One of most persistent–and pernicious–beliefs about inequality is the conviction that people “deserve” financial success or failure. If you are poor, the logic goes, that probably reflects some poor choices you made along the way, or your unwillingness to work hard, or perhaps a lack of innate capacity.
America’s approach to poverty owes a lot to the Fifteenth-century English poor laws that made it illegal to “give alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those laws, and subsequent policy approaches, categorized poor folks either as “deserving” (the widow and orphan) and “undeserving” (the sturdy beggar); that framework is ultimately responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a bureaucracy devoted to ferreting out the “undeserving,” and a political reluctance to provide an adequate social safety net since it might inadvertently benefit undeserving folks.
The Guardian recently reported on a group of scholars who are researching the basis of our very human tendency to see our own misfortune as just that–misfortune–while attributing other people’s situations to their character flaws. They are studying how rich and poor people alike justify inequality.
What these academics are finding is that the American dream is being used to rationalize a national nightmare.
It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.
For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.
This belief is closely related to the myth that America is a meritocracy, and that with hard work, education and some “moxie,” anyone can get ahead. That perception was never really accurate (ask African-Americans or women), but America did once have much greater social mobility than it does today.
The research notes a widespread suspicion that “they” are abusing/misusing social welfare programs that “my” taxes support, and a corresponding resentment of “them.” (The article notes that this attitude was a prominent characteristic of Trump voters.)
Another aspect of this phenomenon is known as “actor-observer bias”. When we watch others, we tend to see them as being driven by intrinsic personality traits, while in our own case we know that, for example, we acted angrily because we’d just been fired, not because we’re naturally angry people….
In other words, other poor people are poor because they make bad choices – but if I’m poor, it’s because of an unfair system. As a result of this phenomenon, Pimpare says, poor people tend to be hardest on each other. He gives the example of a large literature in anthropology and sociology about women on welfare published since the 1980s. “It finds over and over again that some of nastiest things you ever hear about women on welfare come out of the mouths of women on welfare.”
Wealthier folks, of course, embrace the “deserving/undeserving” dichotomy because it justifies their more comfortable status.
The political consequences of this phenomenon are obvious: if even the people who stand to benefit most from a more equitable and generous safety net are convinced that it mainly rewards the non-deserving, we aren’t likely to see systemic reforms any time soon.
Breaking down these misconceptions won’t be easy, either, because the research underlines the importance of human contact. As we have learned with racial and religious stereotyping, integration and interaction are powerful weapons against demonization.
Intimate contact – such as the experience of teaching in the inner city, mentoring, other types of services that allow people to connect despite class difference – builds empathy. The more you engage with with people unlike you and learn about their lives and stories, the harder it is to see them as stereotypes or to dismiss their challenges as trivial.
In a society characterized by significant inequality, exclusionary zoning, gated communities and our voluntary segregation into enclaves inhabited by the like-minded–what Bill Bishop has dubbed “the Big Sort”–it is going to be very difficult to encourage that “intimate contact.”