Expert Commentary

How contact with the poor affects actions of the wealthy

A new study suggests Americans are less likely to support a tax on the wealthy after seeing a poor person in an affluent setting.


A new study finds that people walking in affluent neighborhoods around Boston were less likely to support a tax on the wealthy after seeing a poor person.

The issue: Since the 1970s, U.S. income distribution has grown more concentrated, with more of the nation’s wealth going to the top 1 percent of earners, according to research from two prominent scholars at the University of California, Berkeley. Over the years, policymakers at the federal and state levels have introduced a range of proposals aimed at helping redistribute income. Many of those proposals focus on changes in taxation – primarily, raising taxes on the rich.

An academic study worth reading: “Exposure to Inequality Affects Support for Redistribution,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2017.

Study summary: Melissa L. Sands of the Harvard University Department of Government looks at how coming into contact with poverty while in an affluent setting affects an individual’s political behavior. As a part of Sands’ experiment, individuals who were walking in an affluent area were asked to sign a petition after passing by a professional actor who was dressed as either an impoverished person or a rich person. To gauge whether the race of the actor affects behavior, Sands used one white and one black male actor.

On each day of the experiment, an actor portrayed poverty or wealth at randomly scheduled times. The petitioner rotated between two petitions – one that asked individuals to support a higher tax on incomes of $1 million or more and one that, for comparison purposes, focused on a policy to reduce the use of plastic bags. A total of 1,335 pedestrians were asked to sign the millionaire’s tax petition, the majority of whom lived in high-income ZIP codes, according to the addresses they reported on the petition.

Key takeaways:

  • Pedestrians were 4.4 percentage points less likely to support the tax policy in the presence of a poor person, regardless of the person’s race.
  • Individuals who were asked to support a policy on plastic bags did not appear to be affected much by the presence of a poor person.
  • White men were slightly more likely to support the tax while in proximity to a poor black person compared with a poor white person.
  • Sands asserts that the results of the study “suggest that the presence of poverty, particularly in a place of affluence, decreases support for policies aimed at alleviating those conditions, a worrisome conclusion given that the general population increasingly resides in urban environments where contact with low-income individuals is likely. Homelessness, the most visible manifestation of rising urban poverty, may perversely discourage citizens from favoring social safety nets.”

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