You’re walking down the street when someone stops you and asks you to sign a petition in support of a new “millionaire’s tax”–an increase on taxes for the rich in order to reduce inequality. If a poor person is standing nearby, according to a new study, you may be less likely to sign the petition.
In other words, exposure to inequality seems to counterintuitively decrease support for policies designed to reduce inequality.
In the study, assistants posed as petitioners in wealthy Boston neighborhoods, asking every third person who walked by to sign a petition either in support of a tax on the rich or a ban on plastic bags. In the background, an actor hovered pretending to be either rich or poor–wearing shabby or business casual clothes, with unkempt or well-groomed hair.
Seeing the actor had no effect on whether passerby signed the plastic bag petition. But people were an average of 4.4% less likely to sign in support of the tax when they’d just seen the “poor” person. When the actors were white, the effect was even stronger: 14% signed the petition when the fake rich person was white, versus 6% who saw a white actor pretending to be poor, a decrease of 57%.
Melissa Sands, the Harvard PhD candidate who led the study, speculates that seeing a poor person might make someone feel relatively rich themselves, and therefore less likely to support a tax on the rich. Seeing poverty in an affluent neighborhood might also make people more likely to think about poverty as a failing of character rather than something caused by society, making them less likely to support the tax.
The results are aligned with some previous surveys that found that high-income people are less generous to lower-income people when they live in areas with more inequality. But it’s also possible that repeated exposure to inequality may have different effects that momentarily seeing someone poor; other studies have found that repeated exposure to people outside someone’s social group can improve relations.
“There isn’t a lot of experimental evidence on this, but the evidence we do have is suggestive,” says Sands. “So it’s possible that, with repeated exposure, the effect I find may reverse.”
Sands plans another experiment that looks at repeated exposure, along with variations in other settings outside white, affluent, left-leaning neighborhoods. “One of the first extensions I’m planning is to conduct the study somewhere that’s more politically conservative,” she says.
The results of the first study suggest that advocates may want to think carefully about the setting of their work, and also be careful about including images of poverty on campaign materials. They may even want to rethink larger strategies of building popular support.
“Even when we’re not consciously aware of it, exposure to inequality can have a large and consequential impact on political behavior,” Sands says. “To the extent that we think redistributive policies are good, my findings suggest that we can’t necessarily count on citizens to ‘do the right thing’ by supporting measures like the millionaire’s tax. Perhaps these policies need to come from the top down.