Cross-posted from the Inequalities Blog.
For all the attention that economic inequality has received in recent years, it is too rarely noticed that the largest disparities in living conditions are between people in rich countries and those who are poor by global standards. Yet for those of us concerned about global inequality, the political trends of the past few years in rich countries have been dispiriting. Foreign aid remains politically controversial, hostility to migration appears to have risen, and trade protectionism seems likely to increase. In a recent article in The Journal of Politics, Gautam Nair suggests one reason for this apparent lack of concern for the global poor is that people in rich countries do not appreciate just how well off they are by global standards. If we can correct these misperceptions, he suggests, support for international redistribution will grow.
Nair offers compelling evidence that people in the US (and in all likelihood those in other rich countries) massively underestimate global inequality. He surveyed 1,559 Americans, and asked them to estimate the global median income. 74% estimated it to be over $10,000 a year, and 50% over $20,000. In actual fact, it is $2,100 (adjusting for differences in living costs between countries). The average respondent placed themselves barely in the top 40% of the global income distribution. In reality, the majority were in the top 10%. (If you want to discover how your income compares to the rest of the world, this tool will give you an idea).
Nair then explored the effect of informing people about their relative affluence. A third of participants received a message like the one below:
This group was then compared against a ‘salience group’ that was asked to estimate their income relative to others, but did not have their errors corrected; and a control group who were not asked or informed about global inequality.
Those people that were told how rich they were by global standards were then more likely to support increasing foreign aid. The proportion in favour of spending more on aid rose from 12% in the control group to 22% in the information group – around the same difference in attitudes as between Republicans and Democrats. They were also more likely to favour reducing agricultural tariffs.
In a neat piece of study design, Nair also tested whether people are willing to put real money where their mouth is, and actually follow through on these pro-global poor attitudes. He told survey participants that 10% of them would be given $20, and asked them if they were chosen, how they would like to split this between themselves, charities working in the US, and charities working in poor countries. Donations to poor countries rose from 10% in the control group to 16% among those that had just learned about their relative affluence.
Nair’s study seems to offer good news to those of us that believe rich countries should do more to help the global poor. Its implication is that we can achieve a meaningful shift in public opinion in our favour, merely by ensuring more people are aware of their place in the global income distribution. You can imagine how such a campaign might work: starting from word of mouth conversations, up through social media memes, all the way through to the framing of discussions in mass media. This is far from straightforward, but it’s easier than the slower and more painstaking process of trying to change people’s underlying moral beliefs.
We ought to be cautious, though. To begin with, there is a question mark over how sustained these effects are. Nair asks his participants for their views on foreign aid, trade, charity etc almost immediately after informing them about their relative affluence. Yet as time wears on, they may well start to forget what he has told them, and their political views may start to drift back, too. Or they might remember, but the facts might become less salient when they consider their political views. Then again, a mass information campaign of the type I have sketched above might try to shift the framing of these political issues so fundamentally that people’s relative affluence in global terms is regularly at the front of their minds. Indeed, it could be that reinforcement of these facts (rather than just presenting them once, as Nair does) might lead to stronger pro-poor attitudes.
Then again, reinforcement could lead to fatigue, indifference or even resistance. I wonder if the novelty of the facts Nair presented to his participants contributed to the effect they had on their attitudes. Most people in rich countries aren’t used to being told that they are extremely well-off by global standards. Yet if they were continually reminded of that fact, they might grow resentful. I am reminded of the working class Louisiana Tea Party supporter interviewed by Arlie Hochschild, and his objections to liberals’ “PC rules telling him who to feel sorry for”.
Nair’s study offers grounds for optimism that Western electorates can be moved in a direction more sympathetic to the global poor by being reminded of their relative advantage. I can’t help but worry, though, that they will find a way to shrug this off, as they have so many other inconvenient facts.