Most of us are aware of the vast inequality that exists in the world — and even if we’re not, exposure to that information can change how we behave. Research has found that we’re more likely to take risks when exposed to inequality and that it can make high-income individuals less likely to be generous.
It can also change the way people feel about public policy, as Melissa L. Sands and Daniel de Kadt from the University of California, Merced find in a new study in Nature. They explored real-world inequality in low-income neighbourhoods in South Africa — and found that visible reminders of unequal socioeconomic status can raise support for taxation of the wealthy.
South Africa, like many other countries, has high levels of inequality, largely related to apartheid and colonialism: World Bank figures suggest that the top 1% of earners in South Africa own 71% of assets while the bottom 60% own just 7%. The study itself took place in Soweto, an area which has particularly low socioeconomic status both within the country and within its province, Gauteng. The average annual household income in the seven neighbourhoods in which the study took place is 32,000 rand — half the average annual income for Black South Africans.
The methods were simple. Participants were approached by a petitioner, who either asked for support for a policy that would redistribute wealth through higher taxation of the wealthy or for a policy related to renewable energy. On some occasions, a BMW 3 Series was placed at the location; on others, the car was absent.
Overall, participants were 9% less likely to stop to sign either petition when the car was nearby. But after controlling for this baseline “suppressive effect”, the team found that participants were actually 11% more likely to sign the wealth tax petition than the renewable energy one in the presence of the BMW. That is, the car, a reminder of inequality, seemed to increase support specifically for the issue of taxation.
The findings strengthen the case of a 2015 survey, also analysed by the team, which also indicated that Soweto residents exposed to more inequality where they lived (e.g. those more likely to see signs of wealth within a kilometre of their home) were more likely to support higher taxation of the wealthy. This wasn’t the case when conspicuous signs of inequality were further away, visible within five or ten kilometres. This all suggests that visible markers of inequality make people more likely to want to do something about it.
The study didn’t explore the willingness of participants to engage in other acts of resistance, or the longevity of such actions. As Colin Tredoux and John Dixon point out in this op-ed about the study, signing a petition is an example of normative resistance — a pretty acceptable way of registering dissent. Whether displays of inequality would spur people onto more active protest would be interesting to explore, as would tracking how such feelings endure over time. And what of those with a higher income themselves? It’s unclear whether the presence of a fancy car would have the same effect on that group — so what might prompt them into supporting social policies that help the many?
Further work could also look at the meaning local people ascribe to such displays of inequality. The team notes that Soweto is a site of serious racial stratification — and it’s difficult to untangle issues of race and colonialism from issues of income inequality. Does the car represent racial or class stratification, both or even neither? A follow-up survey may help delve deeper into these issues.