Tag Archives: Economic inequality

Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

Why Poor People Have Harsher Moral Judgments

Morals is certainly one of my interests, as is evidenced by my series on Michael Sandel’s bookWhat Money Can[‘t] Buy. And so, when I came across a journal article called, “A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments,” I was intrigued, if not a bit saddened.

The researchers attempted to test the idea of whether a lack of material resources would cause people to have harsher moral judgments. The reason they posited this was because a lack of material resources is correlated with a lower ability to cope with other people’s harsh behaviour. Not only were they able to prove that a relationship exists between a lack of material resources and harsher moral judgments, but they were also able to prove this true in state dependent instances. Meaning, yes, a lack of material resources corresponded to making harsher judgments, but even when participants perceived themselves as having a lack of material resources, they offered harsher moral judgments.

The implications of this research seem rather important.

While it’s not specifically addressed in the study, I wonder what the plotted relationship between harsher moral judgments and income would look like. That is, I wonder at what point does income no longer correlate with harsher moral judgments. In particular, I wonder about the whole idea that there are 24 times as many millionaires in the US Congress than there are in the US population. As a result, I’d expect that moral judgments would be less harsh (than if there were fewer millionaires), but we know that doesn’t quite make sense because there are more things than just income that affect moral judgments.

More recently, however, I wonder about the World Economic Forum and the data released that less than 100 people have as much wealth as over 50% of the world’s population. By the information gleaned from the study, we’d expect that over half of the world’s population would have harsh moral judgments.

On a smaller scale, I’d wonder about the psychological health of people who have harsher moral judgments. It may seem only tangentially related, but negative thinking has been shown to have negative effects on one’s health. As  result, I’d expect that these harsher moral judgments might have an effect on one’s health.

ResearchBlogging.orgM. Pitesa, & S. Thau (2014). A Lack of Material Resources Causes Harsher Moral Judgments Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514092

85 People Have As Much Wealth as 3.5 Billion People

Just think about that headline for a second… 85 people have as much wealth as 3.5 billion people. Eighty-five vs. Three and a half billion. Maybe looking at the words isn’t enough, let’s look at it in numbers. 85 vs. 3,500,000,000. If I were graphically inclined, I’d make a quick “infographic” showing 85 people on one side and 3,500,000,00 on the other side. That’s an astronomical difference.

The article in The Guardian where I first read it had a good analogy:

The world’s wealthiest people aren’t known for travelling by bus, but if they fancied a change of scene then the richest 85 people on the globe could squeeze onto a single double-decker.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about wealth inequality and it probably won’t be the last. There are two posts that come immediately to mind. The first is the one from a couple of years ago where I shared a graphic that came from a paper by two researchers studying the wealth distribution in the US. Most notably from the graphic was that the perception of American was way off from reality. Americans thought that the top 20% had approximately 60% of the wealth and they wanted the distribution to be that the top 20% was closer to 30%. In actuality, the top 20% (at the time) had close to 90% of all wealth in the US.

The second post was just under a year ago and it took a deeper look at the graphic that I shared in the first post. Someone animated the chart, that is to say, they made a video of the information to make it more accessible to people and it was shared heartily across the internet — it’s currently over 14,000,000 views.

So what does all of that have to do with today’s information? Well, as is pointed out in the article in The Guardian, the World Economic Forum is starting in a few days, so talking about these kinds of issues are important. That is, reminding folks that the people in attendance at Davos will make up well over half of the wealth in the entire world

The image I’ve used for this post comes from that same article and it’s how I’d like to finish today’s post. Take a look at the United States. In 1980, the top 1%’s share of the national income was 10%. In 20 years, that’s doubled to 20% (of the national income). There’s been movement in other countries, but none as great as the US. I’m not picking on the US, but it’s quite clear that if you’re interested in being part of the wealthiest sect of the world, the US is a good place to do just that.

