Wealthy People Think People Are Wealthier

According to research, rich folks, surrounded by other rich folks, think that the nation as a whole is doing better than it is. That is to say, when we see a certain set of things around us all the time, we are more likely to extrapolate and think not “We’re doing fine” but “Everyone’s doing fine.”

Which has a real effect on social and public policy.

Emily Badger at The Washington Post reports:

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.

I wonder to what extent these finding hold true across different areas of the country. In New York City, for example, where people of almost every demographic ride subway trains alongside each other, do people of different communities have a better understanding of each other than in communities where everyone has their own car? In cities in general, is this different than in the suburbs? Or does what we see matter less than what we perceive?

My area of Brooklyn is still somewhat mixed, although as prices continue to go up and up, I’m sure the diversity will disappear under the steamroller of almost-entirely-white wealth. For now, there are interracial and queer couples everywhere and I wonder whether seeing that everyday makes me overestimate how much of a progressive paradise the world has become.

We all need to get out more.

Badger adds that there’s reason to believe this problem will only get worse:

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.

Is the area where you live mixed or less so? If you’ve lived in both more and less mixed areas, have you noticed shifts in yourself based on what you see everyday?

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