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Commentary: Coronavirus crisis may help Americans remember that economic inequality is not fair or just

Tony Yim, a homeless liaison officer with the Newport Beach Police Department, speaks with homeless people staying at the Balboa Pier.
(Daily Pilot)

A pandemic triggers rapid and radical social change. Ways of life that would have seemed like science fiction a mere few weeks ago — social isolation, virtual work, DIY face masks — are now commonplace.

We’ve witnessed equally abrupt shifts in American politics. Politicians including President Trump who spent years fighting to drastically cut the social safety net have, in just days, significantly expanded it with an unprecedented $2 trillion relief package that includes cash payments to needy Americans. What has happened?

The coronavirus pandemic represents the largest and most visible driver of economic compression the world has seen in decades. The U.N.’s secretary general referred to it as the greatest threat since WWII. In the U.S., the pandemic has caused an estimated 20 million Americans to lose their jobs by the end of April, with roughly 22 million claiming unemployment.

These staggering statistics are a harsh reminder that life is unpredictable and the world is not always just. External forces — like a pandemic — can thrust many hardworking Americans into undeserved economic distress.

Historically, Americans have paid little attention to situational constraints surrounding poverty. Compared to citizens in other countries, Americans are among the most likely to attribute poverty to an individual’s potential shortcomings, like laziness or bad decisions, instead of situational causes, like structural unfairness.

In essence, many Americans hold a kind of “situational blindness” where they fail to recognize the many external reasons that someone may find themselves living with extreme financial strain.

Our new research “Shifting attributions for poverty motivates opposition to inequality and enhances egalitarianism,” published on March 16,
corroborates the problematic consequences of this blindness.

In 33 countries across the world, we found that failing to appreciate the role of uncontrollable situational factors in driving economic need was associated with the belief that economic inequality is fair and just.

On the other hand, recognizing that situational factors can contribute to poverty was linked to reduced support for economic inequality.

Particularly telling, we found that among a representative sample of U.S. respondents, failing to recognize the role of situational factors in driving poverty was associated not only with more support for inequality but also to increased opposition to government efforts to provide aid to those who need it.

After all, if people who are poor deserve to be poor, then why should we help them?

The pandemic, it seems, has muted American’s situational blindness, and with that, increased their compassion and willingness to help the poor.

This may be a silver lining: it has caused Americans to see first-hand that people can experience economic need despite their best efforts and thus deserve help. All of a sudden, social welfare programs like universal health insurance and minimum cash incomes, once scoffed at by American politicians and citizens, are getting a second look.

But for how long?

One possibility is that people forget. When the dust settles on COVID-19, whether that’s in a matter of months or longer, a sense of normalcy will return to our lives — we will resume connecting, working and recreating as we once did.

When that happens, it may be easy for Americans to lose sight of the many millions among them still reeling from the pandemic, and return to blaming them for struggling to get by. It would seem that is our nature.

Another possibility, though, is that the pandemic has created sustained shifts in Americans’ awareness of situational influences on economic prosperity and their support for enlarging the social safety net.

We have seen this play out in our own work, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In one study, we had people engage in a low-touch, but impactful, poverty simulation. Participants in our study were tasked with making a series of difficult life choices with limited resources, like deciding whether to stay at home with a sick child or go to work, decisions that working class families face daily, especially now during the pandemic.

We found that experiencing how difficult it can be to escape poverty with limited resources caused people to evince a stronger understanding of the situational causes of poverty and greater willingness to help those in need.

Even more remarkable, the impact of this 10-minute poverty simulation persisted even five months later — people continued to show more sympathy for the poor and decreased tolerance for economic inequality.

We hope this pandemic turns out to be a societal intervention that yields a similar social impact on a much grander scale.

Maybe even when life is good for most of us again, people will remember to remember the poor.

They will remember that poverty can always be undeserved, that even when the cause is not the shared experience of a global pandemic, everyone can be one uncontrollable event away from needing our help.

Dylan Wiwad is a postdoctoral fellow at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Paul Piff is an assistant professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.

Lara Aknin is a distinguished associate professor at Simon Fraser University.’

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