My point in sharing this image is to forward the conversation on this matter. People have very different opinions on how money should be spent, especially when that money is tax dollars. I’m not necessarily trying to trumpet one opinion more than the other, but I think it’s important to highlight this massive disparity and question whether this is how we want to live in the world.

Poorest Canadians Spend More Than Half of Income on Food & Shelter

Just over a week ago, I saw this photo retweeted by Gerald Butts, who happens to be a senior advisor to Justin Trudeau (the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada). As I’ve spent most of my adult life in the US, I’m used to hearing and writing (here, here, and here) about some of the sobering statistics in that country (approximately 50 million American live in poverty — right now!) As a result, I thought it’d be enlightening to take a closer look at some of the inequalities in Canada. This graph seemed like a good place to start.

For instance, I had no idea just how large the disparity was between the richest 20% and poorest 20%, with regard to food and shelter. Looking at the numbers, we can see that the poorest 20% spend approximately 56% (!) of their income on food and shelter. Fifty-six percent! While the richest 20% spend just 32%. I chose these categories because of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food and shelter are some of the most basic needs we have and if the poorest 20% has to spend so much of their income on — essentially — surviving, it’s going to make it that much harder to “climb the economic ladder.” Of course, some might say it’s misleading to look at the numbers in aggregate like this.

With that being said, this holiday season, I hope you’ll remember this graph when you’re out at holiday parties and issues of politics and/or charities arise. It may add an important layer of perspective to the conversation.

Twenty Online Talks That Will Change Your Life, Part 1

A little over a week ago, I wrote a post about the 20 biggest questions in science. It turns out, The Guardian must have been on a listicle-kick because they also recently published a list of the 20 online talks that could change your life. Some of these I’ve seen, so I thought I’d go through them in the same way I did for the science questions from last week.

1. How Economic Inequality Harms Societies – Richard Wilkinson

I was so glad to see that they started with this talk. This talk is by a British researcher who has dedicated his life’s work to social inequalities. Along with Kate Pickett, he published a book called The Spirit Level. I remember reading it a few years back. It’s chock-full of resources and citations that formed the basis for the beginning of the recent discussion on inequality. Of course, there are folks who don’t see eye-to-eye with Wilkinson and Pickett.

2. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are – Amy Cuddy

3. Violence Against Women – it’s a Men’s Issue – Jackson Katz

I haven’t seen Cuddy’s talk, but I’ve read a number of her journal article. She certainly knows what she’s talking about and is worth your time. I haven’t seen Katz’s talk either, but it really reminds me of the work of Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In.

4. Depression in the US – Robert Sapolsky

5. Listening to Shame – Brené Brown

6. Why I Am Not a Christian – Bertrand Russell

7. We Need to Talk About an Injustice – Bryan Stevenson

If you haven’t seen Stevenson’s talk, now’s a good time to do it.

8. The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

Not many TEDTalks have caused such a ruckus so quickly. I remember when this talk first happened earlier this year and was put online. Here were my “quick thoughts” after first watching it:

Amanda Palmer: A big congratulations! This TEDTalk certainly created news yesterday. For some, it’s because she didn’t answer questions that some had asked regarding the Kickstarter funds, for others, because she raised some important ideas about the music business. It’s certainly not easy to challenge mainstream ideas and even harder to do so with so many people who think you’re wrong (and are shouting that at you).

The Art of Asking: For some, there is nothing harder than asking for help. Asking for what you’re worth. People who are just starting their own business often have lots of problems trying to figure out just how much they should charge. Much of this has to do with psychology and our ideas of self-worth, but there’s also the cultural stereotype that it’s not okay to ask. It’s so great that Amanda could demonstrate how asking is not something to be afraid of.

Vulnerability: On the topic of asking… I remember reading about people who pose as beggars — not for the money, but to gain the experience of what it’s like to beg or ask for money. It’s not something that I’ve done, but after watching this TEDTalk, it’s an experience that I think is certainly worth considering. It might shatter stereotypes of what it’s like to ask for help and would certainly foster a greater sense of empathy.

