Inequality Isn’t Just About Money

Believe it or not, despite their sometimes dense arguments and arcane vocabularies, academic papers can be fascinating.

A couple of months ago, at lunch with a former colleague, he referred to a paper that sounded intriguing, and I asked him to send me a link. Given the number of books and papers I tend to amass, I just got to it–and my initial impression was confirmed.

The lead author is Paul K. Piff, a Professor at the University of California at Irvine, and the title of the paper is “Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior.”

The authors began by sketching out fairly widespread assumptions about folks who occupy a lower social class, which they define in terms of socionomic status. In other words, poor people. They note that poor people have access to fewer resources,  face greater exposure to threat, and experience a reduced sense of personal control, and they observe that, given these life circumstances, many people expect lower class individuals to “engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others.”

The authors’ researched a related, but different, hypothesis. They investigated whether poorer individuals might “orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments” and they examined evidence to determine whether such an orientation exists and if so, whether it gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. (In the excerpt below, I’ve removed the copious citations.)

Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

The degree to which those who enjoy abundant resources should
act altruistically toward others is a contentious issue within moral
frameworks and political philosophies.

In the present research, we examine how social class influences
prosocial behavior. Relative to their upper class counterparts,
lower class individuals have fewer economic resources; fewer educational opportunities; less access to social institutions such as
elite schools, universities, and social clubs;
and subordinate rank in society relative to others.

Moreover, people with lower class backgrounds often face increased stress in their close relationships and violence in their homes. In the face of these life circumstances, lower class individuals might be expected to be more focused on their own welfare, prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others.
An emerging body of research points to an alternative hypoth-
esis: Despite experiencing life stressors on a more chronic basis,
lower class individuals appear to be more engaged with the needs
of others. Relative to their upper class counterparts, lower class
individuals are more dependent on others to achieve their desired
life outcomes, more cognizant of others in their social environ-
ment, and more likely to display other-oriented nonverbal behaviors.

The article proceeds to outline the four studies referenced, and to test their hypothesis by measuring the effect of social class on “core aspects of the construct”– objective
indicators of material resources (i.e., income): and subjective perceptions of social class .

In both correlational and experimental designs, using university, community, and nationwide samples that represented a range of social class backgrounds, controlling for plausible alternative explanations (e.g., reli-
giosity, ethnicity), we explored the effects of social class on
generosity (Study 1), charitable donations (Study 2), trust (Study
3), and helping behavior.

There’s a lengthy explanation of the methodologies employed in each of these studies, and discussions of the findings and implications at the link. But the bottom line was clear: The evidence strongly suggested that social class does shape what the authors call “people’s prosocial tendencies” and that “having less leads to giving more.”

So much for noblesse oblige and the stereotype of the generous rich. Turns out poor folks really aren’t Romney’s “takers”…

Most of the national debate over income inequality and the enormous gap between the financially fortunate and everyone else focuses on the extensive privileges enjoyed by the wealthy,  including the immensely greater influence that monied folks exert on policy–in contrast to  the multiple barriers faced by people whose incomes are barely adequate (or inadequate) to cover life’s necessities.

This paper–and the numerous studies cited by its authors–suggests another reason to be concerned about our present levels of inequality. If we want a kinder, gentler, more compassionate society, populated by citizens who behave in a pro-social manner, pursuing policies that further enrich the already wealthy is definitely not the way to go.


  1. What? Trickle-down economics by narcissists don’t work!?!?

    Who could have predicted that?


    Austerity for everybody but the few oligarchs at the top and their donor recipients got exactly what a Freshman Econ class could predict in 1980.

    That’s why you need lots and lots of propaganda. However, the machine is exposed…

  2. A while ago the concept of compulsory conscription into the military was advanced as a way of dealing with the transition from teen to adult – the result would be, obviously, a more disciplined and obedient populace. Based on this research, a better option would be a year or two spent living in the poorest and most desperate conditions experienced by the poor. In addition to the influence and power of the wealthy politicians usually have not experienced anything close to financial difficulty. Perhaps a required period of time living in poverty prior to taking office would engender the empathy and compassion needed to conduct public policy.

  3. It’s been known for 50 years that rich people don’t give to their churches like those in the middle and lower-economic classes. Personally, I’ve known several wealthy people who also care and did give well.

  4. I have, as an adult, shared what I have when I can; the recipients and amounts have changed through the years. I currently have memberships in 10 or 12 organizations in addition to political parties and candidates. I had a decision to make due to the economy, the fact that my Social Security and Retirement monthly income, with TWO COLAs, is less monthly due to the Indiana Republican Senate lowering my retirement amount. I am now in a position of having to make decisions which are difficult but vital; not based on money but on fear and survival.

    “Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.”

    I admit to sharing what I have due to feelings of compassion for others less fortunate; I thus far have enough with my barely above poverty level income to meet my needs. I find it necessary at this time to ignore my compassion and let my memberships lapse to instead donate to Democratic candidates in other states due to fear and in hopes of overcoming the Donald Trump/Republican “inequality” inaction in Congress in hopes of saving our democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution and Amendments protecting our civil and voting rights. The inequality within our government today IS about money; Trump’s Republican millions maintaining power from their minority level in Congress and at state and local levels.

    “The evidence strongly suggested that social class does shape what the authors call “people’s prosocial tendencies” and that “having less leads to giving more.”

    But we are living in an era never before experienced by this nation; our choices are changing as our lives are changing and our faith in our leaders is being tested daily…whatever our economic level.

  5. Wow! Another chance to characterize “the wealthy other” as a group of uncaring humans. While the data may suggest tendencies for a group, people are individuals and smearing groups by class, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic affiliation, color is….pure stereotyping and a root cause of where we are.

