Skip to main content

The Presence of the Poor Dampens the Desire to Soak the Rich

New research finds we are less likely to support a tax on millionaires if a destitute person is standing nearby.

By Tom Jacobs


Beacon Hill, Boston. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Would you sign a petition in favor of a “millionaire’s tax” in an attempt to curb income inequality?

Don’t be too quick to answer. Your decision may vary depending upon who is hanging out nearby when a sidewalk activist solicits your support.

That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds in-your-face exposure to poverty reduces the likelihood one will publicly back a soak-the-rich initiative.

“Exposure to inequality begets inequality,” Melissa Sands of Harvard University concludes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

She adds that this effect “appears to be driven largely by white men,” whose enthusiasm for such a policy drops when they encounter “a poor person of their own race.”

The experiment was conducted in the fall of 2015 in a number of affluent Boston-area neighborhoods, including Brookline, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill. In each case, a research assistant approached every third person on the sidewalk of a commercial district, and asked them to sign a petition supporting either a tax on millionaires, or an effort to reduce the use of plastic bags. In all, 2,591 people were approached.

“Exposure to inequality begets inequality.”

As they did so, an actor hovered within 20 feet of the interaction. He either “appeared unkempt, wearing extremely shabby clothes and communicating poverty via posture and body language,” or was “well-dressed and behaved, as if waiting patiently to meet a companion for a nice meal.”

Black and white actors were both utilized during the experiment, to determine if race played a role in the participants’ decision-making.

Sands reports support for the plastic-bag petition did not vary depending on who was standing nearby. But participants were, on average, 4.4 percentage points less likely to support the tax if they were “in the presence of a poor person.”

That figure nearly doubled when the purportedly poor person was white. Fourteen percent of people signed the petition to tax millionaires when an apparently well-off white person stood nearby. That number declined to 6 percent when the same actor was impersonating an indigent.

This dynamic was “primarily driven by white men, whose support for the millionaire’s tax falls in the presence of a poor white confederate,” she writes.

Why would that be? Sands can’t say for sure, but she offers some possibilities. The sight of a poor person may make middle-class individuals feel relatively wealthy, and thus less likely to support a new tax on “our” group.

The presence of a poor individual in an otherwise upscale setting may also activate the belief that poverty reflects a failing of character, rather than a reflection of broader societal problems. Such a mindset does not align with support of higher taxes on the wealthy.

The results have “fundamental implications for policymakers,” she notes — especially those hoping to convince people of the dangers of concentrated wealth. It may be counterintuitive, but these results suggest “the presence of poverty, particularly in a place of affluence, decreases support for policies aimed at alleviating those conditions.”