California has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country, and nearly six in 10 California adults surveyed said they believe the government needs to do more to close the gap between the rich and the poor. needed.
But when presented with proposed policies to boost resources for disadvantaged groups, liberals also show a reluctance to reduce inequality, according to a new study co-authored by UC Berkeley researchers and released last week. .
Researchers found that people who have social or economic benefits tend to believe that policies that reduce inequality will harm them – even when those policies do not reduce their access to resources.
That’s because they believe inequality is a zero-sum game, the researchers write, so much so that the “beneficial group” in study experiments sometimes chose “lose-lose” policies. which only reduced their access to resources to maintain. inequality between groups.
“The mistaken belief that equality is harmful, stubborn, opposes both reason and incentive,” the researchers wrote.
He said this is a possible explanation for why even California’s liberals push back on policies that would reduce inequality.
This pushback came in a variety of situations measured in the study – in tests involving white home buyers comparing Latino people, or job seekers with disabilities compared to job seekers with disabilities.
For example, in one scenario, white non-Hispanic Americans in the study were told that white home buyers received far more in home loans than Latino home buyers. They were then presented with hypothetical policy proposals for banks to increase, decrease or maintain loans to Latino homebuyers – and were told that the amount being offered to white home buyers would not change.
White participants responded that they believed that increasing loans for Latino homebuyers would reduce their own access to loans, and that reducing debt to Latino homebuyers or maintaining the status quo would boost their own access to loans. .
The study raises challenges for policymakers seeking to reduce inequality in California, where social programs are already heavily funded by revenue from the wealthy. Under its progressive tax system, nearly half of California’s income tax revenue comes from the state’s top 1% of earners.
Derek Brown, a Berkeley doctoral student and study co-author, Said contribution taxes can be viewed as an individual act. But when it comes to the overall distribution of resources, privileged or privileged groups look at how they are performing in comparison to other groups, he said.
“People are actually included in relative advantages,” he said, “so much so that they may misunderstand a change in their relative position to another individual or another group as a disadvantage in the absolute sense.”
Relative advantage can have a powerful effect on public support for programs designed to benefit minorities or disadvantaged groups.
A 2018 Stanford study found that when white participants were told that white Americans’ incomes had stabilized in relation to black and Latino peers, they were more likely to withdraw support from social welfare programs that told them It was said that minorities would benefit from the programs they were told. White benefits.
Last week’s Berkeley study examined the failed 2020 California ballot Proposition 16, which would have lifted restrictions on affirmative action in public employment or public university seats. The researchers found that whites and Asians’ belief that the resolution would reduce their own access to 16 opportunities was a strong predictor that they would vote against it even when controlling for other ideological beliefs, including political orientation.
The Berkeley study also found that privileged groups believe they will be at a disadvantage if inequality is reduced, even if they are explicitly told that a proposed policy would increase the size of the pie for all.
In one experiment, a diverse group of participants were told that they were on a team that had received a monetary bonus far more than any other team, but were told that they wanted to distribute the bonus equally. devise a method. He rejected an offer to receive five more bonuses while the other team received 50, in favor of an offer to deduct five of his own bonuses while withholding 50 from the other team.
“Even when members of the advantaged group are presented with two available options for achieving equality—either raising them from the bottom (at no cost) or pulling them down at the top—they stubbornly view either option as a sacrifice,” the researchers wrote. “Unless the interests of the disadvantaged are taken into account more than the well-being of the disadvantaged, our studies suggest that it is unlikely to effectively address existing levels of intergroup inequality.”
Dowell Myers, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, put it another way.
“The conclusion is that people are not rational,” he said.
Reducing inequality “needs some counter-education about the benefits … It’s always easier with the new program than with the old one. People have taken root with the old programs and are able to defend their turf. are.”
The Berkeley researchers did not identify a way to overcome the assumptions, calling it an “important step for further research.”
“Hopefully, for policymakers who really want to promote equality… and we have to do whatever we can to make sure it is ultimately achieved,” Brown said.
this is part of the article California Divide Project, a collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.