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Exposure to inequality affects support for redistribution

  1. Melissa L. Sandsa,1
  1. aDepartment of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
  1. Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved October 26, 2016 (received for review September 9, 2016)

Significance

As the world’s population grows more urban, encounters between members of different socioeconomic groups occur with greater frequency. I provide real-world experimental evidence that exposure to inequality shapes decision-making. By randomly assigning microenvironments of inequality, this study builds on observational research linking the salience of inequality to antisocial behavior, as well as survey experimental evidence connecting perceived inequality to diminished generosity. Specifically, I show that exposure to socioeconomic inequality in an everyday setting negatively affects willingness to publicly support a redistributive economic policy. This study advances our understanding of how environmental factors, such as exposure to racial and economic outgroups, affect human behavior in consequential ways.

Abstract

The distribution of wealth in the United States and countries around the world is highly skewed. How does visible economic inequality affect well-off individuals’ support for redistribution? Using a placebo-controlled field experiment, I randomize the presence of poverty-stricken people in public spaces frequented by the affluent. Passersby were asked to sign a petition calling for greater redistribution through a “millionaire’s tax.” Results from 2,591 solicitations show that in a real-world-setting exposure to inequality decreases affluent individuals’ willingness to redistribute. The finding that exposure to inequality begets inequality has fundamental implications for policymakers and informs our understanding of the effects of poverty, inequality, and economic segregation. Confederate race and socioeconomic status, both of which were randomized, are shown to interact such that treatment effects vary according to the race, as well as gender, of the subject.

Footnotes

  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: sands{at}fas.harvard.edu.

Online Impact

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