This is the second of two posts dealing with economic inequality in the United States. In the first post, I detailed why it is important to reduce inequality in the US, and I reviewed evidence suggesting that Americans seem to want to reduce inequality. In this post, I discuss why inequality continues to increase, despite people's desire to reduce it.
"the duty of the man of wealth is to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds... becoming the mere trustee and agent of his poorer brethren." --Andrew Carnegie
In my previous post I discussed how people with less in America (less wealth, income) tend to have poorer health outcomes than their wealthier counterparts. More specifically, the have-nots don't live as long as the haves, and have a greater risk for mortality due to injury/illness. I also discussed how countries with reduced economic inequality have better health outcomes for their poorer citizens, and how Americans--somewhat surprisingly-- actually prefer a society that is more equal in its distribution of wealth.
Why then, does inequality continue to increase in America? Research implicates two reasons:
People don't realize inequality exists
Americans don't realize the sheer amount of inequality in the United States, and as a result, they don't have any reason to be alarmed by it. In the last post I mentioned how research by Norton and Ariely (2011) suggests that Americans would ideally like a society with less income inequality. What those researchers also found was that Americans were totally unaware of just how unequally US wealth is distributed. The evidence, shown below, suggests that Americans underestimate the amount of wealth that the richest 20% of Americans have by more than 25%!
It's also not too hard to find books that talk about how American society has transcended social class categories. Moreover, news organizations are sometimes worried about discussing social class, for fear of inciting class warfare. All together, these factors make it difficult for us to recognize who specifically has an unequal share of economic resources in society, and who is in need of economic assistance.
We rely too heavily on the nobility of the rich
American history is full of wealthy philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, etc... and rightly so-- Americans give more to charity than any other nation. However, recent research suggests that these examples are the exception rather than the rule.
Psychologists have long believed that the values that make people successful in making money, performing well in school, and obtaining wealth are based in self-interest and not in compassion, altruism, or prosociality. More specifically, individuals who make a lot of money tend to do so because they have an uncanny ability to focus on their own dreams, goals, and personal aspirations. Sometimes these pursuits come at the expense of relationships with other individuals and the broader community.
Corroborating this theory, individuals who have more, tend to be less generous, prosocial, and helpful to others. For instance, in a large scale survey of charitable donations, lower income individuals tended to give a higher proportion of their annual salaries to charity, relative to their higher income counterparts.
|The least wealthy give the highest percentage of their income to charity (source)|
In essence, these data suggest that there are likely deep-seated, psychological reasons why relying on the charity of the richest 20% of people--those who control the majority of wealth in America--is not a good strategy for reducing inequality in society. In fact, relying on charity has done nothing to stop trending increases in inequality between the rich and the poor.
So what would you do to reduce inequality in society? Is it possible in America? Let me know in your comments.
P.S. I'm speaking about this topic at Stanford on April 22nd. Go here for details (it's free to the public).