What We Get Wrong About Poverty

Illustration by Irshad Salim

Nathan Cheek at Psyche: Imagine this upsetting scenario: two women are both suffering physical abuse from their partners. One woman is relatively affluent, while the other struggles to make ends meet. In this kind of situation, where two people of different means are experiencing similar harm, who will receive help? Are the neighbors of both women, upon learning of the violence, equally likely to reach out or call the authorities? Or might they decide in one of these cases that getting help isn’t so urgent?

One might guess that people in poverty are generally seen as needing more help, given their more precarious circumstances, whereas more affluent people might be seen as less vulnerable due to their greater financial resources. But when I and other researchers conducted a study asking people about the appropriate bystander intervention for intimate partner abuse, we found that participants thought a higher level of intervention would be necessary for a higher-income woman, compared with a lower-income woman.

This finding is just one example of a well-documented pattern of neglect and mistreatment of lower-income individuals, especially people in poverty. Students from lower-income families receive less positive attention from their teachers. Lower-income customers receive worse treatment while shopping. Lower-income patients receive less care from their physical and mental healthcare providers. And lower-income defendants receive harsher punishments in the courtroom. More generally, people in poverty receive less help and less support interpersonally and institutionally across many domains of everyday life.

Why are people in poverty, who have fewer resources at their disposal and are, if anything, in need of greater support, so often ignored and sidelined, compared with their higher-income counterparts? Behavioral scientists studying this question have already pointed to some important causes of class-based discrimination, ranging from structural barriers (eg, cost and insurance-related barriers in healthcare) to biased beliefs. When researchers study biased beliefs about low-income individuals, they typically focus on stereotypes about the supposed incompetence or laziness of people in poverty.

Recently, my collaborators and I have been trying to understand how a different set of biased beliefs might further explain many different social class disparities. In particular, we have found evidence that people think lower-income individuals are less affected by negative events – and, therefore, less in need of help – than higher-income individuals are. We call this the ‘thick skin bias’: the idea being that lower-income people are seen as having a ‘thicker skin’.

In our initial work on this bias in 2020, study participants…

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