A frustration of income inequality, at least for those under the great dividing line, is the attitude from above that somehow poor and lower-income people deserve their lot in life. There’s a lack of empathy, according to Lawrence Mitchell, a professor of law who wrote about this a couple of years ago:
“The working poor may look like the more advantaged – they have jobs, houses, cars, etc. But the truth is that they live on the margins of financial disaster. Because they look like the advantaged, the latter assume that the working poor are just like them in all relevant respects – except for hard work. Superficial similarity allows the rich and powerful to assume their success is simply a result of working harder because in their minds it’s clear that the poor could be just like them; they’re just lazier or failed to develop the same skills.”
Emerging research from Oliver Hauser and Michael Norton, respectively a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, extends the idea. People are unaware of how much inequality exists around them and, to a degree, assume others are more alike than is the case.
The researchers found that when people, both in simulations and life, began to know what resources others had, they changed decisions on who should receive help and who should instead get extra tax levies.
It came down to fairness. People expect a greater degree of equity in treatment. If you seem to be taking from the communal pot while appearing to have the same life, others want to punish. And if someone is shown to have extensive resources past what others do, the inclination is to level the field to a greater degree. But what information people have is imperfect and inadequate, so their argument goes.