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Justifying Inequality: A Social Psychological Analysis of Beliefs about Poverty and the Poor

June 2006

Heather Bullock, Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Download paper here.


A news story reports that the national poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent in 2004, up from 12.5 percent the previous year. No demographic information is provided and you wonder who “the poor” are. Who do you imagine? You watch a television program about low-income mothers struggling to make ends meet. You feel less empathy for the Latina single mother of three than a similar European American mother. Would you label your response racist? Classist? Sexist? While visiting the city you give a homeless man a dollar. Your friend scolds you saying that handouts only encourage laziness. Do you regret giving him money? When you were growing up you believed that with hard work anyone can move up the socioeconomic ladder. Lately, however, you wonder if this is really true, particularly when you reflect on the disproportionately high number of low-income students of color from your high school that did not attend college. How level is the socioeconomic “playing field?”