The Richer You Are, The Richer You Think America Is

This recent Washington Post article comes well-timed following yesterday’s post about America’s large and growing child poverty rate. Citing a study published in Psychological Science by Rael Dawtry and Robbie Sutton at the University of Kent, and Chris Sibley at the University of Auckland, it explains how pervasive and entrenched socioeconomic segregation is at the heart of the U.S.’s high and widening inequities.

The wealthy, surrounded by other wealthy people, generally believed the U.S. population was wealthier than it actually is. It’s easy to imagine why they might make this mistake: If you look around you and see few poor people — on the street, in your child’s classroom, at the grocery store — you may think poverty is pretty rare.

The communities we see immediately around us, the authors argue, shape our sense of how rich America is. And those perceptions, in turn, can influence how we feel about government policies for the poor. In this study, wealthier people who overestimated the extent of wealth in the U.S. were also more likely to perceive the economy as fair and more likely to oppose redistribution policies.

This implies that attitudes about programs like welfare aren’t based solely on political ideology or self-interest (if I have a lot of money, I don’t want to be taxed more). They’re also influenced by cues we get from the environment around us. That means that the wealthy don’t just lack information about what it’s like to be poor; they also lack basic information about how pervasive poverty is.

The study’s conclusion sum up how and why the U.S. can continue to tolerate unjustifiably high levels of poverty, indebtedness, and hunger despite so much economic growth and potential; and also how mounting evidence of the worsening state of the country do not put a stop to opposition to better wages (whether privately or legally mandated), more investment in infrastructure and education, more affordable housing and healthcare, and so on.

These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.

In essence, it is not that wealthy people as a whole are wilfully cruel and callous — although there is certainly a sizeable subset that are arguably are — but rather that they simply do not know any better. Our society has become so divided along so many lines, in both geographic and psychological terms, that it is difficult for people to come around to experiences outside their own. There really are two Americas (and many more if you include race and ethnicity, which intersect with class and economic status) with two very different experiences and understandings informing their policy.

As the WaPo article points out, this is problem is all the more concerning given that economic segregation in the U.S. is worsening; that we increasingly less likely to live near, let alone interact with, people of different incomes levels; and that the economic gap between rich and poor communities — even those not far from each other — is growing.

Moreover, with wealthier Americans and their interests groups having disproportionate influence over our political system, including over policies that could alleviate poverty and inequality, it is hard to see a way out of this self-perpetuating problem — at least within current sociopolitical paradigms.

What are your thoughts?

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One comment on “The Richer You Are, The Richer You Think America Is

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