Trust: Without getting too much into a philosophical discussion, it’s great to see a tangible example of someone who “trusts the flow of life,” and is rewarded for it.

As with Stevenson’s, if you have the time, Palmer’s is certainly a talk worth watching.

9. The Myth of the Gay Agenda – LZ Granderson

10. Brilliant designs to fit more people in every city – Kent Larson

After reading the description for Larson’s talk, I couldn’t help but think that the work of Richard Florida, noted urban theorist, is probably mentioned in the talk.

We’ve covered the first ten talks. This seems like a good place to pause and take a break. Check back tomorrow for the rest of the talks.

Can We Make “Looking Down Your Nose” a Good Thing?

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I was going to be doing a post about Chrystia Freeland‘s book Plutocrats. I haven’t yet finished it, but there is something I wanted to talk about before I got to the end. I’m about halfway through the book and the main focus of the conversation is the 0.1% vs. the 1%. The sad truth in Freeland’s words is that those in the 1% continue to spend like they’re in the 0.1% (for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into right now). The important piece here is that they’re not happy with where they are — and they’re looking up.

The idea of the “grass is greener on the other side” seems to be a theme that runs throughout (at least the first half) of Freeland’s book. So, as I was reading, I thought, if people just looked down, they’d be a lot happier. Proverbially down, of course. And not in a pejorative fashion as in the phrase, “looking down your nose.”

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase that someone’s always got it worse than you — why don’t we implement this as a way of being? Instead of being upset that we can’t buy the newest Bentley or Ferrari, why can’t we “look down” to the person next on the wealth list and realize that we have it better than they do? I hope it’s clear that I’m not suggesting that people think of themselves as “better than” the people who would follow them on a wealth list. I’m merely trying to emphasize how well that people have it and that if they compared themselves (down the chain) they’d probably feel better about themselves. My secret wish is that this would also foster more empathy within us.

So, I wonder… do you think that we can take back the phrase “looking down your nose at someone” and turn it into a good thing? Probably not, but I hope that the next time you hear someone say this (or the next time you think it?) you’ll remember my brief conversation about how much better we’d feel if we compared ourselves to those who had less than to those who have more.

Perception vs. Reality: Revisiting Wealth Inequality in America

This past summer, I wrote a post that shared some information about wealth inequality in the US. I was actually sharing information that had been published the summer before (in 2011). There was a telling graphic that followed as a result of the study (I’ve included it below): Average Income by Family, distributed by income group.

Keeping in mind that this study was published in 2011, so the three boxes may have shifted. If anything, I would imagine that the actual distribution (the top box) is more pronounced in its inequality and because of Occupy Wall Street and books like Chrystia Freeland‘s Plutocrats (which I’m currently reading and will probably have a post on in the near future), I would guess that people would be more aware of the wealth inequality, so the middle box would also be more pronounced in its inequality.

The reason that I decided to revisit this information is because there’s a video that’s being passed around that uses the information from this study (and this graphic) and presents it in a much more effective way. Before reading on, I’d urge you to watch it:

Now, can you see how much more effective that is in accentuating the differences between perception and reality? I especially appreciated the way the creator of the video used the an aggregate of 100 people to illustrate the differences between the percentiles. I’ve found that when numbers get really large, it can be hard for people to conceptualize the differences. For instances, if we look at the graphic above (in this post), the differences are plain to see, but there’s something about the limits of the rectangle. The representation of the quintiles don’t make for easy transferability from one quintile to the next. That is, it might be hard for to conceptualize that each of those colors is suppose to represent 20% of the population. In watching the video, though, the creator so eloquently differentiated between quintiles by taking an aggregate of 100 people and then actually showing the people from each group.

I think the video was really well done and I hope that it raises public awareness around this important issue. More than that, I hope that it motivates the public to actually want something to get done. If enough of the population pressures their legislators, we just might be able to make a change.