John Hoffmire: How the rich view the poor

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 12:05 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 17, 2011 photo, demonstrators affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement gather to call for the occupation of Wall Street in New York. Monday, Oct. 17, 2011 marked the one-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Frank Franklin II, Associated Press

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Editor's note: Adam Turville did the vast majority of the work on this piece.

More than two years have passed since the Occupy Wall Street movement divided the country into percentages, calling the 99 percent out against the 1 percent. A voice was raised from Zucotti Park in New York City demanding reform to close the ever-growing wealth gap in the United States.

The discussion over rising inequality in the U.S. has captured headlines and incited heated debates analyzing and criticizing the dysfunctional relationship between the rich and the poor. “Out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” have become buzzwords used to describe the attitude of the haves toward the have-nots.

Despite this narrative unfolding in the media, the question remains whether the headlines reflect reality.

The Associated Press recently cited research saying that 1 in 5 Americans reaches affluence at one point in their lives. This 20 percent block is a far cry from the mantra of Occupy Wall Street but still provides evidence of a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.

Some might ask how this division affects the social aspects of our society. What is the best descriptor of the relationship between those on opposite ends of the economic spectrum? The prevailing story conveyed through the media would suggest that “out-of-touch” and “unsympathetic” do accurately portray the well-off part of the country.

However, those who question this viewpoint might pose the following queries: What about the billions of dollars donated every year to poverty-focused charities? What about the wealthy investors who have recently turned their focus to social innovation and impact investing in order to address social ills through business? Doesn’t this demonstrate a stronger interest than we might otherwise think? Or does the philanthropist merely seek notoriety through her contributions, and is the socially minded investor motivated by the opportunity to gain new market share or attract new customers?

So the question remains, are the wealthy truly invested in the poor and do they care?

A recent New York Times blog by Daniel Goleman details research, performed in 2008, on social interactions between two groups of people on significantly different rungs of the social ladder. We’ll call this research “study one.”

Members of one group had a much higher income than the members of the other. Subjects of both social classes were instructed to share and communicate, with another individual, about hardships that they had experienced in their personal lives. Researchers then observed the interaction between the two individuals. The findings of the research show that the rich consistently demonstrate disinterest in the personal difficulties of the poor.

The wealthy showed less sympathy and concern as they listened to the poor recall personal trials, such as divorces and deaths in the family. Conversely, the poor tended to be as attentive to the difficulties of the rich as they were to the difficulties of their socio-economic equals.

The researchers concluded that we tend to be interested in those whom we value. Partly due to a void in material wealth, the poor tend to value social relationships. They develop “keenly attuned interpersonal attention, in all directions.” This is a trait that anyone — and everyone — could develop, regardless of financial wealth.

If the researchers are correct in their conclusions, and members of our society are only interested in those whom they value, then inattention would demonstrate that the rich undervalue the poor. Why is this? It may be that the rich judge the poor. The rich may assume the poor live a “substandard” life brought upon themselves through their own ignorant or incompetent decisions.

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