Why You Hate Giving Help to Poor People (Even Though You Might Have Once Been Poor)

Why are Americans so seemingly generous on an individual level, but those same Americans who will tithe to their local church lambaste calls to pay higher taxes to support greater social services to the poor?

One person with an answer to this question is Alte, a writer at the group blog Traditional Christianity. In a post titled ‘Public services are a public good,’ Alte states that she has “trouble understanding the American rejection of the public provision of services.” Her explanation for this rejection is that Americans are a very religious bunch, and that somehow this religiosity leads people to believe that public goods should she be privately managed.

I think Alte comes to the wrong conclusion about why Americans continue to reject the idea that we are all better off when public services are provided maintained and well-funded. My explanation is two-fold. Number one, America’s history of racism has meant that those racist individuals who have ruled this country for most of its history have often used subterfuge to hide their racist intentions,i.e., “We don’t want to keep blacks as second class citizens across large swathes of this country, we just want states rights.” Number two, because the US is such a large (in terms of geographic size) nation, and because the country has such a multi-ethnic population, these factors lead to a more pronounced in-group-out-group bias than what one would expect in a more homogeneous, smaller country.

The in-group-out-group bias, oftentimes referred to as in-group favoritism, is a behavioral pattern whereby people favor members of one’s in-group over out-group members. This bias “can be expressed in evaluation of others, allocation of resources and many other ways.”

He’re is an example of how this bias can end up leaving us all worse off. Suppose there is discussion of building a new bridge to connect two communities. One of the communities is composed of poor and middle-class people, the other is composed of rich and upper-class people. Most of the people who live in the poorer community work in the richer community. The bridge will be built using public tax dollars, but the richer community will have to bear a disproportionate share of the bridge’s cost. However, both communities will be economically better off in the long run, and even though the cost of bridge will disproportionately born by the inhabitants of the richer community, the benefits outweigh the costs. If the inhabitants of both communities are thinking rationally, and both sides see that they will gain more than they will lose by the building of the bridge, then both communities should be willing to pay for the bridge to be built. But, when in-group bias takes hold, what actually happens is that the people in the richer community complain about the cost of the bridge because they don’t want to use their money to in anyway benefit the people of the poor community–even though the rich people will be better off once the bridge is built. As far as the rich people are concerned, it becomes better to chop off their noses to spite their faces because they are more concerned with those other people not getting something than they are concerned with getting something for themselves.

Jeremy Clarkson, writer and presenter of Top Gear, a British television show

Jeremy Clarkson, writer and presenter of Top Gear, a British television show

You can imagine how this tendency for in-group-out-group bias plays out once you add race into the mix with class. Rich people don’t want poor people to get anything–so the rich complain about having to pay for the infrastructure projects that make it easier for the poor to travel to their jobs where they work for the rich. Conservative white people complain about tax hikes because they see that many of the people in need of help are non-white people, and thus the conservatives would rather keep their money in house than to help poor people who don’t look like them.

Countries that are more ethnically homogeneous are more likely to have well-funded public infrastructure projects simply because people are less likely to complain about helping people who look like them, talk like them, and have a shared history with them.

What are your thoughts on why Americans seem so spiteful about having to spend money to support the greater good?

Jamila Akil is a Senior Editor at Beyond Black and White. Chat with her on Twitter @jamilaakil

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