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Seeing the poor cuts support for a tax on the rich

Roheeni Saxena
Wealth inequality has increased over the last several decades, as the gap between the rich and the poor has become wider. There are a number of possible policy approaches to limiting that gap, but they haven't drawn much support.
You might think that if wealthy people had more regular exposure to poor people, it might humanize the impoverished, and inspire the rich to favor some sort of wealth redistribution policies, such as extra taxes for the top one percent of incomes. However, a recent study published in PNAS by Melissa L. Sands shows the opposite: when randomly selected people were exposed to poor people in public spaces (like the park or subway), they were less likely to support taxing the extremely rich.
This study took place in affluent, predominantly white areas around Boston, including the neighborhoods of Brookline, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill. In public spaces, the researcher planted a petitioner who was recruiting signatures either in favor of reducing plastic bags, or in favor of a “millionaire’s tax,” which would raise the taxes on people with incomes over a million dollars. Nearby in the pedestrian public space, was a collaborator who was either assigned to present themselves as an affluent person waiting to meet a friend, or an impoverished person resting in the public space.
This study was designed to identify the effects of seeing a person who appeared poor on unsuspecting participant’s decisions to endorse a wealth redistribution tax. It included the alternative petition as a control measure to account for people not wanting to interact with street petition gatherers. It also included both affluent and impoverished confederates for both types of petitions. Finally, the study design included petitioners and affluent/poor confederates of different races, because race and perceptions of poverty are known to be highly linked in American society. The passersby who were used as unknowing study participants were randomized to receive a combination of petitioner and confederate conditions.
The author, Sands, used the number of signatures that resulted from each experimental condition to determine the effect of seeing poverty on attitudes towards wealth redistribution. The number of signatures in favor of the plastic bag reduction petition was uninfluenced by the presence of the confederate. But participants were significantly less likely to support the millionaire’s tax in the presence of a “poor” person.
When these results were broken down by race, the data showed an even stronger and more surprising effect. In the presence of a “poor” white person, significantly fewer people were likely to sign the millionaire’s tax petition than in the presence of an “affluent” white person, but this finding did not hold for black confederates. Participants’ support of the millionaire’s tax was the same whether they encountered affluent-looking black confederates or if these same person looked poor.
Interestingly, when the effects of “affluent” black confederates were compared to “affluent” white confederates, participants were less likely to favor the millionaire’s tax when confronted with an “affluent” black person, though this results was not statistically significant. In fact, the author reported that this finding held true for the plastic bag petition as well, which may indicate that participants were less likely to stop for a petitioner of any kind when a black person is nearby. This finding may point directly to the way that implicit bias against certain racial groups could be influencing even the subtlest human interactions.
Sands posits a few plausible explanations for this study’s findings. She suggests that individuals may be adjusting their perceptions of their own affluence when confronted with someone who looks “poor.” This may cause them to over-identify with the millionaires on whom the wealth tax would be levied. The presence of a “poor” person might also reinforce participants’ belief that their own wealth is earned, and that if someone is poor then their poverty is similarly earned—this is known as the “just world belief,” and is a common effect seen in sociological studies.
Overall, this study provides insights into how people’s opinions about wealth and poverty may be influenced by the visual cues that surround them. It may be surprising to some that seeing a poor person doesn’t induce sympathetic feelings, but instead does the opposite. This finding leaves one important question lingering: if encountering poor people is not an effective way to trigger sympathy and nudge people towards supporting the poor, what will? Perhaps future studies will provide more answers.
Seeing the poor cuts support for a tax on the rich Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 9:08 PM Rating: 5

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