to help the wealthy, large corporations, and especially big banks.

Still, Americans remain enamored of free-market economics, and they’re wary in general about expanding government. Most want to help the poor, but Pew polling found almost as many people saying government programs are harmful by creating dependence (44 percent) as there were saying the programs do more good than harm (49 percent).

This divide, broadly a conservative-liberal one, suggests a mixed opinion regarding the approach that Francis offers. In his 2013 document, he sought not mere welfare projects, instead calling for “programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

That plea is a challenge to do more than just assist the poor and tax the rich a bit more.

In his address to Congress, Francis chose to give gentle nudges rather than to adopt a lecturing tone. And he tucked in some appreciation for free markets.

“It goes without saying that part of this great effort [to fight poverty] is the creation and distribution of wealth,” he said. “The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology, and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable.”

Francis has also been using his papacy to urge people to better care for their earth, including his controversial encyclical about confronting climate change. Part of his message along these lines has been about the virtues of a simpler, less consumerist life.

To Congress, he quoted his past writings to say that people have the freedom not only to create technology, but also to “limit and direct” it.

For some people living in the world’s biggest consumer economy, that part of his message, too, isn’t the easiest to hear.

In his UN speech Friday, Francis linked the issues of poverty and the environment by saying that the poor suffer especially from the “abuse of the environment.”

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