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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the gap between the nation's wealthy and poor grows, Americans are deeply divided along political party lines over how to bridge income inequality, a survey released on Thursday showed.
President Barack Obama has pledged to make poverty and inequality a priority for his second term, having campaigned for re-election in 2012 largely on boosting the middle class. He is expected to address the issue in his State of the Union speech next week.
But the Pew Research Center poll shows stark dissonance over the federal government's role in addressing the gap and highlights the president's challenge in enacting new policies in Washington amid steep divisions between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.
A clear majority of Americans recognize the growing income gap, according to the Pew survey. Nearly two-thirds of the 1,504 adults polled believe income inequality has grown during the past decade. More than 350 respondents said they were Republicans, nearly 500 were Democrats, and close to 600 politically independent. The rest gave no preference.
The United States has been struggling to regain financial footing following the 2007-2009 recession. While economists note some slow, steady progress, the recovery process has been uneven.
About 15 percent of U.S. residents, or 46.5 million people, live in poverty, the latest U.S. Census figures show.
The divide has served to highlight a variety of issues from economic fairness and workers' rights to spending on education and social services.
While nearly all of those surveyed saw some role for government action, 90 percent of Democrats - compared with 45 percent of Republicans - said the government should do "a lot" or take "some" action to help close the wealth gap.
Nearly half of Republicans said the government should do "not much" or "nothing," compared with 10 percent of Democrats, according to the survey.
Among political independents, 69 percent said they backed action while 28 percent felt the government should hold back.
The telephone poll, conducted with USA Today from January 15 to January 19, has an overall margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
"In part, these differences reflect divergent beliefs about the effectiveness of government action on inequality and poverty," Pew researchers said. "Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to say the government can do a lot to reduce poverty and especially inequality."
Party divisions over tools to tackle poverty such as tax reform, government aid programs, minimum wage and unemployment insurance were clearly drawn.
Overall, respondents to the poll largely backed two of the Obama administration's current proposals: raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 and extending benefits for the long-term unemployed.
A majority also backed raising taxes on the wealthy to help expand programs for the poor, Pew said. But among Democrats, 75 percent supported such action compared to 29 percent of Republicans.
It is not yet clear what, if any, specific new policies or programs Obama may offer in his speech on Tuesday. Any proposals face a tough challenge in Congress, where the gulf between Democrats and Republicans has led to much gridlock.
Earlier this week, the president announced plans to meet with Pope Francis, who has also made fighting poverty a hallmark issue.
In the meantime, many states have stepped in with their own approach aimed at lifting the poor. Several states in recent years have moved to enact a variety of changes - from higher minimum wages to paid sick days.
Aside from politics, the poll also showed divergent views depending on respondents' own incomes.
Sixty percent of those earning less than $30,000 annually said government assistance can help people to meet basic needs so they can climb out of poverty, compared with 45 percent of those making more than $75,000, Pew said.
Those with higher incomes also were more likely to cite hard work as the top reason people accumulate wealth while those in the lower-income bracket were more likely to say rich people had more advantages, according to the survey.
Despite the gap, more Americans overall - 60 percent - agree that hard work is the way to escape poverty.
Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Gunna Dickson