The Rich Don't Care For the Poor? What a Laugh

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The old joke goes: "If you can't win on the merits of your argument, attack your opponent." Thus Republicans in Congress are accused of having bad ideas without the slightest examination of their ideas, but simply based on assertion that Republicans are ignoble. Such ad hominem attacks seem to be the gist of many recent attacks on congressional Republicans in the budget battle with President Obama.

For instance, psychologist Daniel Goleman argued in an op-ed in the New York Times on October 5 ("Rich People Just Care Less") that people who wield social power-the rich-are less empathetic than those without power-the poor. He writes that "those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power."

This empathy gap leads to "the insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare." Goleman fears not only a "widening income gap between the haves and have-less," but also an empathy gap between classes.

Never mind that low-income gangs who shoot at each other and at random passers-by do not appear to have much empathy for anyone.

Readers are left with the impression that a high-income empathy gap can be substantiated with scientific evidence. But a closer look at the studies cited by Goleman does not prove the existence of an empathy gap.

To support his theory, Goleman cites research by psychology professors Dacher Keltner of University of California (Berkeley) and Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). One of their articles, entitled "Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy," appeared in the 2010 edition of Psychological Science. They conclude on the basis of three psychological studies that "lower-class individuals should be more accurate judges of the emotions of others than upper-class individuals are."

However, there are major problems with the three studies in the paper. First, no low-income nor upper-income individuals were included in the experiments. The subjects are relatively small samples of university students or employees, who are role-playing upper- and lower-income individuals. The authors admit that "these samples likely underrepresent individuals from the richest and poorest sectors of society." This is an understatement-the samples do not even contain rich and poor people.

The first study in the paper is based on 200 employees of a public university in office and administrative support, education, and management. The employees, who were recruited by email, averaged 21 years of work experience. No rich or poor here.

The second study was based on 160 university students who took part in hypothetical job interviews and role playing. They rated their own emotions and those of their partners, and then judges watched videos to assess empathy. Again, no rich or poor here.

The third study was based on 81 university students, who "were presented with an image of a ladder with 10 rungs. They were instructed to think of the ladder ‘as representing where people stand in the United States.' They were then randomly assigned to experience either high or low relative social class" and asked to compare themselves to the people at the top or bottom of the ladder.

Participants in the studies looked at pictures of people with different emotions and were tested on what emotions best described the individuals in the pictures. This may provide some information, but it does not show whether poor or rich people have more empathy-because the participants were not particularly poor or rich.

Other professional papers by Keltner and Kraus and others use a similar methodology, taking small groups of students or university employees and asking them to pretend to be poor or rich.

Goleman's argument suggests that people stay rich or poor throughout their lives. But people move around quintiles as they age. When people graduate from high school or college they are generally low-income. They get a job, work up the career ladder, and gradually become middle-income. When they marry, their household income often doubles, if their spouse works, and they suddenly become upper income. Then, when they retire, they become low-income and live off their savings.

Data on characteristics of income quintiles show that households in the top fifth of the income quintile have an average of two earners. Households in the middle fifth average one earner per household. Households in the bottom fifth average half an earner.

Unless people become less able to empathize as they age and marry, and then regain empathy when they retire, the idea of empathy as divided strictly among income classes makes little sense.

A 2013 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Stefan Trautmann and Gijs van de Kuilen of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Richard Zeckhauser of Harvard University uses a sample of 9,000 Dutch citizens with varying income levels and assets. The authors find that it is simplistic to say that rich people care less than poor people, or have less empathy. They describe the relation between class and ethical behavior as "a complex mosaic rather than a simple pattern."

Congressional Budget Office data show that the richer people are, the more they give in charity. Upper-income individuals give more as a percent of their income in charitable contributions than do middle- income and lower-income individuals. If the empathy gap were as Goleman describes, people would give less as they earned more income.

Private foundations give almost $50 billion in gifts every year, over 16 percent of all private giving. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, to give just two examples, fund education and health projects all over the world.

With the difficulty of implementing the Affordable Care Act and its unintended consequences, Republican opposition to the new healthcare law may be evidence for, not against, their empathetic skills. With the difficulty of enrolling on the exchanges, employers terminating their health insurance plans, doctors opting out of the exchanges, and millions more people put on the unpopular Medicaid program, opposing it may be the compassionate thing to do.

Goleman has presented no persuasive evidence that rich people care less than poor people, and no evidence that congressional Republicans have ideas that are bad for the country.

Ad hominem attacks are not modern inventions. But ad hominem attacks based on pseudoscience applied to congressional politics and published in the New York Times seem a particularly 21st century invention, and not a particularly enlightened one at that.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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