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.


It Helps the Rich and Powerful that People Are Mystified By Enormous Inequality

New Orleans   Some professors are reporting that they are changing their minds about the importance of equality to people. They argue that it’s more about access to opportunity than it is about distribution. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

Key to their change of mind, reported in the Wall Street Journal, was a survey of 5000 Americans in 2011. The upshot was that those people surveyed thought that in a perfect society, individuals in the top 20% should have more than three times as much money as individuals in the bottom 20%. They also were unaware how unequal society is today, thinking that the bottom 40% had 9% of wealth and the top 20% had 59%, while actual proportions were 0.3% at the bottom and 84% at the top.

Frankly, it was hard for me to follow the argument being made by the profs, at least from the weight being attributed to the survey. To say that people are OK with there being a $3 to $1 difference between the top and the bottom when they believed that there was more than a $6 to $1 divide now, would seem to make the case that in fact people want major advance in equality. Furthermore, when you compare the reality that there the top 20% have 280 times more wealth than the bottom, then narrowing the gap to the richest segment only having three time the wealth of the bottom 20% is almost revolutionary!

It seems to me that from those numbers the desire for more equality is deep and profound. This is the United States, and Americans are not suddenly going to say they believe that everyone should get an absolutely equal piece of the pie with a dollar for me for every dollar for you. This is country proclaiming itself the “land of opportunity.” People want more equality, but they only know how to get there by winning more equality of opportunity, hoping against the evidence and their own life experience that the gap narrows with better breaks and a fairer deal.

In this age of gross inequity and almost total residential segregation of huge wealth from most lower income people, and vice-versa, there is no way people can get their minds wrapped around the fact that people holding onto more than 280 times their wealth are living in the same world or what their world might be like. It makes your head hurt. It strains the brain.

Meanwhile those doing the bidding fluff up the opportunity issue to change the conversation from gross greed at the top to false claims of slovenliness at the bottom. And, they get away with it more often than not, until it comes to taking something away from the bottom, like their healthcare, and then it’s harder to pull off the crime in broad daylight, since it normally happens daily in the high towers and behind the gated walls.

No one should make the mistake that inequality is not a huge issue and a bomb rolling around the street waiting to be exploded.