Economic segregation has some obvious consequences for how we live. It means that poor and rich children attend different schools, that their parents shop in different stores, that their families rely on separate amenities, whether parks or transit lines or community pools.
These living patterns, though, also have harder-to-see political consequences. They mean, as new psychology research confirms, that the rich and poor have skewed views about each other — and that, as a result, the rich may be less likely to support programs for the poor.
This finding comes from a study in Psychological Science by Rael Dawtry and Robbie Sutton at the University of Kent, and Chris Sibley at the University of Auckland (kudos to them for the paper's title: "Why wealthier people think people are wealthier, and why it matters"). In an online survey, they asked more than 600 Americans to estimate the incomes of the people in their social circle as well as in the U.S. population at large.
The wealthy, surrounded by other wealthy people, generally believed the U.S. population was wealthier than it actually is. It's easy to imagine why they might make this mistake: If you look around you and see few poor people — on the street, in your child's classroom, at the grocery store — you may think poverty is pretty rare.
The communities we see immediately around us, the authors argue, shape our sense of how rich America is. And those perceptions, in turn, can influence how we feel about government policies for the poor. In this study, wealthier people who overestimated the extent of wealth in the U.S. were also more likely to perceive the economy as fair and more likely to oppose redistribution policies.
This implies that attitudes about programs like welfare aren't based solely on political ideology or self-interest (if I have a lot of money, I don't want to be taxed more). They're also influenced by cues we get from the environment around us. That means that the wealthy don't just lack information about what it's like to be poor; they also lack basic information about how pervasive poverty is:
These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different views about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in societies that have subtle—but important—differences. Thus, in the relatively affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is less need to distribute wealth more equally.
This finding is particularly worrisome given that economic segregation is worsening in America. We are less and less likely to live near, and interact with, people whose incomes don't look like our own. And the economic gap between rich and poor communities — often within the same metropolitan area — is widening. If the wealthy, occupying their own separate world, interacted with few poor families in the past, they're even less likely to meet them now.