He makes a good point. When we talk about inequality, we draw on research about things like how poverty affects children’s brains, generational poverty, concentrated poverty within neighborhoods and the effect of poverty-related stress on decision-making. What would happen if we “flipped” our focus and instead scrutinized those living in wealth? It’s a powerful line of inquiry, as Dreier notes:
Few social scientists, foundation staffers, or policy-makers [are] asking, What about the consequences of living in areas of concentrated wealth? Who studies the lives of people in our wealthiest communities like San Marino, Bel Air, Greenwich, Lake Forest, and Bloomfield Hills, where the 1 percent (or, more accurately, the .01 percent) live? Why don’t foundations fund more research about the overlapping networks of corporate board members and the decisions made by top executives that have devastating impacts on the entire society, including middle-class and low-income people and their communities? Why don’t more social scientists explore the “culture of the rich” to learn how their daily lives and routines make most (though not all) of them immune to understanding (or caring about) the consequences of their corporate decisions on the lives of the poor and middle class?”
When we talk about inequality, we often spend lots of time considering poor people’s attitudes and behaviors, from whether they get married to how they talk to their kids. We’re less likely to stop and look at how the rich are different. But extremely wealthy people play a huge role in increasing inequality. With their heavy political clout, they help shape government economic policies, supporting very different positions from those of average Americans. From their perches on corporate boards and compensation committees they also give direct raises to their fellow oligarchs.
The studies listed in the piece explore things like the empathy deficit found in higher socioeconomic classes and the tenacious belief among the wealthy that hard work leads to success, while the poor are much less likely to say we live in a meritocracy.
We could use more research like this, along with more exposure of how such behaviors drive policy. Maybe philanthropic organizations and think tanks will start funding more studies of the wealth effect, as opposed to focusing mainly on “impoverished populations” in isolation. Heck, maybe someday we’ll see “wealth studies” programs in universities.
Sure, being the subject of rigorous research into the behaviors of the wealthy could get uncomfortable for the privileged. Power brokers in every community are accustomed to operating without scientific scrutiny of their behavior or the consequences of their actions or inaction.
But it could also open up a whole new perspective on what (and who) really needs changing in an increasingly unequal world.