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Evidence that the Meritocracy is Made Up of Poor People

Paul Buchheit

Many wealthy Americans believe that dysfunctional behavior causes poverty. Their own success, they would insist, derives from good character and a strict work ethic. But they would be missing some of the facts. Ample evidence exists to show a correlation between wealth and unethical behavior, and between wealth and a lack of empathy for others, and between wealth and unproductiveness.

The poor, along with a middle class that is sinking toward them, make up the American meritocracy. Here is some of the evidence.

1. The Poor Don't Cheat As Much

An analysis of seven different psychological studies found that "upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals." A series of experiments showed that upper-class individuals were more likely to break traffic laws, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

And this doesn't even begin to examine the many, many significant cases of fraudulent behavior in the banking industry. Or private equity firms that cheat their investors over 50 percent of the time. Or the many unscrupulous corporate tax avoidance strategies.

2. The Poor Care More About Other People

Numerous reputable sources have concluded that lower class individuals tend to be more generous and trusting and helpful, compared to the upper class. As people gain in wealth, they depend less on others, and thus they have less reason to understand the feelings and needs of the less fortunate. The poor are better at interpersonal relationships because they need other people.

In addition, careful studies have determined that money pushes people further to the right, making them less egalitarian, and less willing, as a practical consequence, to provide broad educational opportunities to all members of society.

One neuro-imaging analysis even suggested that the super-wealthy view photos of impoverished people as things rather than as human beings. They react to the poor not with sympathy, but with contempt.

3. The Rich Focus on Me, Me, Me

The authors of a recent psychological study argue that rich people are different because they have the freedom to focus on self. In support of this, a number of studies have demonstrated that higher social class is associated with increased narcissism, even to the point of looking at themselves more frequently in a mirror. The rich feel entitled. They attribute success to their 'superior' traits, while people from lower economic backgrounds attribute success to societal values, such as educational opportunities.

4. The Poor Give a Greater Percentage of Their Money to Others

Research has shown that low-income Americans spend a much higher percentage of their income on charitable giving. Results from three studies average out to 4.5% from low-income people, 2.7% from those with high incomes. With respect to helping people in need, the rich give even less. As Robert Reich notes, about two-thirds of 'charitable' donations from the rich go to their foundations and alma maters, and to "culture palaces" – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters.

Charles Koch said, "I believe my business and non-profit investments are much more beneficial to societal well-being than sending more money to Washington." The well-being of high society, perhaps.

5. Entrepreneurs are in the (Sinking) Middle Class

The meritorious behavior of job creation comes from the middle class, which is quickly sliding toward lower-income status. The very rich generally don't risk their money in job-creating startup businesses. Over 90% of the assets owned by millionaires are held in a combination of low-risk investments (bonds and cash), the stock market, and real estate.

With the demise of the middle class, entrepreneurship is decreasing. According to a Brookings Institute report, the "firm entry rate," a measure of new firms and thus of entrepreneurial startup activity, fell by nearly half in the thirty-plus years between 1978 and 2011. America's average entrepreneur is 26 years old, but most of our 26-year-olds are burdened by student loan debt.

Meriting Our Respect and Appreciation

Lower-income Americans serve our food, care for our sick, and clean up after us, with minimal benefits and few complaints. More and more middle-income workers are falling into this struggling group, as 9 out of 10 of the fastest-growing occupations are considered low-wage, generally not requiring a college degree.

These people merit our admiration for persevering in a society where a privileged few are taking almost everything.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit is an advocate for social and economic justice, and the author of numerous papers on economic inequality and cognitive science. He was recently named one of 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models. He is the author of "American Wars: Illusions and Realities" (2008) and "Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income" (2017). Contact email: paul (at) youdeservefacts.org.

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