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Endorsing the “Poor but Happy” Trope Excuses Inequality

How our worldviews can help or harm marginalized communities.

Key points

  • Believing that people experiencing poverty are happy is used as a more socially acceptable way to justify our current unfair systems.
  • Believing that low-income families deserve their circumstances is used to justify widening economic inequality.
  • Wealth and happiness are correlated. Dismantling the myth that people in poverty are happy can increase our urgency for systematic change.
Whois Limos/Unsplash
Source: Whois Limos/Unsplash

The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them.—Ida B. Wells

“What are some barriers that those in poverty face that may impact their development?” This is a question I often ask my psychology students when we discuss how the environment we’re raised in can have long-term impacts on mental health, academic achievement, relationships, physical health, and other developmental areas.

Several students over the years have voiced how the people they’ve interacted with from low-income households are some of the happiest people they’ve ever met. They acknowledge that poor people face some struggles, but many end up with a deeper appreciation for life and are better because of them. These comments often take the wind out of my sails. It defeats any sense of urgency we have to help marginalized communities.

Why is it that so often, our response to learning that people from low-income households are more likely to experience food insecurity, bankruptcy, high blood pressure, stress-induced heart attacks, and lower high school graduation rates is to dig our heels in to justify the current economic system? One may think, We don’t really need to create change on a systematic level because people in poverty are happy. Rich people are cold and greedy. Why be like them anyway? Haven’t you seen A Christmas Carol?

Many cultural depictions of the rich and poor in literature, religion, and mass media paint those in poverty as happy and moral and those with abundance as miserable, lonely, and dishonest. As the saying goes, Money can’t buy happiness. Perhaps you’ve heard of westerners visiting impoverished communities only to return and describe their happiness despite having so little.

Wealth and Happiness

Yet research shows that those from low-income households are less happy on average than those from higher-income households. One commonly cited study found that happiness rises with income level until tapering off at about $75,000. An even more recent paper—written in part by one of the authors of the previously mentioned study, Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman—indicates that happiness may rise with income as high as $500,000.

If the evidence shows that poor people are less happy than wealthy people, why does the happy but poor trope persist? Social psychology researcher John Jost has set out to explore this question. Jost developed a theory of system justification to help explain why we humans are quick to defend the status quo, sometimes at our own expense. As stated in his book, A Theory of System Justification,

Whether it is because of discrimination…or the fickleness of fate, some social systems serve the interests of certain stakeholders better than others. And yet most of the time, the majority of the people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and defend the legitimacy of their social, economic, and political institutions and maintain a belief in a just world (Lerner, 1980). The fact that people can adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easier to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for forty-six years, and the system of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian caste system has been maintained for 3,000 years and counting. (p. 153)

One area of interest in system justification theory is complementary stereotypes. These are stereotypes that work to justify inequality by conferring offsetting advantages and disadvantages to low- and high-income groups. The complimentary stereotypes that poor people are happy or moral and rich people are lonely or immoral may help justify the United States’ increasingly unequal economic system. This stereotype portrays a system that is balanced, wherein no group “has it all;” therefore, it is fair.

Jordan Opel/Unsplash
Source: Jordan Opel/Unsplash

Economic Inequality

According to Pew Research Center, in 1983, upper-income households held 60 percent of the total wealth in the United States. That number grew to 79 percent in 2016. Lower- and middle-income households have experienced a decline in the percentage of aggregate wealth. Economic inequality in the United States has increased faster than in many other developed nations.

Despite this trend, most Americans believe that some inequality is acceptable. Republicans, in particular, see lessening inequality as a low priority. One survey found that 43 percent of Republicans believe we have the right amount of inequality compared to just 7 percent of Democrats. Many psychologists find Republicans’ acceptance baffling, given the psychologically damaging effects of economic inequality.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe in a just world where hard work is rewarded, and people get what they deserve. The protestant work ethic even more influences psychological reactions to the rich and poor more than a belief in a just world. Tenants of the protestant work ethic emphasize that working hard is its own ethical reward. People who endorse a belief in a just world and the protestant work ethic tend to disparage members of disadvantaged groups, blaming them for their own misfortunes. Theorists propose that this allows them to feel a sense of control and a desire for justice to be done.

“Poor but Happy”

Using complimentary stereotyping, such as believing those at the bottom of the social hierarchy are poor but happy. People can justify the status quo in a more socially palatable way. That is, people can rationalize the current economic system to avoid the victim-blaming beliefs stemming from thinking the world is just and work is a virtue.

In one experiment by Kay and Jost (2003), participants read a vignette about a man named Mark who was described as either rich and unhappy, rich and happy, poor and happy, or poor and unhappy. As system justification theory would predict, participants were more willing to excuse our unfair system if given the vignette describing Mark as poor and happy or rich and unhappy. The effect was more apparent for people who scored low on a protestant work ethic scale. This includes items such as “Anyone who is willing to work hard has a good chance of succeeding” and “A distaste for hard work usually reflects a weakness of character.” Those who scored high on this scale were more likely to justify the system, regardless of which vignette they were exposed to.

Aaron Kay and John Jost, used with permission
Aaron Kay and John Jost, used with permission

Scoring high on the system justification scale meant agreeing with such statements as “Everyone has a fair shot at wealth and happiness” and “Most policies serve the greater good.” The researchers noted that it may not be necessary that people believe that poor people are always happier or more honest than rich people in absolute terms for the reminders to increase their confidence in the system’s legitimacy.

In conjunction with Jost, researchers in Poland explored how those with different political beliefs responded to the complementary stereotypes. When confronted with complementary pairings, they found that left-wing participants scored higher on the system justification scale. They more willingly excused our unequal system if reminded of the "poor but happy" trope compared to scenarios describing non-complementary pairings. The opposite was true for right-wing participants. They were more likely to justify the system when confronted with scenarios where the character was poor, rich, or happy.

The right is more likely to use more internal (i.e., victim-blaming) explanations for poverty, obesity, and other characteristics than the left. This may be why they are more willing to defend economic inequality as just and fair. Yet the left is also susceptible to beliefs that justify inequality by endorsing complementary stereotypes.

Believing that the poor are happy may help us feel better about current economic conditions. It may help us justify the vast differences between the haves and the have-nots, but this belief is a delusion used to excuse a system that harms marginalized communities. What is the best way to help marginalized communities? By first believing that they deserve our compassion.

This is part one of a two-part series on beliefs about poverty that justify inequality. You can find part two here.

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