  6. In 5 years as a volunteer at a local soup kitchen, I was privileged to watch this scenario in person. Those “takers” would help wherever and whenever they could, even gathering food so others could eat on Sunday, when the kitchen closed. They provided assistance on applying for services and jobs. They even tried to protect this little old white lady, when someone started to get out of hand. They don’t give money because they have none, but they give of themselves.

  7. The notion that uncertainty/risk and scarcity correlate with presumptive, extensive, simple reciprocity (sharing) is consistent with anthropological findings of hunter gatherer societies which serve as a window to the original human condition — who we are, what we evolved to be.

    The Neolithic Revolution brought HUGE changes by its 2-edged sword innovations in economic means — domestication and animal husbandry and, especially, agriculture.

    Those two developments, especially agriculture, created permanent, qualitatively scarce “places” and the need for storage of surpluses. Place and storage created the notion of “personal property”. The costs of creating or taking, protecting, and managing property created game theory conditions which favor kin and clan preference.

    Inequality arose due to the intrinsic scarcity and differences in property and environment and inevitable differences in the effort and skill of its utilization. Instead of nascent inequality regressing to the mean, property was a means for additional property, creating in a positive feedback loop which reduced or eliminated regressing to the mean and led to increasing, then institutionalized power and transgenerational property. self-increase. inheritances of property.

    The permanent emergence of property in Neolithic human economics led to a semi “zero sum” game where simple, reciprocal sharing fails in against behaviors which favor kin/clan/tribe and where the scarcity of goods is managed by control of access.

    The economic means of the extreme poor — i.e., the homeless — aren’t far removed from the pre-Neolithic humanity. Hence, one would successfully predict the homeless to be comparatively most reciprocal and most generous of what they have.

  8. “People on the river know how to give,” according to Creedence Clearwater Revival. “They can take the rug from the floor, that’s okay with me,”
    said Porgy. But Rocco needs “more!”
    Todd, you nailed, this time.
    Life experience obviously helps determine life perspective, and those who are used to receiving (or taking) a culture’s bounty may just be more
    apt to see that as their due, their entitlement.

  9. keeping with the upbringing i had in a less than,desirable neighborhood and surroundings. the act of looking over ones shoulder isnt mentioned. its looking back at something you may have missed. i live conservitive,and spend as a liberal. (what little i have)that spending is,given. when i was granted that extra $300 every week during my off season unemployment last year,a portion of that went to others.a few food banks,anonymous i seek no write off. many a decade on the road,my pocket money amounted to little as a driver trucking around the country.i can spot the single mom, homeless,or someone who didnt get a break,were they greatful for my hand up..the study may spot in scientific form,whys and etcs. but ya gotta walk those streets to feel why they were left behind,and the kindness of those who understand why. lower class eh? who judged that one?

  10. Greg:
    ever live in ruarl farm/ranch country? spot on..up here in NoDak, its generations deep now..
    the plumder is the ag corps grip is focused on the individual debt by every farmer/rancher today.
    no farm can start without a yearly loan for farm credit. and the banks line up to pass down the foreclosures to,other farmers and ranchers. new start ups dont exist,the basic money today to start farming is around $3 million,for land and equipment,so you can start borrowing every year to put a crop in…

  11. I made the mistake of devoting an entire day to the goings-on in the Senate yesterday and it had a profound impact on me.

    When we first were taught about the Constitution way back when, my conclusion was that when all is said and done it remains, as it started, just a piece of paper. Since then over much of my life, I revised that conclusion based on experience. The paper may be fragile but the ideas are permanent.

    Fast-forwarding to yesterday, I revised my conclusion again back to it is just a piece of paper which some Senators hold to as their mission and others simply do not. The best example of those who do not is Mitch McConnell.

    A consequence of all of that is that the term, “the world’s greatest deliberative body” was frequently invoked, but it was virtually never followed. There was no actual debate that took place over well over eight hours. Republicans under McConnell have simply moved on to simple authoritarianism with no regard at all for the Consitution.

    The question I was left with is simple. Is there any possibility that condition can end well for the States formerly United?

    My conclusion today is straightforward. No, it cannot.

  12. One additional thought. The current state of politics won’t end well for either the principled or the powerful.

  13. Just validates what I have always noticed–there seems to be more of a sense of “we are all in it together” attitude by those who are lower, middle, and working class–in a percentage of giving. It is something that was taught to us in my SPEA classes. It also shows women give more and when I say give more it is not in actual dollars but based on their income and percentage.

    Can’t rely on the benevolence of the rich or amoral money system to trick down their dollars to us working folks.

  14. No one will truly understand what poverty is until they actually live it. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is humbling and freaking scary. I imagine that very few readers of this post have ever had to worry about that. Ever.

    Survival mode has a narrow view of life. I bet politics never even crosses their mind.

  15. Lester, If that premise made your head explode, wait until you see “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior”, by the same author.

    Now mind you, he did not say “causes”, he said “predicts”, so maybe he is being careful to not stereotype, maybe because he does not want his funding cut off?

  16. Lester, there is a difference between stereotyping and objective reporting of the average/typical behavior of a group, which is necessary to make social change for the better.

    Are you suggesting that we put our heads in the sand about objectively studying group behavior so that people with strong biases won’t erroneously use the “facts” reported to support their biases? So we should be ignorant, hoping that we won’t feed biases that will exist anyway, regardless of what we have learned via disciplined social scientific study? Anyone with a 5th grade education knows that group dynamics and the study of them is different from knowing an individual and his/her personal behavior.

    Stereotyping is a personal choice, the the facts are the facts whether we chose to learn of them and report them, or pretend that don’t exist.

    Hmm. Sounds like what the Fascists did to make their case and take control in Italy and Germany.

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