It is the classic test of generosity: If you see a homeless person begging for money, do you give it to them? Certainly homelessness has only gotten worse in recent years, for reasons related to bureaucracies that can't figure out how to help people, increasing income inequality, and evictions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic destroyed the American economy, the Great Recession doomed an entire generation to an inferior financial life than those which preceded them. In theory, people should be feeling charitable right now — and particularly to the most indigent among us.
"Broadly, relying on charity to solve poverty is never going to work because these kinds of biases against those most in need are likely to stand in the way of charity work."
Yet a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology reveals a disturbing trend about human nature, at least among Americans: People are far more charitable to well-dressed panhandlers than to those dressed like, well, people who are actually poor. A follow up study revealed that participants found the same person would, if well-dressed, be perceived as possessing more "elevated competence, trustworthiness, similarity to the self, and perceived humanity." The end result is a study that, in the words of one of its authors to Salon, reveals how "relying on charity to solve poverty is never going to work, because these kinds of biases against those most in need are likely to stand in the way of charity work."
"There are many different ways to approach research questions from a methods standpoint, but when it comes to understanding real-life behaviors in their natural setting, field work can be considered the gold standard," Quinton Delgadillo, one of the study's co-authors and a PhD Candidate from Columbia Business School, told Salon by email. "In an effort to meet this standard, we went to the streets of two major metropolitan cities in the US, New York City and Chicago." Once there, the study's authors found individuals wearing symbols of relatively high or low social class (such as a suit or jeans) to beg for money. Their conclusion was striking, as the study itself puts it: "Pedestrians gave more than twice (2.55 times) as much money to the confederate wearing higher-class symbols than they did to the one wearing lower-class symbols."
"There is a lot of work in sociology that finds a general pattern of disrespect and mistreatment for people who are from low status groups, even in situations where others should be motivated to help."
The authors were not surprised by these results. According to another co-author, Yale University social psychologist Dr. Michael W. Kraus, "there is a lot of work in sociology that finds a general pattern of disrespect and mistreatment for people who are from low status groups, even in situations where others should be motivated to help." The recent study seems to indicate that people who are asked to be charitable will make superficial judgment calls about an individual's credibility based on class signifiers like clothing quality — even if, by the act of being charitable, they are theoretically expressing values opposed to such class-based superficiality.
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"In general we have really powerful rationalization processes for describing why the poor deserve poverty. It's called belief in a just world," Kraus told Salon. "People who are poor did something to deserve having little or nothing. These rationalizations help us make sense of the world around us. Think about it. It's terrifying to live in a world where bad things can happen to you for no reason! Undoing those rationalizations requires you to take on, at times, the signifiers of high status."
Dr. Richard Wolff, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst who frequently writes about inequality, saw the findings as a curious commentary on the way that virtuousness is perceived in capitalist societies based on the study's findings.
"It is this way of thinking around the people that are victims of this system," Wolff, who was not involved in the study, explained. Wolff was specifically referencing the rationalizations that some people use to argue that signifiers of a high income level mean that one's poverty is somehow "innocent," while others who lack such signifiers are somehow "deserving" of their poverty. Wolff continued: "It is a way of preventing solidarity between those who are the victims in a desperate way and the rest of us. It precludes finding systemic solutions. It precludes even asking questions about that. And in those ways, it leads to even a quasi-fascistic organization of society into those of us who are somehow rich or well off and those they can look down on as being inferior, at the very least in the sense of the 'having made bad decisions' story."
Because the panhandling confederates were ethically prohibited from deceiving passersby into claiming they directly needed assistance, "that resulted in somewhat-awkward solutions, such as the confederate displaying a sign that did not include a direct solicitation for assistance."
But others might interpet the study differently. Dr. Matt Darling, an employment policy fellow at the Niskanen Center who was likewise not involved in the study, observed to Salon that while the research "is well-conducted and interesting," it also lends itself to multiple interpretations.
"While the authors intended for passersby to believe that both the high-class and low-class confederates were a person in financial distress asking for help, I suspect that many guessed that they were soliciting donations for a homeless shelter – which of course was the case," Darling pointed out by email. "In that case, the low- and high-class signals may have had a completely different interpretation." He also observed that, because the panhandling confederates were ethically prohibited from deceiving passersby into claiming they directly needed assistance, "that resulted in somewhat-awkward solutions, such as the confederate displaying a sign that did not include a direct solicitation for assistance. 'Winter is coming, any donation will help.' This is very unlike the signs I have seen panhandlers use, which typically tie personal details and direct solicitations to establish a connection with potential donors."
Bennett Callaghan, a postdoctoral researcher at the City University of New York and a fellow co-author of the study, mentioned these limitations when speaking with Salon by email. At the same time, Callaghan argued that "with these caveats, and taking the two studies published in the article together, we can conclude that people are more likely to help, in this situation of a panhandler asking for money, when the panhandler also wore symbols of higher socio-economic status and thus appeared to be higher in socio-economic status as well. On average, people gave more money to this panhandler, compared to one that appeared to be lower in socio-economic status, and people were also more likely to perceive him as warm, competent, and more similar to one's self — all of which are important precursors to compassion."
Callaghan concluded that "in this particular context at least, people were more likely to respond in ways that are consistent with compassion when the beneficiary also appeared to be higher in socio-economic status."
For his part, Darling agreed with the authors that "one of the major barriers in creating effective anti-poverty programs is the demand that programs go to the 'deserving' poor and avoid providing anything to the 'undeserving' poor. The experiment is a potential illustration of that – wearing 'high-class symbols' might simply be interpreted as a person 'putting the effort in.'"
As Kraus put it, "Broadly, relying on charity to solve poverty is never going to work because these kinds of biases against those most in need are likely to stand in the way of charity work."