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Why Americans are harsh in judging purchases made by low-income people

Researchers explored the link in American society between perceived necessity and something called “permissible consumption” — what we consider socially acceptable (or not) for other people to buy.

TV purchase
Researchers found that we tend to harbor a belief that lower-income individuals have a narrower range of needs than those with higher incomes and that this belief narrows what we consider is permissible for them to buy.
REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

Americans tend to judge low-income people more harshly about their purchases than high-income people — even when they buy identical items, according to a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In fact, Americans tend to believe low-income people need — indeed, deserve — fewer things than those who earn more, including basic necessities such as living in a safe neighborhood or having access to public transportation.

These findings expose “a grim double standard,” say the study’s authors, for the results suggest that “in addition to economic disparities that restrict what lower-income individuals financially can consume … there is an inequality in what they are socially permitted to consume.”

Buying the ‘wrong things’

This isn’t the first time that researchers have reported that people express more negative opinions about the purchasing decisions of lower-income individuals. A 2016 study found, for example, that people regard recipients of government assistance as being less moral for buying so-called ethical goods, such as organic produce and eco-friendly cars, than people not receiving assistance.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, too.

“Lower-income individuals are frequently scrutinized and scorned for their consumption decisions,” write the current study’s authors, Kate Barasz, an assistant professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, and doctoral student Serena Hagerty. “For example a round of social media shaming commenced after Syrian refugees were photographed coming ashore with smartphones in hand, and a United States politician chastised lower-income Americans for buying iPhones instead of health insurance.”

“Even at more official levels, federal agencies have reprimanded lower-income, natural-disaster victims for the ways in which relief funds were spent, and the leader of an international nonprofit warned against giving lower-income individuals unconditional cash transfers because they may buy the ‘wrong’ things,” they add.

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For the current study, Barasz and Hagerty explored the link in American society between perceived necessity and something called “permissible consumption” — what we consider socially acceptable (or not) for other people to buy. They found that we tend to harbor a belief that lower-income individuals have a narrower range of needs than those with higher incomes and that this belief narrows what we consider is permissible for them to buy.

Judging permissibility

The new study is actually a series of 11 separate experiments involving about 4,000 American adults.

In one experiment, participants were asked to read about an individual named Joe, who was described to some as having a low-paying job (putting him in the bottom 25 percent of U.S. household income) and to others as having a high-paying one (putting him in the top 25 percent of U.S. household incomes). Joe wins a $200 gift card to Target in a community raffle and then spends it on a $200 flat-screen TV.

Participants were then asked to answer five questions designed to measure how “permissible” they thought this purchase was.

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The study found that when participants were told Joe had a low-paying job, they were much less likely to say he had made a responsible and thoughtful decision about the TV than if they were told he had a high-paying job. They were also less likely to say he “deserved” the TV.

In another experiment, participants read about a woman named Alex, who goes shopping for a car seat for her first child. She has set aside money for the purchase and narrows down her options to two choices. Both products have similarly high safety scores, but one has a few extra features that made it more convenient to use — as well as a 20 percent higher price tag ($250 rather than $180). She ends up buying that car seat.

Again, the purchase was considered less “permissible” by the study’s participants when they were told Alex had a low income than when they were told she had a high one.

A third experiment asked participants to rate the “permissibility” of a wide range of 20 commonly purchased goods and services, including rugs, household appliances, pet products, newspapers and magazines, household plants, window coverings, living room furniture and mobile phones. All but one category — personal care products, such as shampoo and toothpaste — were seen as significantly less permissible when the purchaser was described as having a low income than when he was depicted as having a high one.

Judging need

In their initial set of experiments, Barasz and Hagerty demonstrated that we give higher-income people social permission to consume more. But the researchers wanted to also know why. Is it because higher-income people can afford more?

No. It’s because we assume lower-income people need less, according to another series of experiments. And that’s where the double standard takes glaring center stage.

In one experiment, participants read about a family of four, the Jacksons, who were looking for a home in a new city. The participants were asked to rate how necessary they felt each of 20 housing attributes were for the family. Seventeen of the attributes were deemed significantly less necessary when the Jacksons were described as having a low income than when they depicted as having a high one.

“That the gap emerged for attributes like ‘a neighborhood that is safe/secure’ and ‘close to hospitals or doctors/dentists’ suggest that even basic health and safety requirements are seen as ambiguously necessary for lower-income people,” the researchers write. And the fact that the respondents perceived it less necessary for the lower-income family to have a home close to public transportation than for the higher-income family to have a home with a good exterior appearance is “a striking example of the impoverished view of needs that emerges for the poor,” they add.

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Real-world consequences

The implications of the study are troubling.

“If people judge lower-income individuals more harshly for buying things they do not ‘need,’ but the definition of ‘need’ changes — narrowing and becoming more restrictive for precisely those individuals — a bleak predicament arises,” the researchers write. “Not only do lower-income individuals face harsher interpersonal judgment for deviating from ‘necessary’ purchases, but there are fewer items that fit within the permissible categorization of ‘necessary’ in the first place,” they write.

Here’s an example from one of the experiments of how that attitude can affect the resources made available to poorer people: Participants were given the choice to give someone either a $100 gift card to Trader Joe’s or a $200 gift card to Best Buy. When the person who would receive the gift was describe as low income, only 25 percent of the participants chose the Best Buy card, even though it was worth twice as much. More than half the participants chose that card, however, when told the gift would be going to a high-income individual.

“Paradoxically, the result was that participants effectively allocated more money to higher-income people than lower-income people,” Barasz and Hagerty note.

“It seems not to be the case that higher-income people are socially permitted to consume more because they can afford more; instead, lower-income people are socially permitted to consume less because they are presumed to need less,” the researchers conclude.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the PNAS website, but the full study is behind a paywall.