Inequality and the Empathy Gap

Discussions of the “Squeezed Middle” have brought out all sorts of people claiming that they too feel the squeeze. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph sparked derision on social media when someone on £120,000 a year (in the top 5%, if not higher) complained about their declining living standards. More shocking than the tale of not being able to afford to eat out whilst spending £45,000 on private schooling is the assertion by the writer that the middle (oddly including someone in the top 5%) are suffering more than the poorest as “the poorest are used to working to a budget”. The failure of understanding conveyed in this one phrase is titanic. Those who have to keep to a budget will feel a drop in income that much harder, as their previously tight budget becomes impossible to keep.

However, a worse offender can be found on the other side of the pond. Alan Dlugash, a financial planner for the wealthy, told Bloomberg that “people who don’t have money don’t understand the stress” of not being able to afford to send three kids to private school. The failure of both perspective and empathy is astounding. Someone who can’t afford to buy books for their children or who is  unable to heat their children’s home are likely to understand stress only too well. The income gap between these high earners and low earners is matched by an empathy gap.

The evidence showing that increased inequality can decrease empathy is large and growing. Simply put, it shows that having more money than someone else makes you think that you are different from someone else. If you succeed financially, the natural impulse is to regard yourself as more important than others and to regard your success as deserved rather than as a matter of luck. This lack of empathy isn’t just a problem because it makes people say stupid things. It’s a problem because, by and large, people who make important decisions are rich and they make decisions on behalf of those who are not.

This empathy gap allows people like Neil Couling, Work Services Director at the DWP to say that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them”. If Mr Couling had considered for a moment what he was stating, and regarded those he was targeting as human beings like himself, he might have thought differently. Whilst some people may with hindsight say that losing a job was the best thing that could have happened to them, that’s not how most people react to the loss of their only source of income. Benefit sanctions are one of the most common reason that people use food banks. Perhaps if those with power really considered the lives of those who are struggling to get by they wouldn’t be keen to remove their ability to feed their families.

Tim Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer.