The Weird Psychology of Feeling Poor Affects Attitudes on Inequality

New Orleans  In recent years close readers of Elizabeth Kolbert could count on her to keep us up to date on the rising temperature outside that has made climate change and the destruction of global species a global issue. In the New Yorker recently she started looking “inside” about how people feel about relative wealth and inequality by recording the temperature inside peoples’ minds. Reading her, it is now going to be hard for me to gauge which one is scarier for all of us.

First, she reprised two competing theories about how people feel about inequality. One, the rational-updating model, holds “that people assess their salaries in terms of opportunities.” In short, if they find co-workers are making more, they decide their chances of a raise are good. If they find that their co-workers are making less, they decide their chances of a raise are bad. The other theory involves emotional response rather than a rational one and is known as the “relative income” model, where anger is triggered if people find they are making less, and those making more are happy as clams.

A recent study though came up with a third finding. For sure those who found out they were making less were ticked, but the workers who discovered they were making more weren’t elated. In fact as Kolbert reported, “Workers who discovered they were doing better than their colleagues evinced no pleasure. They were merely indifferent.” The takeaway that speaks to the crisis of inequality in our current society is that “there are no real winners and a multitude of losers,” in her words. In mine it’s worse, because the winners feel neither shame nor obligation therefore buttressing inequality even as it grows increasingly extreme, as we recently witnessed in the impunity of the Republican’s recent tax “reform” transferring immense wealth to corporations, shareholders, and the rich.

In the psychology of the poor, they feel badly about their condition and other studies indicate that feeling also triggers riskier behavior as people try to break out of a zero-sum situation at the bottom of the ladder. This problem of feeling poor is not something that only lower income families experience in the reality of their situation, but is something that other social scientists find has gone viral even to the rich and upper classes. Their ability to “feel poorer” as multi-millionaires compared to centi-millionaires or billionaires, leads them to rationalize their situations into a distorted version of the “relative income” model. Worse, this false consciousness breeds total indifference to those who are actually poor, because even the super rich can claim that they are poorer than others, excusing and confusing the reality.

One observer studying this phenomena felt that this contradictory feeling among the rich spoke to “moral conflicts about having privilege in general.” I would discount that sense of shame and argue instead that this psychology of the rich enhances their sense of entitlement and explains part of the reason why, despite all of the drum beating about rising inequality, both political parties have come to the conclusion that their base – and donors – don’t see the reality of inequality and its virulent social impact as an issue worth action or solution, therefor impoverishing us all, perhaps permanently.


Please enjoy this version of Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, an unreleased track from Jimi Hendrix.

Thanks to KABF.


Paperwork and Bureaucracy as a Weapon Against the Poor

New Orleans   Conservatives always complain about bureaucrats and the vast governmental bureaucracy. It is painful to realize how paperwork and bureaucracy are used as not-so-secret weapons to deny mandated benefits designed to help families and children from eligible, fully qualified families. Success is defined by the ability to put barriers in the way of families already challenged and often desperate in order to deny them benefits that effect the education, health, and nutrition of their children and of course their quality of life. It is a policy weapon that is fully understood and used deliberately.

This isn’t a new problem. ACORN ran effective programs and campaigns designed to achieve what we called, maximum eligible participation. My book Citizen Wealth made the case for the huge difference it would make to low-and-moderate income families if barriers were removed so that families received the full benefits of entitlements even in political and economic environments that were unwilling to improve or expand benefits. The Reagan era crackdown on welfare recipients even before the so-called Clinton “reform” was all about using the bureaucracy to deny welfare and food stamp benefits. The Obama administration’s eliminating barriers in the wake of the Great Recession led to soaring rates of participation in food stamp programs as well as the health and education benefits of expanding benefits during the crisis.

A piece in the New York Times underscored the cynicism of punitive paperwork as public policy. The reporter cited one example after another. Washington State in 2003 required people to reestablish eligibility twice a year rather than annually, and it successfully knocked 40,000 children off of Medicaid in one year. Around the same time Louisiana wanted to increase the number of eligible children covered, “so officials simplified the sign-up process…and enrollment surged, and the number of administrative cancellations fell by 20 percentage points.” Citizenship verification using birth certificates mandated by Congress in 2006 dropped children’s Medicaid coverage until the requirement was eliminated by the Affordable Care Act in 2010. When Wisconsin started using data from other programs to determine Medicaid eligibility, similar to what ACORN’s Service Centers did when enrolling people based on data from EITC and income tax filings, they added 100,000 children in one day. The knife cuts both ways, unfortunately in this political climate it is mainly being used to cut people off.

All of this has the affect of opening and closing the dam, not of catching deadbeats or scofflaws, and politicians and governmental bureaucrats know this like they know their own names. The Trump administration’s signal that it will approve mandatory work requirements proposed by Kentucky already, and likely to be followed by another dozen states, is categorically NOT about making sure that more able-bodied are working – or volunteering – or whatever, but about slimming the rolls, saving money, and starving and killing lower income families and their children.

Making poverty a punishment is a despicable public policy.