These days, most of us act as if the United States has just three kinds of people: the haves, have-nots, and have-lots. We’ve been hearing a lot about have-nots and have-lots during this spring’s deficit-reduction negotiations.
What divides us? What we should do with the low-income, have-nots (poor people, old people: deny them?) and the high-income, have-lots (rich people: tax them?). As a social psychologist, I find this a perfect example of how status always divides us from each other.
When most of us, the haves, look up at the have-a-lots, we envy them and aspire to their success. We don’t want to clip their wings by taxing them, because, maybe, someday, we’ll be rich too.
Unfortunately, that’s highly unlikely. Mobility in America is so-so at best. A third of us move up from our parents’ situation. A third stay put. The remaining third slip down. Even those of us in the lucky upwardly mobile third are unlikely to move into the rarified, have-a-lot stratosphere. We might as well play the lottery.
These days, we don’t often even look down on the have-nots. We act as if poverty is contagious. Americans are big-hearted and donate more generously to charity than in most places.
But we begrudge the old and the poor among us getting much in the way of government entitlements. We seem to scorn them as unworthy. In my lab, we find people don’t even want to hear the personal experiences of homeless people. Denying them individual life stories makes it easier to neglect them.
We in the vast middle do differ in many ways from each other. We are not one homogeneous mass. Despite our shared credo — most Americans think they’re middle class (we can’t all be exactly in the middle, can we?) — the 80 percent to 90 percent of us actually in the middle split evenly into working class and middle class. That’s been true since social scientists started measuring our self-reported status. What we actually share is believing we’re neither super-poor nor super-rich, because we scorn the one and envy the other.
The result? What’s missing in this spring’s bitter budget debates is the shared sense that we’re all in this together.
Status hierarchies are inevitable. People compare themselves to each other in every culture. Dogs do. Chickens do. We won’t escape status divides anytime soon. But we can mitigate much envy and scorn if we remember these are our rich people, our poor people, our older people. Us, not them.
If we do this, as we compare up and down, we can also include more people on our side, friends and allies. We could edge away from the “us v. them” that’s driving us apart.
Today, the United States is in the top third of income inequality in the world. That puts us right next to Uganda — and a world away from most developed nations. Americans do not count those we call out-groups as being on our side. In more equal countries, people include the Other in the Self more than we do.
We all might gain by remembering that Americans are more than just have-nots and have-a-lots, but also, at different times, for different reasons, our potential friends or foes. Instead of the three rigid “have” groups, we could see ourselves as: high/low status, yes, but also many on our side and some not.
So I lied. There are actually several kinds of people. Instead of waving placards, chanting slogans, and shouting at this spring’s public meetings, imagine what might happen if we sliced the American pie chart differently, and made more of Them some of Us.